Paying your own way through school may sometimes mean having to survive on Mr. Noodles for months on end. A packet of this instant meal costs a few cents, according to Kari Michaels, and she has gone through many.
The Kwantlen Polytechnic University student knows how tough it is for independent and low-income students to get a postsecondary education. She works full-time and can only study part-time so that she can make the rent and pay the bills.
“I would like to be able to buy more food and buy clothes every now and then,” Michaels told the Georgia Straight one afternoon after getting off work as an office record keeper. “I mean, right now all my money goes toward rent and the food I can afford and my cats and school. I have to pay my tuition in the next few weeks. They don’t accept credit cards at Kwantlen anymore for tuition.”
The 22-year-old shares an apartment with two other students in Surrey’s Guildford area. With what she’s earning, she can’t afford to pay more than $400 per month in rent and utilities.
The location of their residence isn’t great. It takes Michaels up to 50 minutes by bus and SkyTrain to get to the Kwantlen campus in Surrey’s Newton area. But moving closer to school wouldn’t be easy. According to her, the places there are either more expensive or run by landlords who prefer families over students.
Michaels said it would be great if the government were to come up with “priority housing for students around campus, or a scholarship or grant for students who are living on their own or without their parents”.
“Instead of having a student loan which is, like, a big chunk of money you have to pay off, have them give you some sort of assistance with your rent,” she said. “Like, you could tell them, ”˜This is how much I pay for rent,’ and they could subsidize it. They do for low-income families. They could also do it for low-income students.”
While governments and advocates have given significant attention to homelessness and the housing challenges faced by many families, the shelter needs of independent students appear to have been largely overlooked.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation flagged this issue five years ago in a paper titled “Student Housing in Canada: Developing a Methodology to Collect Data and Information”. The agency noted that while the country has very high levels of postsecondary enrollment—there were more than a million postsecondary students in the fall of 2001—there is limited information about how students are housed.
“This is despite their meaningful impact on the market,” the document stated, “due not only to their sheer numbers but also due to the fact that there has been an important increase in the number of older students who are more likely to seek lodging away from the parent family.”
Many postsecondary institutions like Kwantlen don’t offer on-campus residence. Others that do, like UBC, SFU, and BCIT, face far more demand than available spaces can satisfy.
A UBC paper coauthored earlier this year by Nancy Knight, associate vice president of campus and community planning, and Andrew Parr, managing director of student housing and hospitality services, notes that 65 percent of the university’s students who live off campus rent in Vancouver’s West Side area, where rents are high.
The document also states that UBC students pay an average of $753 per month for spaces located an hour away from campus, and an even higher average rate—$969—for units 11 to 20 minutes from school. It also notes that students who rent two hours away from UBC pay more than those living on campus.
What is not mentioned in the paper, according to UBC director of residence life and administration Janice Robinson, is the cost of putting up additional housing units on the campus. In a phone interview, Robinson said that the university’s plan to build another 2,500 units in the next five years entails a capital outlay of at least $175 million.
“The other challenge for people who are in the business of building student housing is that frequently—and this is also true at UBC—the greatest demand for student housing is for eight months during the academic year, from September to April,” Robinson told the Straight. “However, when you build student residences, as you know, you have to pay for them for 12 months.”
Because priority for on-campus accommodation is given to incoming first-year students and to international students, senior students have to compete for fewer spaces. This means they often have to go to the rental market off campus.
“However, as a third- or fourth-year student having attended SFU or whatever institution for many years, you now know the area,” SFU’s associate director of residence life, Chris Rogerson, told the Straight in a phone interview. “You know where you can live. You got familiarity, and traditionally you’ve also created employment opportunities.”
BCIT housing manager Tom Moore noted that the school’s Maquinna Residence at its Burnaby campus has at least 300 rooms. Because of the high turnover of residents, due to the different lengths of their respective courses, about 1,200 students get to live in these spaces each year, according to Moore.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Moore said the school is still paying a “sizable” mortgage on its housing facility, which opened in 1978. It may take time before another is built.
Like those of other postsecondary institutions, BCIT’s Web site has an on-line posting board for rental spaces outside the campus. But the Vancouver Film School, recognizing that many landlords are averse to renting to students, took the extra step of searching out suitable rental places about three years ago.
“Students in general have a reputation for not being the best tenants,” VFS director of admissions and student services Benjamin Colling told the Straight in a phone interview. He added that the school now has a network of landlords supplying spaces for film students.
For students with no financial challenges, competing for space in a tight rental market may not pose much of a problem. But according to Deep Singh, office coordinator of the Douglas College students’ union, many of the students she hears from have limited means and often have to rely on the food bank run by the student association.
Nimmi Takkar, B.C. chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, suggested in a phone interview with the Straight that the provincial government should do more work on reducing the cost of education, including tuition fees.
NDP housing critic Shane Simpson acknowledged that while the province has done some things to address homelessness, it has done nothing to ease housing issues facing students. The Vancouver-Hastings MLA noted that expensive housing and hard-to-find accommodations put additional pressure on postsecondary students, who are already engaged in a pricey endeavour.
“We need to figure out a way to allow students to be able to access money—not free money, necessarily, but access”¦very low-interest money that’s legitimately used towards their education,” Simpson told the Straight in a phone interview. “There needs to be some consideration of the cost of accommodation as well.”
Housing Minister Rich Coleman did not make himself available for an interview with the Straight before deadline.
As for Kwantlen student Kari Michaels, she expects to finally get an associate degree in philosophy by next summer. She started in the fall of 2007. Michaels plans to complete a bachelor’s degree afterward, and at the rate she’s going, she figures she needs another four to five years.