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Fleeing suburbia for the city

Toronto experiences a reverse migration

Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 22, 2000

Dennis Murphy’s daily Don Valley commute expanded from half an hour to more than an hour and a half of frustration and close calls.

Michele and John Gare, who commuted in separate cars, found traffic jams on Highway 400 were getting worse by the week.

Rather than fume about it, they became part of a reverse migration from the suburbs to the city that is reaching a crest this spring.

The number of families disillusioned with suburbia is an unpredicted addition to a wave of baby-boom-generation empty nesters who are looking to simplify their lives by moving to the city, ReMax Ultimate agent Omer Quenneville said.

“It’s lifestyle they’re after,” he said.

Although figures won’t be available until next year’s census, the trend appears to be a factor behind a sharp rise in Toronto house prices.

Sales of single-family homes in the city are up by 6 per cent and prices have risen an average of 10 per cent from this time last year, figures from the Toronto Real Estate Board show.

“We are noticing more people in their 20s and 30s, who grew up in the suburbs, are buying and renovating in the city. It’s kind of exciting, it’s putting more fun into the downtown,” said Tom Bosley, president of Bosley Real Estate.

Singles and empty nesters tend to be attracted to low-maintenance lofts and condominiums, while those with families tend to look at homes in Leaside, Swansea and North Toronto, Mr. Bosley said.

The Gares were typical of many city dwellers who dreamed of a home in the country that was closer to nature and easier on the pockebook.

But five years after moving from a home near Avenue Road and Lawrence to a rented farm house in King City, they’ve returned to Toronto with their three-year-old daughter, Caitlin.

“I know you can buy more for your money in Aurora than in Toronto, but you have to weigh that against the time and the other costs,” said Ms. Gare, a research supervisor at YTV.

She said the worst day came last fall, when it took 2� hours to get home with her hungry child. (Caitlin’s daycare was near her downtown office.)

Since moving to a home near Islington and Bloor, “we have at least an extra 40 minutes every day in our lives to spend doing things other than driving,” Ms. Gare said.

Said Mr. Murphy, who did the 50-kilometre hustle from Stouffville to Toronto for 12 years: “I feel like I’m in the vanguard and I’m quite smug about it.”

A combination of booming housing development in Richmond Hill and Vaughan and the opening of Highway 407 is making rush hour an all-day phenomenon, he said.

“Traffic got heavier and heavier and heavier,” said Mr. Murphy, a freelance television producer. “The bell rang for me when I realized I was spending 15 hours a week commuting.”

He decided that the family should move before his son, Adam, started high school.

“I wanted him to have some cultural sensitivity and not go around with his baseball cap turned backwards,” he said.

Moving to a home in the Beaches, in east Toronto, has taken some adjustment. Mr. Murphy finds that he is still primed to fight heavy traffic and has a habit of arriving early for meetings.

In spite of the trend that Mr. Murphy and the Gares represent, there are still natural limits to the return to the city.

Because family housing is a rare and highly priced commodity on the market, cash-strapped young buyers have to look to the suburbs for a starter home.

Most of the new housing units being built in the city are lofts and condos that aren’t suited to raising children, said Ray Simpson of Hemson Consulting Ltd., a Toronto planning firm.

For most families, the price advantage of a home outside the city still outweighs the other costs.

In south Etobicoke, one of the least expensive areas of Toronto, an average single-family home sells for about $200,000. In Markham, homes with similar floor space are advertised from $159,000.

The average price of homes in prime areas like the Beaches and Cabbagetown has risen to more than $300,000. “As the price goes up in the city, it is predictable that more people will be forced to look outside,” Mr. Simpson said.