The Toronto rental market is notoriously expensive and competitive under normal circumstances. Now, with COVID-19 raising a new set of problems, students who are searching for off-campus housing also have to be prepared for the challenges that come with following health and safety measures.
A contracting market
With fewer people moving into the city and many students choosing to attend classes online, rental units have seen a decrease in demand, and the resulting increase in supply has driven down rent.
Rentals.ca, which analyzes data on nation-wide rental offers that are posted to its website, reported an average Toronto rent of $2,051 per month in July — an annual decrease of 9.5 per cent. The report singles out Toronto’s sagging market as playing a large role in the decline of national average rent, which has decreased 8.1 per cent over the past year.
However, the pandemic has also made it difficult for students to find jobs over the summer. Despite lower rent than usual, many students are in difficult financial situations, meaning that downtown Toronto can still be prohibitively expensive for students to live in.
“I began to regret my decision on signing a lease so early, as I could’ve saved some money if I had stayed back home,” wrote Nicholas Lum, a first-year nursing student at Ryerson University and former economics student at U of T, in an email to The Varsity. “Unfortunately, I was unable to find a job as I didn’t want to risk being in contact with others due to the coronavirus.”
The state of the economy also means that landlords are wary of renters with uncertain finances, like students. Quinn Teague-Colfer, a second-year international relations student, found that most landlords he encountered were asking for large amounts of pre-payment upfront. “It was insinuated by several landlords that we should ‘show goodwill’ by offering several months of rent upfront in addition to first and last,” Teague-Colfer wrote in an email to The Varsity.
“This raises questions around equity and accessibility to housing as most people are not in a financial position to offer thousands of dollars of rent upfront.” Teague-Colfer reported being rejected from a number of apartments in favour of young professionals who could pay rent upfront.
Health concerns and solutions
Landlords are required to follow certain health guidelines from recent Toronto bylaw amendments in response to COVID-19. These guidelines include providing hand sanitizers in all common areas that remain open, ensuring the closure of non-essential common areas, and regular disinfection and cleaning of frequently touched surfaces.
Additionally, everyone in common areas of a residential building is expected to adhere to physical distancing measures and wear face masks. Outside of an emergency, landlords may only enter rental units with written notice that specifies the reason and time of entry.
In an effort to follow the rules, some landlords are taking a remote approach. Alexandra Schneider, a second-year philosophy and environmental studies student, recently moved into an apartment on Spadina Road. In an interview with The Varsity, she wrote that the difference she experienced when finding an apartment during a pandemic was the replacement of in-person tours with virtual ones.
“When I found an apartment that I liked, I would email the sales representative and instead of doing an in-person tour, they would send a virtual tour,” Schneider wrote. “[It’s] just a video of the apartment… some realtors offered to FaceTime and do a tour of the apartment.”
The changes also apply to the accompanying paperwork. “We signed our lease through email, and paid everything through e-transfer,” wrote Ashafina Ashafara, a second-year student studying criminology and political science, in an interview with The Varsity. “Overall, our landlords were able to make this process pretty hands-free, so it was doable even from a different country.”
Should I stay or should I go?
Students this year are facing the question of whether to return to campus for in-person classes or opt for online learning. While health risks have forced many universities to move completely online, U of T has been giving conflicting reports over the summer on course delivery methods.
This has affected many students who had signed leases and were ready to move in before finding out that their courses had moved online. “I decided to take almost all of my tutorials in person, and a few of my lectures in person, and now all of my fall classes are online,” Schneider wrote. “I did find the change in my fall classes frustrating… I live only two hours away, and I could have saved money that I will now be spending on rent.”
To many students, the most concerning aspect of renting during a pandemic is the uncertainty of what is going to happen next. Ethan Spires, a second-year criminology and cinema studies student, got his apartment in March and was then forced to go home due to COVID-19. “My rent period began in March, as COVID-19 began to flourish around the world. This made it difficult to both search for apartments and collect all necessary paperwork in time before my on-campus residence was set to close,” Spires wrote in a written interview with The Varsity.
“I am fortunate to have found a landlord that is very accommodating, however that is certainly not the case for many.”