‘It’s not affordable’ Students face hardship amid high Vancouver and Toronto rental markets

A national report ranked Vancouver as having the highest rent in Canada with Toronto in second

(file photo)

When Aryanna Chartrand left Winnipeg to study at Capilano University, the Vancouver rental market made it difficult to transition. She looked for accommodation through ads on Craigslist and designated student housing sites, but the waiting lists were long and carried additional costs for student fees and meal plans.

Across Canada, undergrad and graduate students alike are struggling to find affordable housing in Canada’s competitive rental markets.

“As someone who’s not from B.C. originally, I had a rude awakening when I experienced the price of housing in this province. It is very expensive as a student who’s working and doing an unpaid practicum. It’s not affordable,” says Chartrand.

Now, as the chairperson at Alliance of BC Students, Chartrand continues to campaign and advocate for more affordable student housing. The ABCS was founded in 2013 and is a non-profit organization that advocates for student rights across B.C. Collectively, they represent 80,000 students, including the Capilano Students Union, UBC Graduate Students’ Society, University of the Fraser Valley Student Union Society, Langara Students’ Union, and the Kwantlen Student Association.

According to a national report, Vancouver and Toronto lead as Canada’s most expensive cities to rent. Most notably, these cities are also home to Canada’s most competitive universities.

In the last year, rent for a single-bedroom apartment has only decreased by one per cent during the global pandemic. However, a survey by Statistics Canada revealed that 55 per cent of students lost their jobs within two months of March 2020.

Statistics Canada found that the national economy-wide output in Dec. 2020 was 3.3 per cent below its output pre-COVID. This recession raises growing concern for students paying rent during the pandemic.

“Rent is so much higher right now compared to 10 years ago, or even compared to four years ago. It is very expensive. Actually, it’s not affordable for students,” says Kammy Khaira, a Vancouver realtor.

Khaira says that the housing market was unpredictable from January to April of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, the prices have gone up, and I’m not seeing them come down…. Once the vaccine was on the market, people started buying. The market was crazy,” says Khaira.

For students working part-time during their post-secondary education, paying the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver or Toronto at $1,800 or higher is beyond their means.

A survey by Carleton University found that 42.4 per cent of their school’s respondents said their rent made up 50 to 70 per cent of their monthly expenses. Another 34.6 per cent stated that rent represented 71 to 90 per cent of their monthly expenses, and nearly eight per cent reported that rent contributed to over 90 per cent of their monthly expenses.

While 51 per cent of Carleton’s students were receiving family assistance for rent, many more respondents expressed a desire for more student housing.

In response to the rising crisis, the ABCS ran a student campaign in 2016 to raise awareness for the lack of affordable accommodation called “Where’s the Housing?”

“[The campaign] was backed by extensive research in the white paper on student housing, and this included tabling and gathering petitions at our various member associations and campuses and holding a demonstration in front of the B.C. legislature,” says Chartrand.

“We built these cardboard houses and apartment buildings with bright colours and laid them all over the lawn and then invited media to come and attend, and then the opposition parties also came and did interviews with us,” says Anna-Elaine Rempel, executive director of the ABCS.

“During the 2017 election, our policies on student housing were actually taken up by both the BC Greens and the BC NDP. So in the next provincial budget, there was $450 million towards student housing,” says Chartrand.

The $450 million is to be divided among B.C. universities to help cover the costs of future student housing. According to the ABCS, Okanagan College, BCIT and UBC are the most recent institutions to request funding from the government budget.

“We were really trying to address the lack of housing in the market. So in trying to make funding accessible for post-secondary institutions to build housing, it would then take more students out of the lower end of the rental market, making that lower and the rental market more accessible for young families and young people living on their own for the first time who aren’t necessarily students,” says Rempel.

As of March, the $450 million student housing fund has provided 2,816 beds for university students in need of rental accommodation.

Michael Leonard, a KPU economics instructor, says that Vancouver rentals are becoming more competitive because of limitations in transportation, location, and contemporary designs.

“In rental housing, one of our issues in Vancouver is that we have nowhere to go…. In Vancouver, if you go north, you hit mountains. If you go west, you hit the water. If you go south, you hit the border, and if you go east, you hit more mountains. So we have a really small area in the Fraser River delta where we can actually put houses,” says Leonard.

While there are more affordable renting options further east, not many students are willing to commute.

“Economists consider time. The value of time is one of the key inputs. So it’s not, you know, ‘I can jump on the Skytrain, and it’s five bucks,’ but it’s also my time. The faster that thing can get me from point A to point B, the cheaper it is to me,” says Leonard.

“There’s no rapid transit in North and West Vancouver. There’s no rapid transit going south from Richmond. It stops. It doesn’t go down to White Rock, and it doesn’t go up to Hope or Chilliwack or Abbotsford…. If transit went out farther, it would mean that housing farther out becomes more affordable because the transportation cost goes down,” says Leonard.

Leonard suggests that students research rent-controlled locations near stations when considering where to move. Apartments on lower levels or older suburbs tend to be more affordable.

“In the early 1980s, I was an undergrad, and we were looking at exactly the same thing, saying ‘if this keeps ongoing, we’ll never be able to afford a house,’” says Leonard.

“We said exactly the same things that you’re saying now, ‘housing is unaffordable.’”

While western Canada continues to see rent prices rise, eastern Canada tells a different story.

Toronto Remax realtor Ivan Gorbadei uses Twitter to publish his findings on the average cost of rent in the Greater Toronto Area. His previous background in the IT field now helps him visualize rental data using software.

In contrast to Vancouver’s rental market, Toronto — though still the second most expensive city to rent in — shows a 12.9 per cent decrease in cost for a one-bedroom apartment from 2020 to 2021.

Gorbadei recommends students start looking for accommodation as soon as possible.

“September is going to be game-changing. So, this year, September is the time when probably all the board jurisdictions will be listed. And it will be the time when many people, like future permanent residents, will start arriving in Canada in large numbers. So I don’t expect prices to rise right away at that time in September,” says Gorbadei.

He says students would benefit from splitting the cost of rent among roommates and that rent controls are likely to keep rent increases at bay as Canada recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a good idea to secure a place for now because controls will prevent increases, so it only will affect students who are coming to Canada next year. There will be incidents for much higher prices,” says Gorbadei.

He predicts that prices in the Toronto rental market will increase even further beyond the means of working students within the next six to nine months.

“I can’t say anything about Vancouver, but for Toronto [my] strong recommendation is to secure a place for rent while you can, as soon as possible, because next year it is probably a certainty that prices will go up,” says Gorbadei.

Despite the Toronto rental market not reflecting the same conditions in parts of western Canada, Gorbadei says there are several factors that contribute to the change in prices.

“The biggest reason was that borders were closed. Multiple people lost jobs. They moved out of places like Toronto and Vancouver…. People who still had jobs switched to remote work, so they no longer needed to live in downtown Toronto. Now, they can live anywhere in GTA and still keep working,” says Gorbadei.

According to Gorbadei, active rental listings in Toronto experienced an exponential increase in March of 2020. By October 2020, active listings decreased as people began to successfully rent out their properties.

However, even during a global pandemic, the average rental rate grew by two per cent from May to June 2021. To combat this, student associations across Canada will continue to advocate for student rights in the rental market until following their recommendations is no longer considered optional.