Making Room for Student Housing in B.C.

The fight for on-campus residencies pits student unions against the provincial government

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Danielle George

“Student housing houses everyone,” reads a tagline from the Alliance of BC Students’ recently-launched campaign to get student residences constructed across the province.

The campaign asks a simple question—where’s the housing? A high number of students in Metro Vancouver help to clog an already backed up rental market, and they tend to bring little cash in their pockets. People enrolled in post-secondary school are old enough to be independent, but often lack the financial stability to sustain an adult lifestyle. They may likely be found inhabiting dismal basement suites, squeezing into homes with up to a dozen roommates, or subletting single room apartments for outrageous prices.

This means that other members of society struggling to find a place to call home—say, single parents, those on disability leave, or others unable to make a high bracket income—have an even harder go at things. Where students are living, other lower and middle class folks are not, and that’s a bottom-up issue with deeply problematic effects. Hence, student residences take a load off the shoulders of B.C.’s most burdened.

On a lighter note, having housing on campus grounds breathes life into the student community, boosting morale through events, camaraderie, and immersion. It also clears up the roads—buses, trains, and cars would not only be emptier, but less likely to be on the street at all. Commuter campuses are an enormous source of overcrowding on transportation, which leads to an unnecessarily high amount of emissions being pumped into the atmosphere, and allowing students to live a few minutes away from their classes would help lessen that blow.

To help raise the profile of the fight for student housing, the Alliance of B.C. Students has released a sixteen-page white paper for the campaign. The document is chock-full with statistics, facts, and recommendations, the thread throughout which is clear: If the provincial government allowed post-secondary institutions to take on debt for the building of student housing, it would be there.

In the instance that the Alliance succeeds in their efforts and housing is built for students in British Columbia, an estimated $1.8 billion would need to be spent. That’s accounting for 21,300 residence spaces price tagged at $85,000 per bed. If the government chipped in 10 per cent, they would be paying $180 million over 10 years.

The government has thus far been reluctant to consider the applications for construction due to fear of tarnishing their credit score. To this the Alliance retaliates by pointing out that the debt taken on for the building is, as they call it, “inherently self-supporting,” meaning that it will be paid off by the residency fees quickly enough to eventually make money off of the project.

If they do agree to accept applications from institutions for construction, over 20,000 new resident spaces would become available in the province, with a remarkable 13,500 exclusively found in Metro Vancouver, 4,200 in Greater Victoria, 2,500 in Kelowna, and 450 in the Fraser Valley.

With that in mind, student housing seems like a stellar idea, especially in Vancouver. This city’s housing market is a fresh hell of skyrocketing rental fees and mortgages, and there are too many institutions nearby to count. Some of the biggest names in the industry include BCIT, SFU, and  UBC. Then there’s those in the echelon that Kwantlen Polytechnic University belongs to: The University of the Fraser Valley, Douglas College, Langara, Capilano, Emily Carr, and so on.

Although the problem is very real to students, especially now that classes have just started for the fall semester, those enrolled in KPU can take comfort in knowing that they have support in the push for housing from their school’s president, Alan Davis.

“It’s become more of an issue in recent years, mostly because there’s a shortage of affordable rental property in the region,” says Davis. “We had, in our particular radar, studied Richmond to build a residence there. But we are very constrained by the existing rules of whether we can build there or not.”

Davis adds that he is inclined to back “anything that supports students,” and that the construction of on-campus housing for students “does seem like something that’s entirely reasonable.”

Jessica Lar-Son—an English student who has previously been the Kwantlen Student Association’s Women’s Representative, Vice President External, and President, as well as the chairperson of PIPS, the chairperson of the Alliance of BC Students, and student representative on the KPU board of governors—predicts that KPU will likely build the housing in Richmond, as Davis suggests. That could be potentially leave Canadian students in the dust, instead putting roofs over international students’ heads, Lar-Son believes.

“They’re going to want housing in Richmond where there are international students so that they can attract more international students here,” says Lar-Son. “It’s going to be for the purpose of attracting international students. It’s not necessarily going to fill the void that we have in student housing that domestic students need.”

In contrast, KSA President Alex McGowan stresses the importance of establishing housing for trade students on the Cloverdale campus.

“One of the big things that we’ve recognized is a lot of trade students are travelling from outside the Lower Mainland and don’t have a place to stay,” says McGowan. “Cloverdale being Cloverdale, there’s not a great rental market there. A lot of trade students are here for six to twelve week programs and you actually can’t rent.”

Without being able to put down a one-year lease, trade students are having to stay at motels throughout their program, shelling out for accommodation that they simply cannot afford. In order to figure out where the best location for housing would be in actuality, KPU administration will conduct a student survey this fall, according to the university’s director of external affairs and the KPU Alumni Association, Marlyn Graziano.

But the KSA isn’t the only association in the fight for student housing. The Capilano Student Union has been pushing just as hard to get residences on their campuses, the locations for which are nearly impossible to reach without making a long commute.

Senate and Board of Governors representative for the Capilano Student Union Board of Directors, Michelle Gervais, is someone who would not use student housing herself, but may still benefit from the alleviation of students from the housing market. Currently, she has to live with a family member to financially put herself through school. As a non-student, Vice-President External Sacha Fabry is in the same boat, and full time staff and Organizer for the CSU Patrick Meehan says he would have loved to stay on-campus as a resident, but hopes that it will be a possibility for future students at the university.

They, like the KSA and many other student associations under the ABCS, are sharing a petition to the provincial government calling for the allowance of student housing, amongst other efforts. The CSU will also bring a large number of hand-made cardboard homes outside of the legislature on Sept. 27 to host a demonstration. They are feeling encouraged about the future of the campaign.

“I’m really excited at the uptake we’ve seen on campus,” says Meehan. “We had our booth at the first-year orientation last week and there was a lineup of students to sign our petition. I’ve never seen that in all my years involved in student government.”

Right now there are eight post-secondary institutions that do have resident housing for their students: BCIT, SFU, UBC, UVic, University of the Fraser Valley, Thompson Rivers University, Okanagan College, and UBC Okanagan. UBC offers an example of the best case scenario with student housing, considering that 28 per cent of their full-time equivalent students are using it.

Unfortunately, they are also the only institution with the cash to keep it going. The University of British Columbia only has prosperous student housing on their grounds because they have $1.4 billion endowment fund to pull from. The Student Housing Financing Endowment, which represents a fraction of the $1.4 billion, goes exclusively towards building and maintaining student housing, and the revenues generated from that housing go back into their fund.

But even for the University of British Columbia and other institutions with housing, nearly 11,000 students from UBC, SFU, and UVic were on residence waitlists last year, proving the need, even at the more prestigious and wealthy institutions, for space and funding.

If the ABCS campaign eventually proves successful, universities like KPU could see the construction of their own on-campus student housing. For now, though, students will continue to commute to school and scrape together any living arrangements they can afford.

 

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