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Rising rents and rising woes: How students are navigating Toronto’s brutal rental market

As St. George invites students back to Toronto this fall, the housing market is less welcoming
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MUKTI PATEL/ THE VARSITY
MUKTI PATEL/ THE VARSITY

Anyone who has had to find off-campus housing in Toronto this year knows that the rental market is treating students brutally. As housing becomes increasingly expensive and landlords resort to unfair practices such as demanding upfront rent payments, students are now being forced to decide between affordability and convenience. 

Average rent in the city increased by 24 per cent this year, according to a report by rentals.ca. The lifting of the rental freeze at the end of 2021 is one of the factors attributing to this. The Government of Ontario originally passed this legislation in 2020 to freeze rents at 2020 levels as a form of pandemic relief for renters. 

Higher interest rates are also dissuading would-be home-buyers from buying houses, forcing them to stay in the rental market. The increased demand for rentals has only added to the usual spike in demand as students also look for places to stay in downtown Toronto for the school year.

Settling for longer commutes 

There is a tradeoff between distance from campus and affordability, and the housing and rental markets are forcing students to settle for longer commutes to campus in exchange for affordable rent. 

Angelina Zahajko is a third-year student majoring in ethics, society and law and urban studies. “My apartment that was on Bay and St. Joseph, right off campus, it was $1,900 a month split between two people,” she said in an interview with The Varsity. “The unit now goes for $3,000.” 

In order to stay within her budget, Zahajko moved to a place that is a 30-minute walk away from campus. Affordability trumped convenience, even though she would have liked to live close to campus. 

Rafeed Khan, who is in his final year at U of T majoring in immunology and microbiology, also relates to the struggle of a longer commute and is worried about the impact it may have on his academic performance. “A 45-minute commute — so an hour and a half out of your day — would impact my studies a lot. By the time I’m back from all my classes and commuting, I’d be more tired than if I lived close by,” he said in an interview with The Varsity

Bidding wars and upfront payments

Even if students find a rental unit they can afford, they have to race to get their bids in before someone else snaps the place up. John Chakkour, a second-year math specialist, would enquire about countless listings online, only to find again and again that they were no longer available. Mika Kwiecinski, a fourth-year philosophy specialist, had a similar experience. “Everyone got their papers in fast. If [the response to the listing] is not [within] a day, I would just assume we don’t have the place,” he said in an interview with The Varsity. 

In this economy, students are not ideal tenants for landlords, given the lack of assurance they can provide before finalizing a lease. Students seeking rentals from outside of Toronto have been facing additional challenges, such as being asked for upfront rent payments. Amy Zhang, a fourth-year philosophy specialist, noted that landlords would demand up to a full year’s rent upfront because she was coming in from out of town. Legally, landlords can only request a deposit worth up to one rental period, like one month or one week. 

Likewise, Khan was at home in Winnipeg while he was searching, and experienced similar demands. He added that, in his experience, many landlords would even refuse to go forward with the lease altogether if they could not meet in person first. 

Eventually, Khan put down four months’ rent upfront for the place he signed. “We had to sit down and look at how much money we had saved and how much money we were going to be earning throughout the year, and make a plan. Four months of rent in downtown Toronto is going to make a dent in anyone’s bank account,” he said in an interview with The Varsity

Some students also resorted to working with real-estate brokers and using online sources such as Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji. Khan grew tired of sending out dozens of messages every day without success. He tried to work through a real estate broker, giving him a basic set of criteria and a maximum budget. “The majority of the listings we got, especially towards the end, were all listings that were much higher than that price [we listed as a criterion],” he explained. 

Scam or not a scam

Kwiecinski and Zahajko also tried working with brokers, and ended up abandoning them in favour of cheaper deals on platforms like Kijiji and Facebook. In the end, Khan, Kwiecinski, and Zahajko all signed on places they found on Facebook Marketplace. 

Unfortunately, platforms like Facebook, Craigslist, and Kijiji are conducive to scams. Desperation among renters, especially students, has given way to an “unprecedented number” of rental scams in Canada this year, according to a report by liv.rent. Students who are unable to attend in-person apartment viewings must be especially careful; in an interview with the Toronto Star, a liv.rent spokesperson warns that landlords may take advantage of students’ lack of options and unfamiliarity with local laws. 

The Varsity reached out to U of T Housing Services for advice on how struggling students should go about navigating the rental market. In an email response, Housing Services advised that struggling students look to U of T’s Roommate Finder program, where students with existing leases look to rent out spare rooms. The program asks the user to share some personal information, and then matches them up with potential roommates. 

Housing Services also suggested the Canada Homeshare program, which matches student renters with seniors who have spare bedrooms. Finally, they noted that students can apply for bursaries and other grants in the case of serious financial need.