International Students in Surrey Disproportionately Affected by the Housing Crisis

As the price of living in the Lower Mainland climbs, those new to the city struggle to get by

(Sarah Kraft)

Surrey, which was once an affordability haven for new immigrants and young families alike, is fast becoming one of the most expensive Canadian cities to live in.

The rising cost of living paired with the steady influx of new people into the city makes Surrey not only one of the priciest places to call home, but also one of the fastest growing cities in North America.

The growth in population has not been matched by a growth in housing options. There is a less than 0.5 per cent vacancy rate in the city, one of the lowest in the country. This, along with the burgeoning population, has resulted in dramatic increases in rental costs.

A report released by ACORN Canada, a national organization of moderate and low income families, includes some harrowing statistics on housing in Surrey.

From 2006–2016, rental costs in Surrey rose by 48 per cent, while income only increased by 29 per cent. Households which earn less than $30,000 a year can only afford a one bedroom suite, according to the report, while many people who rely on welfare or make minimum wage cannot afford the rent of any type of unit in the city.

While Vancouver has been suffering from a housing crisis for many years, people have flocked to its neighbouring suburbs for more affordable housing options. But what started as a problem in metropolitan areas has crept into the entire lower mainland, hitting Surrey especially hard. The housing crisis is no longer exclusively a Vancouver issue.

As Surrey’s population grows and vacancy dwindles, universities across the province continue to accept international students at unprecedented rates.

Nearly a quarter of all international students in Canada study at B.C. universities, and 68 per cent of those students are on campuses in the southwest region. This means that UBC, SFU, Langara, KPU, and BCIT host the vast majority of international students living and studying in the province.

At KPU specifically,16 per cent of all students on campus are international. In 2012 there were roughly 1,200 full time international students, and in 2017, that number more than tripled to 3,731.

International students pay incredible amounts of money in tuition. A domestic student pays an average of $500 per course. Most international students pay three times that amount. For just one full-time semester, an international student can pay close to $8,000.

Although universities in this region stand to profit off of international students, many of them are currently unable to provide on-campus housing.

KPU has five campuses across the lower mainland and provides nothing in the way of student housing. Langara has the greatest population of international students in the province and has not invested into student housing either.

The responsibility of finding housing for these students seems to fall squarely on the city and its residents.

International student Kamalpreet Kaur says that she turned to using Instagram and help from other international students to find a place to live after arrival in Canada.

“I went on Instagram. There is a page called ‘@kpu_de_heerey.’ It’s run by an ex-international student and he provides a place for students to connect and share information about places to live,” she says.

International students are only allowed to work part-time, or about 20 hours a week. When asked how she can afford rent and tuition while working low-paying part-time jobs, Kamalpreet grows quiet.

“Actually, a lot of us work multiple jobs and most of those are under the table,” she says. “We are paid something like $5.00 per hour and face a lot of harassment.”

A common misconception about international students is that they are independently wealthy and can afford the exuberant fees that come with studying away from home. But in many cases, students have parents who have mortgaged a property or taken out a loan to finance the first leg of their child’s education. After their arrival, it is expected that they will work and pay for their own schooling.

Under these circumstances, some international students may secure shared accommodation with other students they find online. They may become victims of fraud as they do not know the country’s laws or their own rights.

One international student, who chose to remain anonymous, says he was told that the RCMP collects a head tax and that, in addition to his rent, he needed to pay his landlord a “police fee” of $100. Another student shared how she was unaware that at the end of a tenancy agreement she could collect the deposits she made at the beginning of her occupancy.

“There should be a law that you have to be a certain age before you can come over as an international student,” says Kamalpreet. “I am lucky I am a little older and have some experience. Some of these kids get into so much trouble.”

International students are vulnerable in many different ways. Often they aren’t even aware that they are moving into a city in the middle of a housing crisis until they realize it is disproportionately affecting them.

Any increase in the population in Surrey contributes to the problem. Whether it is moreso the responsibility of taxpayers to create affordable housing for these students or the responsibility of universities who rely on their tuition is undetermined.