University, city should work together to address urgent need for more housing

The ongoing controversy surrounding illegal rooming houses near the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) campus highlights the many challenges facing students looking for safe and affordable housing in Toronto. Both the university and the City of Toronto have yet to take effective steps to protect students from exploitation or unsafe living conditions in Scarborough. Meanwhile, U of T continues to plan to increase enrolment, without concrete plans to provide sufficient on-campus residences to accommodate these students, or to integrate students into the communities that surround its campuses.

The problem of student housing was brought to the forefront when city authorities shut down an illegal private rooming house near UTSC, where 11 students were found living in cramped and unsafe conditions. The University of Toronto was not involved in operating the rooming house. It is clear, however, that the complete inadequacy of on-campus residence spaces at UTSC — some 11,100 students attend the campus, but there are only 765 beds in its student residence — has forced some students into a vulnerable position, and allowed predatory landlords to exploit students who may have no other option.

In 2008, the university produced a document titled, “Towards 2030: A Long-term Planning Framework for the University of Toronto,” which contained a set of guiding principles by which the university administration would seek to face the challenges of the next two decades. “Towards 2030” makes a sober assessment of the university’s strengths and weaknesses in many areas, including the fact that all three of the university’s campuses are failing to meet the space standards set by the Council on Ontario Universities.

The university’s plan is to combat the issue of inadequate housing for its student population by making modest reductions in undergraduate enrolment at the St. George campus (UTSG), while allowing the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses to each admit 5,000 more students over the next two decades. If the university continues with the plan to include more undergraduates into these campuses, this plan must be implemented in a responsible way that ensures that enough of those students have safe and affordable housing options.

The present situation at UTSC represents a failure to live up to these standards. Meanwhile, the surrounding community, formerly a predominantly single-family area, is struggling to adapt to the growing student population, and has few housing options that suit students’ needs.

The lack of both on-campus residences and off-campus options on all three campuses forces many students to commute for hours each day, and puts students without family or a place to stay elsewhere in the GTA in a very difficult position. Furthermore, many of these students are new to Ontario or to Canada, and may not know their rights as tenants or about Toronto’s confusing regulations.

Unfortunately, it is not difficult to imagine how 11 students ended up living in a 3,000 square-foot home on Military Trail near UTSC. In exchange for their rent, students were packed into the specially renovated house, sharing two kitchens and six bathrooms. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors had been removed, while a sign posted in the house warned the tenants that if the City of Toronto inspectors got inside the house, they would vacate it immediately. Legal action is pending against the owners of the property, but this case is only symptomatic of the larger problems U of T and the city have yet to address. While rooming houses are legal within the boundaries of pre-amalgamation Toronto and Etobicoke, they remain illegal in the former municipality of Scarborough.

A motion by city councillor Shelly Carroll to legalize and regulate rooming houses throughout the City of Toronto has been deferred for community consultation and has fallen victim to the distractions and delays plaguing city hall. By regulating rooming houses, the city could make sure that they are safe and properly integrated into the surrounding community. Keeping rooming houses illegal only creates an underground market of unsafe houses, which encourage exploitative landlords and hurt students and the community.

The impetus for this change is crippled by the fact that many of the students affected by illegal rooming houses and the lack of housing options do not or cannot vote in municipal elections. U of T should use its position as an influential public institution and substantial contributor to Toronto’s economy to stand up for its students and support sensible regulation of housing near its campuses.

At the same time, U of T has an independent responsibility to provide adequate housing. So far, the university’s reaction has consisted of a frustrating combination of hand-wringing and buck-passing. The administration has failed to recognize that its student-residence ratio is irresponsible, and puts vulnerable students in a position where they can be exploited.

There are a number of institutional shifts that need to take place in order to better protect students. If U of T plans to transition some of the undergraduate population from UTSG to UTM and UTSC, then the university needs to take more urgent action to ensure that enough physical space exists to accommodate future changes before they occur. The current plan to add 700 beds at UTSC is a step in the right direction, but will not come close to compensating for the planned increases in enrolment.

U of T’s prevailing logic seems to be to increase enrolment first, and build adequate infrastructure later. In the gap between these two developments, thousands of students will suffer from the lack of housing, both on-campus and nearby.

University campuses must be integrated into their surroundings, and students need places to live, study, and relax near campus. However, recent efforts from U of T’s administration to establish new student living spaces, such as the Knightstone residence building, have faced significant opposition from community groups, who fear an influx of rowdy students. Short-term initiatives like the winter residence program organized by the UTMSU with local residents show that innovative thinking and solutions to student housing are possible.

It is not enough for either the city or the university to wash their hands of the developments in Scarborough. Landlords can take advantage of vulnerable and sometimes desperate students because U of T is not doing enough to make sure that its students have a place to live.

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