How big will the boomerang backspin be?

Many people left big cities for rural life during COVID-19 but downtown office owners, condo sellers and restaurants should be prepping for their return

Western Investor
March 25, 2021

City malls, restaurants should ready for returning city residents. | Chung Chow
— City malls, restaurants should ready for returning city residents. | Chung Chow

A year ago, shortly after COVID-19 forced his favourite restaurants to close, the gyms shut down, concerts cancelled, sport went video only and he began working from home, computer programmer Jason G. (he asked that his last name not be used) moved from his Yaletown rental to self-isolate on a Vancouver Island acreage. He is not alone.

Twenty-one per cent of Canadians who moved last year relocated from a major city hub to a smaller town or rural area, a Leger survey found, part of a North American-wide trend.

In the first six months of the pandemic, New York City lost 110,000 residents, 31,000 fled Chicago and more than 27,000 left San Francisco, according to a Pew Research Centre study. As of mid-summer last year, 50,000 people had moved out of Toronto – a record population loss – and a combined 34,000 people decamped from Montreal and Vancouver, Statistics Canada reports.

But many, like Jason, are now impatient to return to the city.

“If I have to spend another Saturday night in Duncan, I’m going to slit my throat,” the 26-year-old computer programmer joked. “A year is enough.”

A big part of city life is other people, a diversity of ideas, a diversity of amenities, different types of food, restaurants and entertainment, and racial and ethnic diversity.

In Spuzzum or Zeballos, not so much.

Now, with vaccines apparently putting COVID-19 on the run, big-city downtowns should brace for a boomerang.

But how big will the boomerang be?

“Huge”, forecasts Mike Stewart, an Oakwyn Realty agent who specializes in Vancouver’s downtown condominium market and watched values slid last year as owners sold and relocated to suburban and rural locales. As of February 2021, average condo prices in Vancouver were down 0.6 per cent from a year earlier, while they had soared nearly 9 per cent in Maple Ridge and were up 10 per cent to 15 per cent in Abbotsford and Mission.

“They’ll be back,” Stewart said, noting that the first big live music concert or Canuck home game will begin a backspin on the boomerang.

Vancouver’s downtown office towers – where more than one million square feet of prime space is now sitting empty – should also be rolling out the welcome mat, according to a Colliers International survey.

Its latest poll of office employers found that more than half believe that nearly all of their employees would return to the office once vaccinations are complete.

A recent KPMG survey of Zoom-fatigued work-from-homers found that 59 per cent believe their relationships with co-workers are suffering, while three-quarters believe live face-to-face meetings are critical to maintaining business relationships.

The boomerang could be big - and likely fast – as it arcs back into our latest new normal.


Frank O'Brien is the editor of Western Canada's biggest commercial real estate newspaper, Western Investor, as well as a contributing editor at West Coast Condominium, real estate contributor to Business in Vancouver and a regular media commentator on real estate investment.
Copyright © Western Investor

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