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Illustration by Kathleen Fu

COVID-19 has made it complicated for Danielle Sheahan and her partner to speak to their respective therapists. To ensure privacy during their online sessions, one person may sit in the bathroom with the fan on. Sometimes, Ms. Sheahan will leave their one-bedroom apartment to give her partner space.

“It was easier in the summer when we could sit in the backyard for calls, but that isn’t possible anymore,” said Ms. Sheahan, 33.

The couple will resolve that issue in January, when they move to their new house in Hamilton, a popular destination for Toronto expats who still crave metropolitan amenities. COVID-19 restrictions have dimmed the lights on big city benefits, as hip restaurants closed their doors and transit became a last resort for anyone with an alternative. City dwellers who feel cramped have flocked to the suburbs, trading in their local bar for a bigger backyard.

But Ms. Sheahan and other urbanites aren’t just concerned with square footage. In finding a new home, many face challenges that range from the logistical to the political. They want a backyard, but they’ll have to get used to mowing the lawn. They want a home that will fit a growing family, but they also want to fit in with their new neighbours and the community’s existing culture. For some people, that means finding a community with sufficient diversity and a political environment that doesn’t feel alienating.

Audra Williams and Haritha Gnanaratna kept those considerations at the forefront of their minds when they created 90minutesfromToronto, a website that helps prospective Toronto migrants find a home outside the city with similar amenities and values.

“Growing up in Toronto, especially the way I did, you kind of take the diversity for granted,” Mr. Gnanaratna said. His website, however, does not take it for granted. He and Ms. Williams, a couple who live in Toronto – and plan to stay there, at least for now – track demographics and voting patterns in more than 40 municipalities.

“I’m no fan of the Liberal Party, but if a town votes 40-per-cent Liberal versus 40-per-cent Conservative, that kind of tells you something,” Ms. Williams said.

They also document whether an area has had a Black Lives Matter march, if it holds a Pride parade, and if it has an LGBT-friendly church. Ms. Williams said they’ve received positive feedback from hundreds of people.

“Someone sent me a postcard,” she said. “I don’t even know how they got my address.”

Ms. Williams says one individual told her that they moved to Hamilton because of the website. Meanwhile, Ms. Sheahan – whose partner pushed for them to explore Hamilton – expects to find a like-minded community when she moves there.

“My partner and I are both involved in different social initiatives in Toronto,” she said. In Hamilton, she says, "there are people doing important work to meet the needs of folks from different backgrounds.

“We are excited to move to a place where we will be able to continue doing this sort of work in our community and live alongside people who care about the same things.”

Sarah Wayland, who runs Hamilton’s Immigration Partnership Council, says the city is ready for an influx of newcomers. The council connects immigrants with services they need to habituate.

“Once upon a time, people who grew up here wanted to get out of Hamilton, but now, we’re kind of seeing the opposite. People are coming here because they like the walkability of certain areas, and the older housing stock in the lower city.”

Ms. Wayland sees Hamilton’s blue-collar roots as an attraction for curious Torontonians.

“There’s more socializing across class lines than you would see in a city like Toronto,” she said. “People who are in the trades are friends with people in other professions.”

Lindsey Mahoney, a lawyer who lives in Toronto, is also considering a move to Hamilton, and realizes that most locations won’t be as diverse at the city she plans to leave.

“Moving further outside of Toronto leads to a reduced diverse population,” said Ms. Mahoney, who is Black. “I asked people who are native Hamiltonians and transplants about their experiences. Everyone I have spoken to has been very candid and I appreciate their openness.”

Josh Murray, who is leaving Toronto with his wife for a house in Kitchener, Ont., picked their neighbourhood partly because of its diversity. When he has children, he wants them to grow up in a multicultural environment.

“There’s certain places we didn’t consider because of that,” Mr. Murray said, referring to areas that are more racially homogeneous.

Daniel Foch, broker at Foch Family Realty in Georgina, Ont., about an hour north of Toronto, says homebuyers are thinking about the cultural landscape of their next home.

“I think it’s evolving to become a much more common discussion,” he said. One buyer he spoke to chose another location over Georgina because she wanted “their kids to be able to attend school and daycare in a more multicultural setting.”

Diversity does not ensure that prospective homebuyers will feel welcome. That Hamilton had Canada’s highest rate of police-reported hate crimes in 2018 – three times the national average – may matter more to a buyer than the fact that more than 21 per cent of Hamilton’s population is racialized, according to 2016 census data.

Ms. Wayland, who is part of a group called “No Hate in the Hammer” says there is a lot of grassroots organizing against discrimination in the city. “There is quite a lot of interest and momentum around not letting hate thrive in our city,” she said.

Georgina’s recent history with racism has attracted attention outside of the town. Two Black students at the same local high school have been subject to racial slurs and brutal beatings from other students in the past seven years. Back in 2013, the principal had to ban the Confederate flag.

“This is the type of place where you would deal with those challenges,” Mr. Foch said, referring to the town’s racial tensions. But he says Georgina is diversifying and becoming more tolerant. He has hope for the town; it had two Black Lives Matter protests in the summer, which saw people of several races come out in support.

“This is what makes our country beautiful,” Mr. Foch said. “We have that diversity, and at a certain point it has to grow geographically.”

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