If you’re not living with perpetual roommates or pulling in six figures, grinding away to barely pay rent in Toronto or Vancouver is likely your new normal. With the average cost of a one bedroom in TO hitting $2,260 last year according to rental site Padmapper, income can be quickly swallowed up by housing costs—and saving money or planning for the future becomes impossible. Sure, you can take on a side hustle (or two), sell off your sneaker collection—or get the hell out of the city altogether. With real estate prices climbing all over southern Ontario, some young people are looking up north. Houses are cheap (the average single family home in Sault Ste. Marie is well under $200,000), the pace is slower, and the scenery ain’t bad, either—the Sault was one of only two Canadian cities to make the New York Times 52 Places To Go list this year.
“I got a good close look at urban living in Vancouver and I just couldn’t stand it,” says Robbie Adamson, who now lives in Leeburn, ON, in a century-old church complete with original wood ceiling and stained glass windows (that he bought for $30,000). “I didn’t have much patience for the pace or the traffic jams or my growing household of friends that liked to do nothing but smoke joints and play video games.”
Since moving back to northern Ontario, he has fitted out his ‘church’ with a heating system of his own invention (allowing him to heat the place using discarded veggie oil from nearby restaurants), built a loft and bar inside, and uses the space to host everything from weddings to art exhibitions to punk festivals. He has perfected his methods so he never has to work a ‘real job’ again.
“Because living here is cheap, and I just keep making it cheaper, it allows me to experiment more with making money—and have less stress about it. I’ve worked as hard as reducing my expenses as I have about increasing my income. I have these skills, and I can use ‘em if I want or not use ‘em. Because who cares? I don’t need $1800 at the end of the month,” says Adamson, who has worked doing everything from shifts at the tube mill to cutting hair to driving a cab. “It costs me zip to live here, in all this opulence. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, because everything is so cheap.”
Erin Heeney is similarly drawn to the simple life, with a bunch of goats and dogs to keep her company. The 31-year-old spends the bulk of her time at a retro trailer she got for a steal; it’s parked on her property alongside a picturesque river near Echo Bay, ON. Powered by a generator and solar panels, Heeney and her self-employed partner are making it work, off-grid. “The reason why we did this was we had no money, wanted to have less of an impact. Now, this is great—we don’t have to pay a power bill. I’m not good with the hustle and bustle. I like to travel and [living here] its affordable to save money and do that.”
Designer and chef Mana Goodfellow was also drawn to the Sault after paying through the nose for Toronto rent. “It was really expensive, and we weren’t able to do certain things in our life that we wanted to do,” she says. “My husband wanted to go back to school, and I wanted to pursue more artistic endeavours, and I was unable to take time off from my job to do that,” she says.
“We basically halved our bills by moving to the Sault.” The couple pay $800 for a spacious two-bedroom apartment with a rooftop patio downtown, and are planning on buying a house next year.
There are cons, however; “there’s not a lot of exciting things in terms of what a bigger city can offer. But it is a slower pace of life which allows you to have more time to pursue, and fiscally invest, in your hobbies. I don’t think I would have been able to purchase my own pottery wheel, and have the kind of screen printing equipment I own if I had stayed in southern Ontario.”
Goodfellow is noticing a growing trend of people with young families coming to the Sault and area; where buying a house with a yard is not a pipe dream. Keith Brown moved to the Sault with his wife (a junior product developer for Loblaws) after half a decade of working in the ad industry in Toronto.
“We were both looking for a change,” says Brown, who now works as a communications specialist with Sault Community Career Centre. “We’d come up to the Sault to visit her parents, and would immediately de-stress when we got here. Then we’d tense back up when we got in the city again.” After she gave birth to their daughter, the pressures increased. “With the little one, we wanted more space, and we knew we’d never be able to buy anything; or if we did it wouldn’t be anywhere near where we wanted to live. We had friends who were house poor, and didn’t want to put ourselves in that situation. We were also paying the same amount for rent that we were spending on daycare… that motivated us to start considering leaving Toronto.”
“I miss the energy, the vibrancy of the city, the food options, the coffee. But it was overwhelming; the amount of people, the traffic, the noise—I definitely don’t miss that. I was working long hours, it was hectic,” he said. “Now I work a 9-to-5, my daughter’s school is a five minute walk from our house. We were lucky in that we both settled into good jobs here. Being this close to nature was also a big draw, and is a big plus to living in Sault Ste. Marie.”
Robin Sutherland lives on a 160 acre property on a dead end road near Desbarats, ON. “Our closest neighbors are Mennonites, so we see a lot of horse and buggys,” she says. After a decade of living in Toronto and abroad (and earning her MSc in Health, Community and Development program at the London School of Economics as well as a Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation from the University of Waterloo), Sutherland moved up north and started Thinking Rock Community Arts.
For a region that has long struggled with youth out-migration and ‘brain drain’, the influx of young entrepreneurs (who now have the option of telecommuting), artists and organizers like Sutherland is a boon. “I found a lot of allies in this community—other young people that were getting stuff started. We became good friends with the guys from Outspoken Brewery and lived above Shabby Motley when they were starting up. It felt like we were all doing the same community building work together, coming up against the status quo.”
Though Sutherland misses the access to arts, as well as the sense of anonymity the city offers, she favors the slow rhythm of the country. “We farm hops, have two big vegetable gardens—so a lot of our time is spent interacting with the land; growing stuff, harvesting. My husband deer hunts on the land, we do maple syrup. Our life revolves around the seasons and what’s happening with the earth,” she says.
“There’s the misconception that there’s a total lack of culture here, or everyone is a redneck. Which isn’t totally untrue, but there are a lot of really amazing people who choose to live up here. They are educated and skilled and could be living in Toronto, but they love the lifestyle,” she says.
“I went to visit my friend who lives at Ossington and College. She was like; we rented a car and drove two hours to go to a farm, and pick, like, five vegetables and it was awesome. The whole parking lot was full of people who were going to pick vegetables and there was a car jam. I thought oh my God. There’s these people who want to live sustainably and naturally, but they wouldn’t actually move somewhere where that would be possible. Or maybe they don’t actually value what it is like to live up here.”
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