‘A canary in the coal mine.’ People keep leaving Ontario in record numbers for affordable homes and a better life

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Christine Gregoire-Lauzon and her husband bought a home they’d never seen, in a city where they didn’t know anyone, on the other side of the country, this year.

“The first time that I had ever been to Alberta was to do job interviews,” said Gregoire-Lauzon, who moved to the Calgary area from Pickering with her family in the summer. “Nobody else — my parents, my husband or my children — had ever been to Alberta until we came.”

She joins thousands of other real estate exiles who give a new meaning to the term “drive until you qualify,” taking weeklong car journeys or flying thousands of kilometres to another province, looking for a more affordable life.

Ontario saw a net loss of 47,212 people to other provinces over the past two years, the highest number on record, according to figures from Statistics Canada, released in September. This trend is particularly pronounced among young adults, and may be due to the rise of remote work, as well as rising home prices, the agency concluded.

But even with pandemic restrictions lifting and many employers calling workers back to the office, Statistics Canada numbers show a net loss of 11,581 people to other provinces in the third quarter of 2022. That’s the largest in a third quarter since 1980, and a warning sign that Toronto’s gravitational force, which once pulled people from across the country with promises of jobs, prosperity and big-city lights, has faded.

Gregoire-Lauzon and her husband had two previous GTA rentals that were sold by the landlord and they were getting “vibes” that it was about to happen again.

“Affordability was a massive thing because every time we moved, rent prices were increasing,” she recalled.

They started thinking about making a move. The fact that they could both get jobs in their field in Alberta — she as a teacher, he as an accountant — was a big factor, but it was the home prices that sealed the deal.

After virtual tours and a home inspection, something they don’t think they’d have been able to do if they’d stayed in the more competitive Ontario real estate market, they snagged a detached home for under $500,000.

It even has a basement apartment for her parents.

“The reality was it was never going to happen if we stayed in Ontario,” Gregoire-Lauzon said.

“We for the first time in our life have an opportunity to save money, but also enjoy life.”

Alberta was the most popular destination for those fleeing Ontario in 2021-22 (29,422), followed by British Columbia (22,750), Quebec (17,315) and Nova Scotia (15,862).

Giles Gherson, the executive vice-president and chair of the Economic Blueprint Institute at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, called this exodus a “canary in the coal mine” for the city and region.

“The StatsCan numbers don’t lie. They do tell us that there is more out-migration than we’ve seen in decades,” he added. “We ought to be concerned.”

Gregoire-Lauzon is not the only one buying a home based on a virtual tour in another province.

Lisa Kauffmann, a realtor with Redline Real Estate Group in Calgary, has grown used to giving virtual tours to clients in Ontario, since her first one at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I even went down on my all fours to smell the carpet to see if it was clean or not,” she recalled with a laugh.“There’s people that are trusting me, so I have to be their eyes and ears and nose.”

Kauffmann said most of her clients are under 40 and work in professions they can do remotely, such as IT. They are coming from Toronto, but also the GTA and as far as Kitchener, as well as B.C., and played a part in heating up the housing market there.

“In the last two years I’ve noticed a real spike more and more,” she said, adding it’s now common to see cars with Ontario licence plates at open houses.

One client from Ajax was able to sell their house there at the height of the market, buy a home in Calgary to live in, a townhouse for an investment “and still had money left over.”

Despite this trend, Toronto is clearly still attracting tech workers, Gherson said. It ranked as the No. 3 tech talent market in a CBRE 2022 report, ahead of U.S. cities like Los Angeles and Austin, Texas.

There has also been a “huge increase in immigration” since 2014. When you include immigration, Toronto’s population grew by 62,785 residents, or 2.3 per cent, between 2016 and 2021, according to StatCan. But that’s less than the increase in population over the previous four years, of 116,511, or 4.5 per cent.

In industries like manufacturing, Gherson said, there are thousands of jobs going unfilled. Movement to other provinces “has a lot to do with housing costs,” he added. For others, like those in the business service or financial industry, the ability to work remotely means they don’t need to be tied to one city or region.

The city of Toronto lost 2,317 residents to another province, and 40,384 to another city within Ontario, between July 2020 and July 2021, the most recent figures available, according to a spokesperson. Asked if the city is concerned about a possible brain drain, a spokesperson referenced the city’s 10-year plan to build more affordable housing.

Both Nova Scotia and Alberta have capitalized on weary Ontarians who might be ready to make a move, with recent ad campaigns. Alberta memorably papered the TTC with ads boasting of affordable homes — averaging $619,700 in Calgary for a detached model in November 2022, according to that city’s real estate board, compared to Toronto’s $1.56 million.

Ava Czapalay, deputy minister for the Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration in Nova Scotia, said the province’s Tourism Ministry launched a first component in 2020, encouraging remote workers sent home by the pandemic to work from there.

That’s now expanded into a targeted multimedia campaign, complete with images of stunning oceanfront hikes and coastal lighthouses, to draw young workers to the province — particularly skilled trades people and those in the health-care sector.

“One of the drivers for them is affordability, and some people are mentioning, for instance, that they might be able to sell a house in a larger city and take that equity and invest it in something very nice here in Nova Scotia,” Czapalay said.

Natalia Muñoz and her family also recently packed what they could and set out from the GTA in search of a rental they could afford.

The drive took them six days.

“We are just slowly starting over,” said Muñoz, a 53-year-old travel consultant and mother of three who settled in Airdrie, Alta.

Originally from Colombia, Muñoz said she and her family were evicted from their East Gwillimbury rental because the landlord wanted to move in. They couldn’t find anything affordable in the area, and looked at going further north, maybe Barrie. But they figured with rising gas prices they wouldn’t save much money having to commute. They decided to take a gamble on Alberta.

After a month of staying in a campground, they secured a four-bedroom rental that was about $2,100 a month, about the same as the one they left in the GTA. But the taxes are lower. Her husband quickly found a job spray-painting cabinets and furniture, and they enjoy hiking in the mountains with their three children.

Although it was hard, they don’t regret their move.

“The energy is different,” said Muñoz. “I think it’s because everybody (in Toronto) is trying to survive, everybody’s in a rush for money all the time.”

Like Muñoz, Gregoire-Lauzon is happy with the decision to leave.

Although winters are tough, and she misses the diversity of Toronto, the Albertans she has met seem to better respect work-life balance. The slower pace gives them more family time with their two kids, aged nine and six.

She does wonder, though, what will happen back home if people continue to leave, especially young professionals.

“I worry that all of the people who have talent, not necessarily myself, but you know, what happens when the medical professionals start leaving, when they even can’t afford it?” she said.

“It’s a little bit of a scary thing.”

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