As offices reopen, some Torontonians who fled to the ‘burbs are seeking second homes downtown

In the early months of the pandemic, when Toronto’s financial district was eerily quiet and stores, venues and restaurants shuttered — those who could work from home realized they didn’t have to stay.

They re-evaluated their living situation, and looked to the suburbs or even to small towns farther out, where entering the housing market might be more affordable.

But as some employers in the Toronto core are calling staff back to the office — at least a couple of days a week — some employees are regretting the big move away, several realtors told the Star, and are now trying to find a second place in the city.

“They’re people who bought in Whitby … they bought a house, but then they realize their job wants them to be in the office half the week,” said Nasma Ali, a Toronto broker and founder of One Group, a real estate agency .

She said she’s been approached by single people who bought homes outside the Toronto core and are now looking for rentals downtown as they’ve been called back to work.

“Instead of selling their house, they’re thinking they’re going to rent out their house, and rent downtown to be closer to the office,” said Ali.

“It’s not just the commute … it’s also gas,” she said, as gas prices have risen due to the invasion of Ukraine, leading to much more costly commutes.

Mila Sheina, a Toronto realtor and broker at The Spring Team, says she has some clients who bought elsewhere and are looking for micro-condos to live in a few days a week while at the office.

“They’re the size of an office pod, with a toilet. I actually have a guy who lives somewhere far away, who is looking to purchase a place downtown just so he can come there when he’s driving down to Toronto (to) work,” said Sheina.

Nicole Li, a Toronto realtor at HomeLife Landmark Realty, said although her clients aren’t looking for a second place downtown, many who are under 35 and went to live with their parents during the pandemic are now looking to move back to the city as soon as possible.

“Everyone just wants to move to downtown Toronto again, and that’s why the prices have been going up,” she said.

In recent months, prices of Toronto condos have surged, increasing 16.4 per hundred year over year in the fourth quarter of 2021 and reaching an average of $710,087, according to the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board.

At the same time, the price of a one-bedroom rental in Toronto has increased by 13.7 per cent to $2,099, according to TRREB.

Saeid Hashemi, one of the volunteers at More Neighbours, an affordable housing advocacy group, said a solution is to ensure that multiple types of housing are available to increase supply, so there is less concern over a person buying multiple properties and taking up stock.

“The reason we have this, is a shortage generally,” he said. “We’re essentially playing musical chairs with our housing stock … more for someone, means less for someone else,” he said.

If that supply was there, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have people live closer to where their jobs are, as reducing commutes is better for the environment, he added.

However, Mark Richardson, a volunteer technical lead with advocacy group HousingNowTO, said the number of people looking for a second, smaller unit in the core is likely not significant enough to cause any major disruptions. He said younger people are returning to the city in droves, particularly university and college students in the next few months, which will have a bigger impact on the rental market.

“There are only so many people who sold up and moved out of town, and there are only so many of those people who are being told they have to come back to the office, 220 days a year downtown,” he said, as many companies are continuing with flexible work-from-home arrangements.

And despite the conundrum these employees now find themselves in, those who were able to work from home and buy into the market outside the city are still the ones to have benefited from the housing market during the pandemic, said Nemoy Lewis, an assistant professor at the school of urban and regional planning at Ryerson University.

“You have a situation like this where you have folks that were able to work from home, able to keep there jobs, were able to afford homes in the suburbs and then rent units in the downtown core,” he said.

Interest rates in 2020 were at record lows, which benefitted upper and middle class people seeking to get into the market, said Lewis, while many lower income people lost their jobs or were evicted during the same time.

“It goes to show you the failures of the system itself and policies to adequately allocate housing in this city,” he said.

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