Illustrations by Iva Jericevic

Young people are fleeing the GTA in droves. Here’s why

The housing crisis is pushing students and new professionals out of the city—leading to lost wages and longer commutes

Last September, Sadie Ahn came back to Toronto, desperate for a new place to live. The third-year international student from South Korea (by way of Vancouver) had already been searching for two months when she came upon a real estate broker’s listing on Facebook for a room in a house near Bathurst Station. “[The landlord] asked me to sign a contract and a house-rule contract, basically agreeing that if I break any of the house rules, I will be kicked out,” she says.

The room was within Ahn’s budget of $800 per month and allowed her to walk to the University of Toronto campus for her classes in international relations and East Asian studies. But there were eight other tenants in the house. The landlord lived there, too, and he quickly displayed anger issues, like yelling at tenants. “I wanted to leave right away,” she says, “but I don’t have family in Toronto and I couldn’t afford one more [month of] rent.”

In the end, Ahn only lived there for 30 days before the landlord kicked her out. “He told me, ‘I hate every single thing [about] you, so get out.’”

The stress of having no recourse

Even though Ahn’s former house had high turnover, the landlord wasn’t worried about vacancies—or consequences. He knew how competitive the market was and the advantage he had over any tenants. “He would say, ‘If you have a problem, get out. There are tons of people who will move in tomorrow,’” she explains.

After Ahn left, she tried to figure out if she could sue her landlord—for harassment, her key deposit, random charges and issues like the nail that had been placed on the door knob so she couldn’t lock her room—but eventually changed her mind. Launching a suit seemed too stressful. “I thought it would seriously affect my academics if I sued [him],” she says.

The stress affected Ahn’s studies for the rest of the school year—so much so that she went to the registrar’s office at St. Mike’s College and told them she had depression. “My grades visibly changed last semester while I was moving several times,” she says.

Bidding wars and waitlists are the norm

Ahn’s story may sound extreme, but it’s not, thanks to a combination of lower historical income and job security, higher market rates for rental units, rising tuition fees and high occupancy rates. Add to that the absence of new buildings with inclusionary zoning—a policy that requires a number of affordable housing units to be built alongside regular market-rate units—and you have a situation that’s made it difficult for many students and recent graduates to live and stay in Toronto.

According to a recent report from the rental website Padmapper, the median price for a one-bedroom apartment in May 2019 was $2,230. “We’re seeing 10 percent year-over-year growth in rent,” says Andrew Scott, senior economics analyst at the Canadian Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC). “You hear anecdotes of bidding wars for rentals, which was something you didn’t really hear about three to five years ago. You used to hear landlords [say] you can negotiate rents.”

Now, prospective tenants can find postings snapped up within hours, or spaces the size of closets with retractable doors going for $600 per month. Another landlord told Ahn she had to bring back a deposit within an hour if she wanted to secure a half-room. “I ran to the bank near that building and took out $1,200 right away,” she says. “I think I was just really frustrated and I couldn’t think straight at the moment.”

Economic factors make the situation worse

This level of desperation is compounded by two major issues in Toronto’s real estate market. Scott says a vacancy rate hovering around 1 percent is partly due to a long-time lack of new construction—buildings purposely designed for rentals just aren’t being built. Short-term rentals have also made the situation worse, with a national report from McGill University estimating Airbnb listings removed more than 3,000 rental homes from the city’s housing supply.

Another complicating factor: Young people in Ontario are earning a lot less employment income compared with previous generations. According to Statistics Canada, the median annual employment income for this demographic fell to just over $35,000 in 2015 from $37,000 in 2005. A recent report from United Way Greater Toronto says that, in real terms, the average income for young adults in Toronto in 2015 was lower than it was in 1980. Young adults living in Peel and York regions are even worse off—average incomes in this group have fallen by more than 20 percent.

Sexism and racism play a role, too

Statistics Canada’s most recent census data from 2016 shows the median income of young men in Ontario between 25 and 34 was $40,000, while women earned just over $30,000. That means for every dollar a young man in Ontario earns, a young woman in Ontario earns just 76.5 cents. United Way’s report on opportunity imbalances is even more alarming, stating, “For every dollar a white person in Toronto earns, a racialized person in Toronto earns 52.1 cents.”

No wonder the additional earnings that come with post-secondary education (compared to those of individuals with only a high school diploma) aren’t enough for many young graduates to live alone. A conservative budget allocating 30 percent toward housing would still require an income of $80,000 for a one-bedroom priced below-market at $2,000 per month.

Young people are leaving the GTA—often for good

The result of all of these conditions and requirements is a mass yearly migration of young people out of the GTA. “Toronto is becoming a transitory city,” says Diana Petramala, senior researcher at Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Research & Land Development. “The City of Toronto’s losing 30,000 people per year to other parts of the province. Millennials, who are the biggest generation moving into their twenties and thirties, are no longer staying here permanently.”

Petramala says rapid growth in areas like Kitchener-Waterloo, Oshawa, Hamilton and Simcoe County can be attributed to this exodus. And a detailed report from CMHC shows more young professionals, especially those with children under age four, are willing to suffer longer commutes from places like East Gwillimbury, which have more family-friendly communities. “I think it’s safe to infer they’re looking for larger housing and they’re willing to make that trade-off on commute time and costs,” says Scott, noting census data shows the fastest-growing segment of commuters were those travelling for more than 60 minutes. “It’s probably putting more stress on people’s lives,” he adds.

The lasting results of moving out of the city

It’s worth pointing out that these moves for family-friendly housing often negatively affect women and their careers much more than they do men. Earlier this year, Petramala published a report at Ryerson showing how uneven gender splits on home-care responsibilities combined with a lack of affordable housing can reduce rates of women participating in the labour force. In fact, Petramala says that women in Toronto have the lowest participation rate of the average of all the metropolitan areas in Canada. “If you had affordable housing and daycare close to where they work, you take away a lot of those burdens.”

Boomer-generation parents are also bearing additional costs as a result of the shortage of affordable housing options for students and young people. “They are still carrying expenses helping their adult kids at home or having to take money out of their mortgages to help give [their kids] a down payment,” says Petramala.

So what’s a young renter to do?

Universities and colleges are studying the issue and how it affects their students. York, OCAD, U of T and Ryerson have launched a program called StudentDwell, which gathers data on the student housing crisis in order to find solutions. There are also some programs in place to help ease the burden. Toronto HomeShare Program, for example, matches students in need of affordable housing with home providers based on attributes like hobbies, languages and pets. The organization utilizes extra rooms in existing homes and offers them for significantly lower than market rates.

Ahn’s situation may have been a nightmare, but she did manage to find a new place to live through a co-worker. “I definitely feel safe here and hope to stay for a long time.”

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