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The student scramble for affordable housing

The university needs to do better to respond to student housing demands in the context of the Toronto housing crisis
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With September just two months away, the scramble for housing has begun as students struggle to find accommodations for the upcoming school year. Yet, what is apparent in this scramble is the inadequacy of affordable housing in downtown Toronto, and, more concerningly, the university’s insufficient response to this growing concern.

Diagnosing the crisis

Toronto’s housing affordability problem has been rising in severity over the years, prompting the city to adopt its Affordable Housing Action plan as early as 2009. This concern was recently diagnosed by observers as an actual housing crisis. According to  President Bryan Tuckey of the Building Industry and Land Development Association, “[w]e have a shortage of housing supply in the GTA that is approaching crisis levels.” His prognosis has been supported by other experts, including U of T’s Janet Mason and Ryerson University’s Dr. Frank Clayton, who have also emphasized the acute affordability epidemic that is marring the city’s housing market.

GTA housing is now the least affordable it has ever been since the 1980s. Affordable housing means that 30 per cent or less of an individual’s income goes towards rent. In the GTA, 136,000 renters spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent and utilities. And in a city with 180,000 students spread across seven campuses, a huge percentage of renters also attend university. For U of T students, the problem is even more severe as affordability and proximity to campus vie for attention in an unwinnable battle of choice.

Competitions and resolutions

With the search for housing in full swing, students often compete with each other for cramped, mouldy accommodations in the rental buildings and houses surrounding campus. Indeed, a testament to the ‘studentification’ of the neighborhood is the conversion of residential houses into multi-tenant homes by crafty landlords, with each room or floor being occupied by different tenants.

Yet, even as the neighborhood adapts, its rate of transformation is far outpaced by enrolment at UTSG, which has exceeded 60,000 students since 2016. These demographics have led to intense competition in the downtown housing market as potential tenants bid above the asking price to gain an edge over their competitors. Still others agree to hefty deposits, exhausted by the endless search.

Second-year engineering student Christine Yaromich describes a landlord’s request for a $2,400 deposit to “reserve the unit while they prepare the lease.” While Yaromich did not end up taking that particular apartment, procuring her current accommodations involved a hasty trip to Toronto from St. Catharines. Her landlord insisted she sign the lease that very day. Otherwise, the unit would have gone to one of the many other applicants vying for the apartment.

As prices in downtown Toronto soar, students come up with innovative solutions to make the most of their small space. For some, a one bedroom apartment can turn into a living space for three by transforming the den and living room into additional bedrooms. The lack of space and privacy takes a definite back seat to affordability and proximity to campus.

The lack of a university response

The university’s on-campus accommodations are not an option for students seeking affordable housing. Often comprised of tiny dorm rooms, communal bathrooms, and mini kitchenettes, UTSG’s on-campus accommodations are not exactly the image of lavish downtown living, with Trinity College residents even facing a bed bug infestation in March 2018. However, even living in the university’s modest residences is quite expensive.

Although there are variations between the colleges, the average cost for these dorm rooms is a massive $14,100 over eight months, or roughly $1,763 per month. Moreover, the university requests payment in two hefty deposits at the start of the fall and winter terms, denying students the option to pay their rent month by month. While residence fees often include the cost of food, $14,100 is too much for students eager to live on a budget. Mandatory meal plans with fixed hours often become an unnecessary expense for students prioritizing affordability.

Despite the dilemmas of on-campus living, U of T residences continue to operate at full capacity as demand skyrockets. Indeed, a 2017 housing issues report concluded that the university required an additional 2,300 beds by 2020 to follow through with its current housing strategy. Presently, only 11 per cent of the UTSG student population lives on residence, the majority of whom are first-year undergrads. UTSG plans to increase this number substantially to allow 40 per cent of upper-year students to live on campus.

Nevertheless, there is a severe lack of affordable student housing on the UTSG campus and in the surrounding downtown area. To meet the high level of demand, the university is currently exploring different proposals for student residences. The prospective projects include a 23-storey student residence at Spadina and Sussex, and an eight-storey residence adjacent to Graduate House. However, due to opposition from the neighbourhood and the City of Toronto, these projects remain in the formulation stage, with no plans for construction in sight.

The university has made progress on an innovative laneway housing initiative for graduate students. Utilizing the countless alleyways around UTSG, the project aims to construct homes above garages and in disused lots, alleviating demand while preserving the unique character of the neighbourhood. While two pilot houses for the laneway initiative are already underway, the project by itself is insufficient to meet the rising level of demand. Given the constraints of space and the layout of the neighbourhood, only 40 to 50 houses of this type can be constructed a minute number compared to the large student population.

Finding solutions: subsidized housing

As condos spring up around downtown Toronto, the concept of affordability is becoming a lost echo. While the university certainly offers a robust set of resources on its Housing website, including workshops, counselling, and a roommate finder, the affordability aspect remains largely unaddressed.

One initiative through which the university is attempting to counter this challenge is StudentDwellTO. A collaboration between U of T, Ryerson, the Ontario College of Art and Design, and York University, StudentDwellTO conducts multidisciplinary research in student housing and affordability. While research into student housing affordability is certainly crucial, the impact of this multi-year initiative will only manifest in the long run. Meanwhile, there is a lack of effort to address the immediate needs of the students.

For a university with a net income of $417 million in the last academic year, the lack of investment in affordable downtown housing is baffling. The university is not jumping to remedy an issue that directly impacts the success of its students. One of the earliest findings of the StudentDwellTO initiative is that the distance students travel to and from home “intimately matters with how well they do.” Fourth-year religion and cognitive science student Sofia Ali lives in Etobicoke, two hours away from campus. Ali highlights how her long commute has overshadowed her experience at U of T, as “by the time I get home, it’s 11:00 pm, and I literally dread getting ready for uni again in a few hours.”

UTSG students commute from all across the GTA. Many cite difficulties in getting involved with campus life. To promote student well-being and campus culture, there is a need for affordable housing in the vicinity of the downtown campus. UTSG currently offers affordable housing for student families in high rise buildings on Charles Street West.

Considering the university’s ample income, this subsidized housing model can easily be expanded to newer, condo-style buildings. While the university invests in new residences for the long term, it can offer subsidy allowances to students with financial need to assist with off-campus living costs in the short term. UTSG can additionally invest in current on-campus residences to make them less costly for students by removing mandatory meal plans and installing fully functioning kitchens. This will give students the option to cook their own meals and alleviate unnecessary expenses.

U of T needs to combine the provision of housing research and expertise with services that directly and immediately address the affordability needs of students.

Raafia Shahid is a fourth-year International Relations student at Trinity College.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Bryan Tuckey as the President of the Building Industry and Land Development Association. Tuckey is the former President.