For the next year, this is what Alexandra Mussar will call home: a cramped bedroom with water damage and dysfunctional sinks, in a house shared with six other students. For this, she’s paying $840 every month.
This isn’t how she pictured her university housing experience, but after six long months hunting for somewhere to live, she says she felt she had to settle.
“There were no other options. This was my last resort,” she said. “It was either that or I was couch surfing for the next year.”
Across the country, students are sharing similar stories. The soaring rents that have hit some of Canada’s biggest cities have also walloped college and university towns, with little relief in sight. Take Guelph, Ont., where the latest data shows the average cost for a one bedroom apartment has spiked to $2,095 per month in June, up 27 per cent from the same time last year.
Rents have also soared in Victoria, Kingston, Ont., and Halifax amid stiff competition. And while students can lower their costs by sharing housing, even those rents can be staggering, posing a serious challenge for those planning for the fall.
Mussar is entering her second year at the University of Guelph. She lived in residence for her first year — though that isn’t always a guaranteed option for students. After that, she was on her own to find something in the off-campus rental market. She looked at dozens of apartments but says it was rare that someone would actually get back to her.
“When they did, it was, ‘Sorry, we don’t have space for you. Sorry, we don’t think you’re a good match. Sorry, we’re out of your budget.’ Just getting denied over and over and over again. So, so stressful and so painful.”
Enrolments on a roll
There are many factors complicating the rental housing market. Canada hasn’t built enough rental stock, with RBC warning that without more construction the country will be short 120,000 units by 2026. More recently, landlords have been raising rents to cover higher mortgage costs.
Economist Mike Moffatt, who studies housing issues as senior director at the Smart Prosperity Institute, said as provincial governments cut back on funding to higher education, colleges and universities across the country have increased enrolments substantially.
“The incentives for them are to bring in as many students as possible,” he said. “International students pay international tuition so they tend to be a very, very profitable group.”
The influx of students has been increasing steadily. A record 550,150 international student study permits were issued last year, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, a 75 per cent increase from just five years ago. Yet there’s no cap on that number, and no requirement by the provincial or federal governments for schools to build corresponding housing, said Moffatt.
“It’s up to [schools] to be responsible, look at what the housing situation is in the community and keep enrolments at a manageable level,” said Moffatt.
Moffatt said inadequate planning puts huge pressure on the communities surrounding these colleges and universities, calling the shortage of rental housing an “absolute crisis.” Students compete with other renters and first-time home-buyers, he said, pushing up rents and prices across the board.
“It makes everything more expensive for everyone.”
There are several colleges and universities in Waterloo, Ont., where Rahish Jariya landed a few months ago. He moved to Canada from India to study web development at Conestoga College.
“It was very good news for me. I was very excited to start my new life,” Jariya said. But as he struggled to find somewhere to live, he said his initial joy quickly turned to despair. “I’m very frustrated, actually. I’m very worried,” he said.
Jariya described visiting one rental where the landlord was charging $650 per month to share just one room with three other people. While many international students CBC News contacted were hesitant to speak out, he said he wanted to raise awareness of the realities students face in Canada.
“I don’t know about the future,” he said. “It’s a hard time but I hope for the best.”
The situation has become desperate in parts of the country. In Guelph, some Redditors warn others not to come to the city, while students penned an open letter on the housing crisis. In Peterborough, Ont., and Cape Breton, N.S., students are calling on universities to freeze enrolment growth.
Supply and demand
The colleges and universities CBC News contacted say they’re aware of the issue. The University of Guelph said in an email it is reaching out to hotels in the city to try and house students, and that it will be conducting surveys about housing demand.
Conestoga College, which recently announced it is building a new campus in downtown Guelph that will host 5,000 students, said in an email it recognizes “the importance of meeting student needs” but offered no further details about any housing plan.
Moffatt said he thinks schools, with help from goverments, need to build more residences, while any plan to boost enrolment should ensure housing supply keeps pace with demand.
“There’s no one silver bullet to fixing the housing crisis. It’s a lot of little changes from all levels of government and higher education,” he said. “It’s a big, hairy complicated problem and it’s going to require a lot of co-ordination and working together.”
Still, students across the country like Mussar are calling for more urgent action.
“Honestly, it’s really hard when nobody of a higher power is willing to step in and say, ‘hey, you know these students are suffering, what can we do to help?'”
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