Cutting the Red Tape on Student Housing

ABCS, KPU, and the KSA are fighting for a future with on-campus accommodations
Ashley Hyshka, Community Reporter

The Marine Drive residence buildings at UBC house thousands of students year-round. The western side has an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. (flickr/Miguel Garcia)

The Lower Mainland’s housing crisis is perhaps the most prevalent issue facing the region, yet one demographic that’s greatly affected by it is too often being left out of the conversation.

Post-secondary students are finding it harder than ever to find affordable living space in the Vancouver area. Real estate and rental prices continue to skyrocket while the effort to build more student housing crawls along at a sluggish pace.

“You’re pushing a generation out that can no longer afford to live in their city,” says Caitlin McCutchen, Chairperson of the Alliance of BC Students and an advocate for student housing.

Last year, the ABCS started a campaign called “Where’s the Housing?” which found that the current student housing vacancy rate is 0.7 per cent, while a healthy rate should be between two and three per cent.

Though Capilano recently opened its first off-campus housing, and UVic announced it would be working towards constructing additional student residences in 2018 or 2019, these efforts will do little to address an increasingly dire situation. The root of the problem is that under current regulations, post-secondary schools in B.C. are unable to take on debt to build residences, as doing so might negatively impact the province’s credit rating.

McCutchen, who is also the Kwantlen Student Association’s Vice President Student Affairs, refers to this regulation as “red tape” and argues that the accumulation of debt is not an issue. She explains that the housing units would ultimately be paid off by student residence fees, making the cost of the facilities a “self-supporting debt.”

Caitlin McCutchen, VP of External Affairs at the KSA, and chairperson of the Alliance of BC Students. (Ashley Hyshka)

“If the red tape [is ever] removed, we should work on getting student housing on campus,” says McCutchen.

Despite UBC’s billion-dollar land endowment, which it uses to help fund its student housing construction, the school is still unable to provide on-campus residences for all of its students in need. A study conducted between 2015 and 2016 found that over 6,000 UBC students are on a waitlist for available dormitories, and when UVic and SFU are included, that number soars past 10,000.

Unfortunately, students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University are stuck in a similar situation.

Since the school was established in 1981, KPU has graduated from a community college to a polytechnic university. Because of its humble origins, it was originally designed to serve only the local geographical region—primarily for students who lived at home—so dormitories were never constructed. Now that KPU has become a degree-granting institution which attracts students from around the province and the world, the need for student housing has grown.

“We are actively pursuing some opportunities for establishing student residencies, both in Surrey and in Richmond,” says KPU President Alan Davis. “We’ve had some ideas and some drawings and some consulting work done. There is active discussion going on with government, private investors, and developers because there is a way of doing this that can satisfy all parties.”

While the construction of a multi-storey student residence would need to balance the needs of the university with community concerns and municipal demands, Davis is confident that when a plan is developed, it will be conducted both “thoughtfully and properly.” He is currently focused on figuring out how to make KPU “a better institution that’s better able to fulfill its mandate, which is to serve students and help students get what they need, both for their careers and for their lives.”

Davis concedes that all campuses deserve to have dormitories but highlights the importance Richmond and Surrey because they are the largest, and the students there are under intense pressure from the rising housing market.

McCutchen identifies KPU Cloverdale as another potential campus on which to develop student housing. Because it is a trades school, its programs last for six to eight months, which makes obtaining a typical year-long lease on a house or apartment impractical for students.

Regardless of where the housing would be built, both McCutchen and Davis believe that on-campus residencies for KPU students would have far-reaching benefits for the university and the community around it. Thousands of rental units currently occupied by university students would be absorbed back into the rental pool, and popular SkyTrain and bus transit routes would become less congested as fewer students would need to commute to and from campus.

The university has been in talks with the incumbent NDP government, and it is cautiously optimistic that the issue of student housing will make it to the forefront of their agenda. In addition, KPU has met with several local institutions to discuss how best to address the lack of student housing, and Davis believes that if the university can find a way to tackle these problems, they will act on it.

McCutchen says that she has been working towards sitting down with Selina Robinson, the new Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, to speak more about this issue. She is confident that Robinson and the NDP government will uphold its promise to make student housing a priority.

Though Robinson was not available to be interviewed, her office responded, “Our Government is committed to addressing the affordable housing shortage. We will be working closely with our housing partners to create 114,000 units of affordable housing throughout B.C. This includes creating new housing by working with public universities, colleges, and institutes to find solutions to enable the development of more student housing.”

Unfortunately, like so many of her contemporaries, McCutchen finds herself in the difficult position of looking for affordable housing off campus. Within the next few months she’ll have to change her residence, and as of yet doesn’t know where she will end up.

On a personal note, Davis says that the construction of on-campus residencies at KPU would fuel a greater sense of community in which students would be able to live in the same place that they attend classes and take part in on-campus events.

“[It would be] the full campus experience,” he says. “I think that’d be a big step forward for KPU and I think it would enhance the quality of the student experience for everybody.”

“You always hear about going to university, [where] you have your roommates and your dorms and you go to parties,” says McCutchen. “I commuted here, and I felt like I went to class and I left. And I felt like I was missing out on that typical university experience.”

President of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Alan Davis. (Ashley Hyshka)

While the cost of rent is lower outside of Vancouver, students wishing to travel downtown to attend school must factor in travel cost and time, drawing more from their already thin resources.

A 2015 student satisfaction survey conducted by the Office of Institutional Analysis and Planning at KPU stated that 23 per cent of students were paying rent for housing, and an additional 18 per cent were living with family but paying for room and board.

The average time it takes to achieve a university degree has grown longer, with many students only taking part-time classes while also balancing a job or two. This situation can be precarious without financial support, as a typical job being occupied by a student does not provide enough income to pay for tuition and monthly expenses. McCutchen says that by the time these students graduate, they can be somewhere between $40,000 and $70,000 in debt.

In addition to the removal of the red tape preventing the accumulation of debt to build student housing, the ABCS is asking that the provincial government spend $18 million over 10 years on accelerating housing growth. They approximate that the project would create over 21,000 student residences, more than 13,000 of which would be in the Lower Mainland.

Until the red tape is removed or altered, advocates like McCutchen will continue to fight for more student residences, and the housing situation in the Lower Mainland will strain further under the weight of thousands of post-secondary students looking for a place to call their own.

“This is not news,” says McCutchen. “This [has] been going on for at least a decade, and it’s just progressively getting worse. When does it stop?”