Why These Long-Time City Dwellers Moved Out During COVID-19

“Since leaving the city, I feel more together than I ever have”

There are plenty of reasons we flock to the big city: a feast of job opportunities, unparalleled late night eats, that intangible buzz constantly coursing through your body. But when the pandemic descended, everything about downtown living changed: rising case numbers meant a walk around the block came with real risk; that once-liberating WFH situ started to feel like forced confinement (a 450-square foot condo will do that); and the cultural charms we once cherished began to disappear as local businesses shuttered left and right.

And so began the great city exodus. If it feels like every other friend is ditching downtown for the suburbs or somewhere greener, it’s not just you. This year saw droves of young urbanites chasing manageable rents (and mortgages), more physical space and a slower pace of living. For many, the pandemic accelerated burgeoning thoughts of relocation. For others, it served as a wakeup call to the kind of life that actually brings them joy. Here, we talked to seven recent Canadian city transplants who shared their reasons for leaving, their new cost of living (spoiler: in general, those expenses are a lot less) and the perks—plus downsides—of skipping town for something different.

(Photo: Courtesy of Robin)
(Photo: Courtesy of Robin)

Robin, Fort Ellis, N.S.

Age: 30

Occupation: Mom/aspiring library technician

Where I used to live + what I paid: “North Dartmouth, N.S. in Halifax, renting a two-bedroom apartment for $900/month.”

Where I moved + what I pay now: “Fort Ellis, N.S. to a three-bedroom house with my brother where we split the $1200/month rent.”

Why I left: “When the pandemic hit, my anxiety went into overdrive. Then, in Nova Scotia, we experienced the mass shooting and it felt like the world was collapsing around me. At the time, I didn’t leave my apartment for months, other than to walk my dog around the block. As the [COVID] cases got under control, I found myself driving out of the city every other day so I could go for a walk while still avoiding people. Soon, with the possibility of finding work seeming less and less likely, I realized I needed to find a more affordable place to live, which is why my daughter and I moved in with my brother. I love the amount of outdoor space we have here. I can sit on my deck and watch my daughter run across the neighbours field without a danger in sight. I do miss my people, though. When my marriage ended last year, I had so much love and support accessible to me and now most of them are at least a 45-minute drive away. Overall, it just feels easier to breathe out here. The pandemic taught me that I can only control what I do in this moment. Planning is nice, but the future doesn’t care about your plans.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Kristi)
(Photo: Courtesy of Kristi)

Kristi, Guelph, Ont.

Age: 32

Occupation: Gardener

Where I used to live + what I paid: “Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, renting a $600/month room from a friend who owned the home.”

Where I moved + what I pay now: “Guelph, Ont., renting a two-bedroom plus den home for $1,700/month, split between me and my now live-in partner.”

Why I left: “I’ve wanted to leave the city for a while now. I grew up in a really rural area and was ready for something a little quieter and greener again. My partner’s commute was over an hour each way while in Toronto, but his company opened up an office in downtown Guelph and he was eligible for a direct transfer. Meanwhile, I was wrapping up four years back in school, so it just sort of made sense for us. I love how quiet our new neighbourhood, and Guelph in general, is. There are so many wild gardens spilling out onto the sidewalks and there’s a nice park and river at the bottom of our street. Though, there are plenty of drawbacks: less diversity, fewer conveniences, more of a need for your own vehicle. But I’m pretty happy to leave behind the constant buzz of the city. I know it’s what attracts so many people to it, but for me, that energy prevented me from ever feeling at ease.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Aminah)
(Photo: Courtesy of Aminah)

Aminah, Prince Edward County, Ont.

Age: 30

Occupation: Marketing consultant and soon-to-be farmer

Where I used to live + what I paid: “Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, renting a three-bedroom house for $3,800/month, split between me and my partner.”

Where I moved + what I pay now: “Hillier, Ont. in Prince Edward County. Our mortgage is $1,800/month for a three-bedroom home.”

Why I left: “I have two daughters under age two and COVID shed a massive light on what we really needed for our family. We were quickly outgrowing our Toronto rental and wanted more outdoor space for our children to play safely. But we never thought homeownership was possible for us, especially in the city. We don’t come from generational wealth so trying to buy a $1.5 million home was just unfathomable. The pandemic made it possible for us to leave the city; I had my youngest right before lockdown and my partner’s been working remotely ever since. There’s a lot to love here: the trees, the wineries, people saying hello when you walk by them. The main win is how great the soil is out here. I decided to turn my pandemic passion into a new business venture—I’m using everything I learned in my backyard garden and starting a farm called Raining Gold here next spring.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Courtney)
(Photo: Courtesy of Courtney)

Courtney, Kelowna, B.C.

Age: 30

Occupation: Digital strategist

Where I used to live + what I paid: “Toronto’s King West neighbourhood, renting a studio apartment for $1,650/month.”

Where I moved + what I pay now: “Kelowna, B.C., renting a two-bedroom condo for $1,950, split between me and my partner.”

Why I left: “My business was hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic, but it gave me a few months to slow down and check in with myself to see if I was truly happy where I was. It didn’t take long to realize I had outgrown my 400-square foot apartment. I didn’t walk out of my condo and get excited about my neighbourhood anymore. I was tired of the loud sports cars speeding down my street at all hours of the night. My partner and I are both very adventurous, so we’ve always talked about what it would be like to live somewhere else. Somehow we landed on B.C. and after he applied for a job and got it, we sold everything we owned and booked flights. I love the pace of life here in Kelowna. I used to spend hundreds of dollars a week on going out and now it’s so much easier to save because we do things like hike or go to the beach.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Hope)
(Photo: Courtesy of Hope)

Hope, Dryden, Ont.

Age: 30

Occupation: Creative director

Where I used to live + what I paid: “Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood, renting a two-bedroom apartment for $2400/month, split between me and my partner.”

Where I moved + what I pay now: “Dryden, Ont., a small town between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay. We bought a three-bedroom house direct from the owners with no fees or mortgage and are investing $50,000 from a line of credit for renovations.”

Why I left: “My partner and I started tossing around the idea of spending summer 2020 in Dryden—a place where I grew up—about a year prior. The pandemic expedited the move and also nudged us to make it permanent—something we’d both been resisting because we were scared to pull the plug. I used to be driven by things like status and security and being in Toronto really brought out these insecurities in me. Being in Dryden, I’ve been able to take a step back and really commit to personal growth without the pressures of the race I was subjecting myself to. Like many small towns, there’s a real sense of community here. The people are kind and warm. Since leaving the city, I feel more together than I ever have. I’m able to focus on what I really need and be a better friend, kid, sibling, lover. I know the pandemic acted as a catalyst to the inevitable. It also meant finding new hobbies and picking up old ones which is why we chose to explore a big renovation project.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Jasmine)
(Photo: Courtesy of Jasmine)

Jasmine, Digby Rural, N.S.

Age: 27

Occupation: Product manager/yoga teacher

Where I used to live + what I paid: “Toronto’s Entertainment District, renting a one-bedroom condo for $2200/month, split between me and my partner.”

Where I moved + what I pay now: “Digby Rural, N.S., a small town three hours from Halifax. We were able to buy a five-bedroom house outright for $115,000 with no mortgage; monthly expenses include utilities and renovation costs.”

Why I left: “Leading up to the pandemic, my partner and I had been living in our condo for three years. Once we were both working from home, things got a bit cramped so we talked about moving elsewhere. We even looked at renting a different apartment within Toronto, but were ultimately outbid or it would be out of our price range. At the height of the summer, I was perusing some Instagram accounts I follow that highlight old, for-sale homes that require some TLC. Usually the homes featured are located in Europe, but I happened upon one in Nova Scotia which was built in 1890. We both fell in love with it and decided we would see how many steps we could take to purchase it before a door closed. We had some [financial] help, and between the two of us, we were able to purchase the home outright for what would be a down payment in Toronto. We packed up the car—just us and our dog—and road-tripped with our possessions across the country. Once we got here, the vastness of the house shocked us as well as how small the town is. As city dwellers, we’re really used to instant gratification—I would spend money on quick fixes all the time and that’s just not an option here. Right now, I’m happy to leave behind the pressure to be productive. It was something that was getting to me physically and emotionally. I honestly think we have everything we need here: we have each other, we’re stocking our pantry and we’re both pretty proficient in the kitchen.”

(Photo courtesy of Cody-Anna)
(Photo courtesy of Cody-Anna)

Cody-Anna, Eastman, Que.

Age: 29

Occupation: Video producer

Where I used to live + what I paid: “Montreal’s Villeray neighbourhood, renting a two-bedroom apartment for $1,130/month, split 60/40 between me and my partner [divided proportionately based on how much each makes].”

Where I moved + what I pay now: “Eastman, Q.C., an hour outside of Montreal. Our mortgage is $1,400/month for a five-bedroom home, split 60/40 between my partner and me.”

Why I left: “My original plan was to buy a condo with my boyfriend, start a family then move to the country in five to 10 years. The pandemic definitely sped up the process of us leaving the city. When we were in the [first] lockdown period, it was really hard; we couldn’t escape it. One day, we were walking back home from a store and my boyfriend just looked at me and said, ‘What if we moved to the country now? Why wait?’ The very next day we were looking at houses and after two months, we found exactly what we were looking for. Our home has enormous windows and seeing the stars every night is awesome. The moon even casts shadows here! We have a lot of plans, like building a chicken coop and garden; having the space to choose your lifestyle really is priceless. There’s not much I miss, but I mean, we’re still in the honeymoon phase. Maybe the fact that I can’t walk to my destinations? Everything is a drive away now, but it doesn’t really bother me.”