The Globe & Mail: The urban Atlantic advantage: Work-from-home era offers Halifax more people and more wealth, but at a price

Posted November 16, 2020

Given that Twitter Inc. has offices around the world, Jen Wilson always assumed that if she ever left Toronto, she’d be moving somewhere like New York or London – certainly not Halifax, about an hour away from where she grew up, near Lunenburg.
 
But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of people’s plans. Ms. Wilson gave birth to her first son, Finnley, in February. In March, provincial borders began to close just as her mother was booked to visit her grandson for the first time. Ms. Wilson, who is Twitter’s global head of standards for curating tweets, learned at the same time – via Twitter, of course – that her company was ramping up its remote-work policy.
 
Ms. Wilson and her husband, Alex Piitz, a personal trainer and academic researcher, were suddenly presented with an opportunity they hadn’t considered before: If all of a sudden we don’t have to be in Toronto, she recalls thinking, do we still want to be here?
 
Toronto’s commute was rough, and there was no backyard for Finnley. Halifax was the first alternative to cross her mind. Her brother was there, her mom was nearby, and it was still a city kind of city. She could have the best of both worlds: amenities close by and, unlike her Toronto townhouse, a yard.
 
“If I don’t need to commute, I don’t want to be in a bedroom community,” she says. “We love living in the city – we love being able to go out for walks in the morning to get a coffee, but also have easy access to running.”
 
In September, Ms. Wilson and Finnley flew across the country to move into a house she’d only seen in video calls.
 
As it stretches into its 11th month, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely keep changing the cities we live in, especially as long-time urbanites like Ms. Wilson become unmoored from physical offices. This shift could transform not just massive urban centres filled with corporate headquarters, but mid-sized cities, too. That change is already abundantly clear in Halifax, where a real estate boom is under way, prospective home-buyers now face bidding wars, and the rental and affordable housing markets are feeling the squeeze.
 
Despite those tensions, some community leaders see this as a generational opportunity to transform cities like Halifax with an influx of talent, creativity and the economic spinoff they can provide. The Halifax Partnership economic development agency is coming up with strategies to seize on this interest, hoping the surge in remote work will accelerate its long-term plan to raise the city’s population to 550,000 from 440,000 by 2031 and boost its economic output by nearly 50 per cent, to $30-billion.
 
“COVID has shone a light on our comparative advantages to other jurisdictions," says Wendy Luther, the agency’s chief executive officer. She has bold ambitions for a post-pandemic Halifax. “A realistic scenario is that Halifax becomes the most attractive city for talent on the eastern seaboard of North America coming out of this pandemic.”
 
Ms. Wilson and Mr. Piitz found lots of interesting listings when they started scouring for homes in May. But by July, houses had started selling much faster. Since they were still living in Toronto, they couldn’t just hop on a plane to check out places because of mandatory quarantine restrictions that were helping keep cases in the “Atlantic Bubble” so low. Instead, they had Ms. Wilson’s brother conduct video tours of half a dozen homes.
 
The first house they saw sparked a bidding war, and they began to worry about missing out. After virtually visiting a South End home they loved (though Mr. Piitz missed much of the tour because of a Finnley diaper emergency), they put in an offer less than 24 hours later, though they’d never set foot inside and had no sense of whether their furniture might even fit.
 
Their experience was hardly unique: despite a drop in sales during the pandemic’s first two months, seasonally adjusted average house prices have climbed 13 per cent in Halifax since the start of the year, to $383,136 at the end of September. The broader Canadian market has seen a bump of 15 per cent so far this year. Though such nationwide increases were historically driven by Toronto and Vancouver, the Canadian Real Estate Association’s early interpretation of the data suggests values are rising everywhere as home-buyers seek larger ground-level properties.
 
The Halifax market had already been on the upswing. Unadjusted year-over-year prices in Halifax jumped 6.9 per cent from 2018 to 2019 – then the highest jump in a decade, according to CREA – while vacancies for two-bedroom apartments fell to a record-low rate of 0.9 per cent. But the pandemic has made the market hotter still, says Keller Williams realtor Jerry Lynds, who focuses on buyers.
 
“Gone are the days when a buyer could rush in an offer to try and secure a home,” Mr. Lynds says. “Now you’re competing almost every single time. That’s a big shocker to a lot of people here. You feel like you can’t negotiate anymore.”
 
Mr. Lynds believes historically low interest rates are exaggerating demand. So are out-of-province buyers. Halifax had already broken population growth records in each of the past four years, bringing in 9,747 newcomers in 2019 alone – 83 per cent of them from outside Nova Scotia, according to the Halifax Partnership. Now, many of them are coming armed with remote-work allowances, big-city salaries and equity they’ve pulled from homes in hotter markets. Since the pandemic began, Mr. Lynds estimates that nearly a third of his clients now come from outside Nova Scotia, up from about 15 per cent.
 
The writer, illustrator and cartoonist Kate Leth returned to Halifax in September after five years in Los Angeles, hoping to be closer to her mom and to escape the United States as it underwent simultaneous crises over the coronavirus, civil rights and President Donald Trump.
 
“The amount of anxiety I don’t feel every single second, like I did in America, is shocking,” she said over lunch at a Quinpool Rd. diner in mid-October. But the Halifax she returned to came with a shock of its own. Finding an apartment was much different than it had been five years earlier.
 
Ms. Leth set alerts on multiple apps, eventually securing an apartment through Facebook Marketplace by responding to a listing two minutes after it was posted. It costs as much as her most recent L.A. apartment, but in Canadian dollars. “I thought getting a place in Burbank was hard,” she says.
 
This has inevitably put pressure on lower-income Haligonians. There’s no rent control in the city, though pressure is on the province to enact such a rule, fuelled by recent protests. Local media report some residents are seeing monthly rent increases of as much as 90 per cent. Other long-time lower-income renters are being evicted so landlords can renovate and flip units.
 
Halifax desperately needs more housing, and many of its oldest apartments are “appalling,” says Hannah Wood, chair of the Halifax central-peninsula chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now tenants' union, or ACORN. Minimal insulation and rat problems are not uncommon in some neighbourhoods, with issues even worse in public housing, she adds.
 
But the arrival of new-build housing – along with the amenities its residents attract – tends to prompt gentrification, driving away long-time residents of neighbourhoods like Halifax’s North End. According to the One North End Community Economic Development Society, the Black population there fell by half between 2006 and 2016.
 
Rodney Small’s grandmother lived in Africville, the Black community destroyed in the 1960s to make room for a bridge to Dartmouth; his own racial profiling by a police officer in the 1990s prompted a landmark Supreme Court decision that confirmed judges' ability to consider “social context” such as racism in decisions. In the time since, he has watched Black residents get forced out of the North End because of gentrification.
 
While Halifax markets itself as a land of opportunity, not everyone who lives there is getting equal access – especially to the economic opportunities in the city’s central peninsula. “Blackness is being pushed outside of the peninsula,” says Mr. Small, One North End’s director.
 
The pandemic’s real estate shifts have put even more pressure on North End residents. While Mr. Small has staked his career on making it an inclusive community – lately he’s working with local developers on an inclusive redevelopment of a local school to include arts, startup and retail spaces for African Nova Scotians – he says governments need to prevent further displacement, including with rent control. “We need to pass new legislation,” he says.
 
Some developers are trying to accommodate the demand by sprawling beyond the core. Since the pandemic began, Clayton Developments Ltd. has seen more interest in ground-level homes than it has in 30 years, says president Jason Brunt: “It’s, ‘Give me enough space to sit in the backyard and have a glass of wine at a fire pit.’ ”
 
Clayton has started seeking approvals in Lantz, on the other side of Halifax’s already far-flung airport, a nearly half-hour drive from downtown. “We’ve had that land for over 100 years,” Mr. Brunt says. “We decided to trigger it now and to start developing because of this significant demand shift. It’s the craziest momentum we’ve ever seen.”
 
The city is doing everything it can to leverage the pandemic into an economic boom. “We’re now targeting companies that have made announcements, or made it known through our conversations, of their intention to grow a remote workforce – and highlighting for them the talent we have in Halifax and Nova Scotia,” says the Halifax Partnership’s CEO, Ms. Luther.
 
The agency has a list of benefits to trot out to prospective employers considering scouring the Halifax region for remote talent. Ms. Luther’s team will point them to the pipeline of talent from seven post-secondary institutions; Halifax’s openness to international immigrants, who accounted for two-thirds of its nearly 10,000 new residents in 2019; its relaxed lifestyle; and its relative affordability – for now, anyway – compared with cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.
 
Included in these conversations are e-commerce giant Shopify Inc. – which recently implemented a “digital-by-default” policy – and NPower, a Brooklyn-based non-profit dedicated to digital skills training, to encourage people to come to the city to work, remotely or otherwise. The Toronto literary platform Wattpad Corp. announced a new Halifax office, too, which opened before the pandemic.
 
Shopify is eagerly looking at markets like Halifax since adopting its remote-friendly work policy in May. “We can now attract and hire the best talent, regardless of where they’re located, including mid-sized Canadian markets such as Halifax,” says Crystal Hunt, a diversity and belonging specialist at Shopify who has been working with Nova Scotia Business Inc., the Partnership’s provincial counterpart. “We’ve seen strong interest from candidates across Canada, particularly in regions where we didn’t have offices previously.”
 
The economic development agency is also dovetailing its tourism and immigration marketing strategies. Sitting in a conference room overlooking historic Citadel Hill, Ms. Luther points out that tourism can be the first step in recruiting new Haligonians. Sometimes, she says, the message is as simple as, “If you can work from anywhere, here is where you need to be.”
 
Ms. Luther’s team also hopes to expand a program that tries to keep new graduates and immigrants in the city by connecting them with local business leaders. One stream of the program focuses on finding opportunities for African Nova Scotians.
 
An issue Halifax will have to grapple with – like any other city – is the pandemic’s toll on long-time Haligonians and the businesses already in their backyard. Nearly 10 per cent of workers lost their jobs between February and May. And the Conference Board of Canada, in its October survey of major cities, forecast that its gross domestic product will fall 4.7 per cent in real terms this year. But the think tank also sees a strong rebound next year, with 5.8 per cent real GDP growth. Those forecasts are both better than the Conference Board’s Canada-wide prognosis for this year’s decline (6.6 per cent) and next year’s rebound (5.6 per cent).
 
It’s possible, too, that remote-work migration won’t end up being all that significant. “This has been the promise here since 2008, when the region had an advantage with fibre technology,” says Herb Emery, the Fredericton-based University of New Brunswick Vaughan Chair in Regional Economics. “We have too much tied up in existing structures and capital in [major] cities.”
 
Dr. Emery says the structural problems that plague the Maritimes – such as the lack of family doctors in many regions and low vacancy rates in Halifax – are likely to give some potential new residents pause. He’s waiting for migration statistics to prove out the thesis. “I’m still a bit perplexed about the time scale for all this transformation,” he says. “It’s only been eight months.”
 
When Ms. Leth left five years ago, downtown “felt like it was on a decline," in part because construction on the Nova Centre – home to Ms. Luther’s office – was plagued by development delays that choked out local businesses and creative and cultural spaces. It was completed in 2017; Ms. Leth is among those hoping for something of a renaissance. "All the people I know moving back are creative people, either writers or artists,” she says.
 
Ms. Wilson, meanwhile, is adjusting quickly to the perks of Halifax. She has a yard and is thrilled to be near her mom. “She watched Finn for the first time anyone else had watched him in his entire life,” Ms. Wilson said on a drizzly mid-October day, sitting outside a South End coffee shop.
 
Her mom babysat Finnley for a practical reason: Ms. Wilson and her husband had to go replace their car’s Ontario plates, which tend to raise eyebrows in the Atlantic region these days. But it also made the move that much more real. “At the beginning of the year," she says, "I never would have thought the end of the year would find us here.”
 
 
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Article by Josh O'Kane for the Globe and Mail

 

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