B.C. students caught in Vancouver's housing crunch

A shortage of decent accommodation and the rising cost of rent has some looking to the NDP government for solutions

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      This is certainly not the best of times for Lower Mainland students looking for a place to live for the school year. Just ask Flavia Santia, a second-year student in the UBC graduate school of journalism.

      “I’m looking on websites such as Craigslist, PadMapper, Rent Hello, stuff like that,” Santia told the Georgia Straight by phone from Italy. “I’m basically sending out a lot of emails to ask for availability and price and whatever.”

      She’s also made calls but only received two replies—both from what she believes are fake accounts. She came to this conclusion after reading a weird message saying that the respondents wanted her to look after one apartment with some sporting equipment already in the place.

      The same message mentioned that “we left Canada to go to a humanitarian mission,” but they were willing to take the payment and they would send the keys and documentation.

      Santia is from Rome, where there are far more housing options, and she said she could smell something rotten in this transaction. So she didn’t go any further.

      “Well, I feel pretty desperate, you know,” Santia said with a laugh. “Because this is the second time I have to go to Canada—which is more or less 10,000 kilometres away from home—without a house.”

      On the upside, she has friends this year, which means she could always crash on one of their couches.

      One of her classmates, Saher Asaf, finds herself in a similar bind. She’s on the wait list for student housing but she’s not optimistic that a place on campus will become available.

      Asaf told the Straight that she’s subletting in August but she won’t sign a long-term lease until she gets a chance to view the unit.

      “I think, right now, I would say I’m willing to pay $1,000 [per month], up to $1,200,” Asaf said. “That’s my maximum, but ideally something less.”

      Because she would prefer a place that’s furnished, she feels there’s a “huge chance” that she won’t be able to remain in Vancouver.

      The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation pegged Metro Vancouver’s vacancy rate at a measly 0.7 percent for purpose-built bachelor, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments in its last survey in November 2016.

      At that time, average rents were up 6.4 percent over the previous year, reaching $1,223.

      Apartment prices tend to be far higher on Vancouver’s West Side, close to UBC’s Point Grey campus, and they’re also not cheap along rapid-transit routes.

      This has Caitlin McCutchen, chairperson of the Alliance of B.C. Students, calling on the new provincial government to make it easier for colleges, institutes, and universities to build more housing for those attending their institutions.

      “Right now, 30 percent of renters live in inadequate housing, whether it’s the conditions, size, or the cost of the unit,” McCutchen said. “A large percentage pay 50 percent of their income into rent.”

      Alliance of B.C. Students chairperson Caitlin McCutchen stands by UBC’s newest student residence, while wait lists for homes grow longer.
      Amanda Siebert

      Accounting of debt handcuffs institutions

      Last year, the Alliance of B.C. Students released a research paper maintaining that if $18 million were allocated to student housing per year over a decade, this would create 21,300 new residence spaces in B.C., including 13,500 in the Lower Mainland.

      However many postsecondary institutions haven’t been able to borrow money to build housing because the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act requires this liability to be included in the overall provincial debt. And the former provincial government didn't want this on its books. This was the case even though those loans would rightly be considered self-supporting debt because they would be repaid through the rents paid by students and not through general revenue.

      “The provincial government has, in the past, defended the restrictions as a means to ensure the province’s high credit rating is maintained,” the research paper stated.

      The alliance, however, argued that it’s unlikely that debt repaid by residence fees would have this effect.

      McCutchen is in her final year studying political science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. She said that if more student residences were built, it would relieve pressure on the existing rental market.

      She also argued that more of this housing on campus or close to campus would enhance students’ safety because more of them wouldn’t have to commute great distances by bus or other forms of transit.

      “The minister of municipal affairs and housing [Selina Robinson] has been mandated with creating new student housing by removing unnecessary rules that prevent universities and colleges from building that housing,” McCutchen said. “So I’m hoping she holds up to this. I mean, that’s a great win for students.”

      The ministry did not make Robinson available for an interview with the Straight.

      Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson (centre) did not make herself available for an interview, but the premier expects her to make student housing a priority.
      Travis Lupick

      In addition to the statement about student housing, Robinson’s mandate letter from Premier John Horgan mentioned that he expects her to “make substantive progress” in a number of other areas. They include delivering a $400 annual rebate to rental households and amending the Residential Tenancy Act “to provide stronger protections for renters, and provide additional resources for the Residential Tenancy Branch”.

      Last September, while serving as leader of the Opposition, Horgan joined Alliance of B.C. Students members on the lawn of the legislature when they were holding a demonstration calling for more student housing. McCutchen recalled that the NDP and the B.C. Greens both endorsed the group’s campaign.

      Jill Atkey, director of research and education with the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, said her organization also wants the government to look at potential changes in legislation to free up postsecondary institutions to build more student housing.

      “We’ve developed a number of rental-housing supply projections for the next 10 to 25 years, and we know this crunch is only going to get worse,” Atkey told the Straight. “It will get worse before it gets better. And we do need more supply coming into the major urban centres.”

      She added that the government needs to give serious consideration to having nonprofit housing providers form partnerships with postsecondary institutions to bring about more affordable housing on campus.

      UBC builds residences but can't meet demand

      In the meantime, the University of B.C. has been adding significant amounts of new student housing, but it’s not having any impact on its wait list.

      The most recent student residence, Tallwood House, is an 18-storey wood-frame structure at Brock Commons with 404 beds for upper-year students. It happens to be the tallest mass-timber building in the world. And in two weeks, 358 beds will open for first-year students in Totem Park on the Point Grey campus.

      UBC’s managing director of student housing and hospitality services, Andrew Parr, told the Straight by phone that another 600 beds will be added in Phase 2 at Brock Commons, which is expected to be completed in 2019.

      “In the last seven years, we’ve actually built 3,000 new bed spaces on this campus with multiple projects that have opened,” Parr said.

      Despite all this construction, the wait list has risen from about 3,000 at the peak time in the summer of 2010 to 6,000 this summer.

      Parr said part of the reason is the growing number of international students, who are more likely to want to live on campus for the duration of their studies. Another factor is the tight housing market and high cost of shelter in Vancouver.

      Thirdly, he said, as the population has grown on the Point Grey campus, it’s become a more vibrant community, making it a more desirable place to live.

      “If you know UBC from the past, it was pretty much a commuter campus with not much activity in the evenings or weekends or during the summer,” Parr noted. “Now it’s an incredibly busy place to be. There are all kinds of amenities and activities.”

      So how can UBC afford to develop student residences when so many other postsecondary institutions can’t?

      Parr explained that UBC is lucky because its market-housing funds build up the university’s endowment. This has enabled UBC to become the largest provider of student housing in the country, as well as to guarantee student housing to all first-year undergrads who want it.

      “We borrow from the endowment and pay it back with a slightly above-market interest rate,” he said. “It’s quite a smart system and allows us to build [student residences] while other schools can’t because they don’t have access to those resources at this point.”

      UBC's newest student residence, Tallwood House, is an 18-storey wood-framed structure, making it the tallest mass timber building in the world.

      The director of residence and housing at Simon Fraser University, Tracey Mason-Innes, told the Straight by phone that there are 1,600 student housing spaces on Burnaby Mountain and another 68 beds in downtown Vancouver.

      The next student residence at SFU is expected to open in the summer of 2020. In mid-August, 733 students were on the wait list.

      “We encourage them to use our off-campus website,” Mason-Innes said. “It’s made up of landlords who really do want to rent to students.”

      Capilano University has also opened its first student residence, at 2420 Dollarton Highway. It’s a collection of three buildings that house approximately 250 students.

      But according to McCutchen, other colleges and universities haven’t been able to help address a housing shortfall that’s wreaking havoc on students’ lives.

      “I can use myself as an example,” she said. “My lease is coming up at the end of October and there’s nothing I can afford unless I want some awful basement suite. The last time I looked for housing was 2014. Now there’s even more scams. People are taking advantage of students.”

      She’s thought about returning to her hometown of Kelowna but said the housing crunch is just as bad there. “They have people that camp out in tents around the [UBC] campus when they can,” McCutchen said. “There’s just no housing.”

      With files provided by Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Carlito Pablo.