At the end of 12-hour shifts at St. Michael’s Hospital, working through the early months of COVID-19 on a surgery floor with some patients who’d just recovered from the virus, Toronto nurse Kim Le would board the subway exhausted and spend another 45 minutes commuting to North York.
Two years ago, Le and her husband packed up their apartment in midtown and moved northward to get a bit more space while still saving money in hopes of buying a house. The move tripled her commute time.
But as fierce competition for Toronto houses during the pandemic continues to drive prices ever-skyward, Le — one of the city’s essential, front-line workers — has resolved to leave Toronto altogether.
Le and her husband, who works at a bank job and has PhD income, have a combined salary of around $150,000, and yet she said a house is still out of their reach.
“I find it pretty ridiculous,” Le said. “We both have decent jobs. I feel like we live a minimal lifestyle and it’s not extravagant, but it’s hard to save … we thought it would get easier.”
It’s a trend that experts say is playing out across Toronto. People with stable, middle-income jobs — including hospital nurses, whose salaries start around $66k — are eyeing other cities because of Toronto’s unaffordability.
And experts say owning a house is only getting further out of reach for many, as prices have continued to climb and income disparities have worsened during COVID-19.
“If you’re trying to buy a house in, or near, the city of Toronto on a good but moderate middle-income, you can’t do it without family help,” said University of Toronto housing expert David Hulchanski. Few of the city’s single family houses were up for sale at any one time, he said, and what was put on the market was snapped up by those who could afford the highest prices.
The issue is only getting worse, Hulchanski said, as overall income inequality has widened throughout the pandemic.
The market for detached houses, semi-detached houses and townhomes has only gotten harder to break into since last fall, said Jason Mercer, chief market analyst for the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board.
“Competition between buyers accelerated, and so too did the pace of price growth,” he said. For the first time this year, Mercer said they’re forecasting the average home price in the Greater Toronto Area will exceed $1 million, as home costs have also climbed in the suburbs.
Ryerson urban research expert David Amborski said people with mid-level incomes in Toronto were being forced to make a choice in order to buy a house: go somewhere else, or lower their expectations. “I think it really works against the inclusivity of the city, and being a city for all.”
Both Amborski and Hulchanski agree with the warning in a Toronto Region Board of Trade and WoodGreen report last fall. If households of all incomes continued to be squeezed by the city’s housing prices — as they currently are — the report cautioned that Toronto would follow New York and San Francisco, “as places where only a select class of professionals can afford to live.”
That could push out nurses, social workers, child care workers and teachers, the report continued.
An exodus is already happening, said Ontario Nurses Association president Vicki McKenna. Some nurses have simply found work elsewhere, where they could afford homes. Many others commute from places such as Niagara, Orillia or Brantford to work in Toronto hospitals.
Adding hours to the day through protracted commutes could take a particular strain while combating a health crisis, McKenna said: “Long commutes following long and sometimes overtime shifts takes a toll, and further puts stress on an already exhausted workforce.”
Le added some of her coworkers tacked on even more time to long commutes during the pandemic, as they’d spend time changing clothes in their garage or take other precautions before coming inside to their families.
Since mid-March, Le has been on maternity leave with her first child. Leaving Toronto would mean accepting her family won’t be nearby to help with their newborn. For her son’s sake, she was wary of winding up “house broke.” Their incomes were likely too high for him to access student loans in future, she said, so they also have to start thinking about saving for his education.
They looked at houses in Toronto, to see if they could swing it without family help. But with price tags around a million dollars even in their North York neighbourhood, they realized their sights would be better set somewhere further east such as Ajax to afford a down payment. “It is kind of bittersweet that we’re thinking about moving outside of the city. But it is kind of a reality,” Le said.
She wants to stay at St. Michael’s after her maternity leave is up, but says she’s really hoping to find a place where her commute doesn’t stretch on much longer than an hour each way.
Other essential workers, too, have felt priced out of Toronto. Jason Quammie, 40, works as an early childhood educator at a downtown daycare. He recently bought his first home in Durham — still a squeeze on an ECE’s salary, he said, but something he couldn’t have dreamt of within Toronto’s bounds.
For years beforehand, he saved money by renting in Durham and driving to and from work. “It was just too expensive to live inside of the city, so I had to live on the outskirts and commute in,” he said. He sees other colleagues in early childhood education mulling over the same options.
That pressure makes him think about Toronto’s future, if life only becomes more expensive. “If people who are already in their careers are finding it such a struggle, I think for the younger generation, it’s going to be almost impossible for them to survive and thrive,” Quammie said.
Sometimes, Le finds herself musing about the life her family could have in Toronto.
“Me and my husband always talk about, ‘Well, ideally we’d do this if we won the lottery.’ But thinking about our current situation, we’re having to just picture that our life will have to be around living away from our family,” Le said.
“It hasn’t really hit me, but I know it’ll be difficult. My parents always send me listings of houses down the street, and I can’t afford it.”
Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star