Lack of affordable housing downtown leads students to seek out alternative, sometimes unsafe, housing

The cost of off-campus housing continues to soar in Toronto. University students are paying more and more for unsafe lodgings that are often located within dangerous, poorly managed, or over-crowded units.

According to a recent survey conducted by the City of Toronto, the average monthly cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment in the city is around $1,010. Apartment rent costs have risen about one-and-a-half times faster than inflation since 1990.

Based on these statistics, the tenant would have to earn about $40,000 per year to afford a stable lifestyle after taking into consideration costs for transportation, food, and heating.

Earlier this month, Vital Signs, an annual civic report card from the Toronto Foundation, reported that Toronto’s youth unemployment rate is around 17.6 per cent. Ontarians who work minimum-wage jobs for 20 hours per week earn about $11,440 annually.

As a result, some students are forced to take increasingly drastic measures to ensure they are able to make ends meet and maintain their living conditions.

Within the university, the issue of access to safe and affordable housing is not new. As it prepares to expand and increase student enrolment, more students will find themselves in situations where landlords may exploit them.

STUDENT PERSPECTIVES

Dryden Rainbow, a fourth-year student, said that while she has always felt safe in her house on Bathurst Street, most housing problems are caused by the transient nature of the spaces. “People live there for a year or two — four years max — meaning most tenants feel no obligations to maintain the house. This leads to structural issues that you might not even be aware of when you view the house or decide to rent, as they are hidden from view,” Rainbow said.

Rainbow emphasized that students should know their rights, as it is easy for landlords to take advantage of students’ ignorance.

A fourth-year student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that, when looking for housing last year, one landlord indicated that he would only rent to heterosexual couples.

Although the student did not end up renting from that landlord, she said that the experience with the landlord she chose has not been much better.

“My actual landlord last year kept on telling me not to cook Indian food because curry makes the walls smell, and her husband would walk in at any hour without notice,” the student said.

Meghan Peterson, a fourth-year student, lived in a poorly maintained apartment in the Spadina Avenue area in her second year. “We spent $500 [plus utilities] a month to live in a tiny termite-infested basement apartment. When my roommate moved her bed on the day we moved out, she found a puddle of water underneath her bed from a wall that had been leaking all year,” Peterson said.

When Peterson expressed concern over holes in the ceiling that turned out to be caused by termites, her landlord covered them up and instructed her to keep a dehumidifier on.

Peterson initially moved into the apartment because it was late in the summer and she was afraid that she might be unable to find anywhere else to live. “For $500 a month in other cities in Ontario, we probably could have had a larger home. But for us, we ended up in a tiny basement with no windows,” she said.

Peterson added that it is difficult to gauge how much an apartment should cost, due to the variety of living spaces available in Toronto. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re being ripped off or not — especially as a naive second year who has barely lived off residence,” Peterson said.

Kalyna Onufryk, also in fourth year, echoed Peterson’s sentiment that safe, affordable housing is more readily available in other Canadian cities. “We don’t really drink out of the tap anymore because the water is very cloudy and has a funky taste. It has a lot of mineral deposits in it,” Onufryk said, adding: “It’s just not clean.”

Onufryk pays $1,075 per month but said that the conditions do not reflect the price. “The place is nice but looks run down,” she added.

Onufryk said that her biggest concern is the lack of university-supplied student housing. “If you want an affordable place, you need to move further away or move into somewhere that is not sanitary,” she said.

Some students opt to live at home and commute multiple hours per day because there are not many affordable downtown options. “I know someone who is commuting from Oshawa and someone from Hamilton. Those are not easy commutes,” Onufryk said.

CITY INITIATIVES

Tammy Robbinson, coordinator of strategic communications for the City of Toronto, said that students having issues with their housing units should first speak to their landlord. Robbinson also recommended that students with concerns report landlords and unsafe living conditions to the city, and approach the landlord-tenant board with complaints. Earlier this year, The Varsity reported that 11 students had been living together in an apartment of less than 3,000 square feet.

While U of T has expressed its plans to build more housing units for students, these plans are still years away from fruition. As a result of the growing pressure of housing demands, both the university and the city are entertaining new strategies.

According to a City of Toronto report, the overall supply of rental housing units did not increase between 1996 and 2006. Rental demand is projected to increase by 20 per cent by 2031.

The report also said that 21 per cent of renters — 100,000 households — were paying 50 per cent or more of their income on shelter in 2001.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations, acknowledged the increased demand for student housing.

“The University of Toronto is committed to ensuring our students have a great experience during their studies — that includes access to high quality housing that provides safety and support to the young people who live there. There is a growing need for student housing across all three U of T campuses,” she said.

Blackburn-Evans also laid out a plan as to how the university intends to solve the issue of student housing on all three campuses. “The University is…working with The Daniels Corporation as a partner on a proposed project to build a residence for students at the corner of Spadina and Sussex Avenues, immediately adjacent to the St. George campus. That project is currently going through a wide-ranging consultative process, involving the local city council, city officials and neighbors in the affected areas,” Blackburn-Evans said.

U of T offers a number of services to help students find housing, including online apartment search listings and a program through which students may find roommates. The online database connects students to housing options and also allows them to search advertisements by location and tailor their search according to a set of preferences. The City of Toronto has also introduced a series of strategies aimed at alleviating the strain of student housing.

According to Robbinson, the strategy is a four-step consultation process involving research and community input. A report with preliminary findings will then be forwarded to an executive committee, culminating with recommendations from the executive committee in December 2015.




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