The average monthly rent for studio apartments in Toronto rose from $873 in 2013 to $1,306 in 2022, and the average price of a Canadian home reached $716,828 in April. As rental and housing prices in Canada skyrocket, some groups, including spokespeople from the federal government, have blamed this housing unaffordability crisis on international students. In August, Federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser announced that the government is considering a cap on the number of international students who it will allow to enter the country.

However, in interviews with The Varsity, experts and advocates warned that attributing the housing unaffordability crisis to international students reflects xenophobia more than reality. They highlighted the many factors affecting the housing crisis, arguing that international students are predominantly victims of the housing crisis rather than its main drivers.

Considering slowing down student visas

Federal government officials have warned that Canada may limit the number of international students entering the country, claiming that these students’ demand for housing reduces housing availability and drives up prices. At the end of 2022, 807,260 international students lived in Canada — roughly one in every 48 people

Fraser said in an August press conference that Ottawa had discussed a cap on the number of study permits that the federal government issues to international students as an option to combat the issue of housing unaffordability. “We’ve got temporary immigration programs that were never designed to see such explosive growth in such a short period of time,” Fraser said. He said that the federal government needs to consider all of its options to encourage housing affordability, including pushing colleges and universities to provide more housing options for their students.

Some Canadians seem to associate the influx of international students with rising housing costs. Polling conducted by Nanos in September found that 55 per cent of Canadians are in favour of lowering the number of international students coming to Canada. Two in three Canadians believe that rising immigration levels negatively, or somewhat negatively, impact housing affordability.

Why are international students taking the blame?

According to William C. Strange, a professor of economic analysis and policy at the Rotman School of Management, any increase in population — not only increases relating to international students — would put upward pressure on housing prices.

“Students cause housing prices to be more expensive — just like tourists do, just like professors do, just like investment bankers do. Just like everybody who lives in Toronto does. We all contribute to Toronto being a more expensive place to live,” Strange told The Varsity.

In interviews, academics and activists told The Varsity that politicians and the Canadian public may blame international students as opposed to other groups due to xenophobia and the students’ lack of political power in Canada.

Sarom Rho, an organizer with Migrant Students United, says that international students only have temporary visas instead of permanent residency status, which means that they have less power to advocate for themselves.

Meanwhile, landlords and real estate investors, who set the prices for their properties, do not take the same blame for rising housing prices, says Rho. “There is a pragmatic solution here, which is to hold these people responsible for making a profit off of precarity [to account] instead of blaming international students, and trying to divert where the responsibility lies,” Rho told The Varsity

Rho advocated for “permanent residency for all,” which would entail automatically granting the option of permanent residency status for everyone who arrives in Canada, instead of the current system of temporary student and worker visas. She says this would bring less precarity for those struggling to find affordable and safe housing.

“We need a single tier immigration system, which grants permanent residence status on landing… we, as a class of students, and workers, and people [would] have more collective power against a class of people who profit off of [the] housing crisis,” she said.

Mike P. Moffatt, senior director of policy and innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute, said that there may be some truth to the view that an increase in the number of international students in Canada creates upward pressure on rental prices. Both domestic and international students tend to rent instead of buy, and many international students do not have family in Canada to stay with, so they are forced to search for additional housing units, said Moffatt

However, this is the same for other students not from the area, including out-of-province students and students from outside of the GTA. “I absolutely worry that the international students or other newcomers to Canada, temporary foreign workers, are scapegoated as a reason for Canada’s housing crisis,” Moffatt said.

Saarthak Singh, a fourth-year international student at UTSG specializing in financial economics and minoring in political science, told The Varsity that, when people are increasingly anxious about increases in housing prices, they might turn to scapegoating people they consider outsiders.

“When people don’t really understand how the market works and what forces are leading to these sorts of prices, the first thing to blame is people you don’t know, people you don’t understand,” he said.

Other factors in the housing crisis

Moffatt told The Varsity that the number of international students in Canada is not to blame for the housing crisis, but that government policies have prevented Canada’s supply of housing from keeping up with the higher demand.

“Our crisis is due to a lack of planning and a lack of coordination between [immigration] policies and housing policies,” he said. In particular, Moffatt said a lack of student residences and restrictive municipal zoning laws have meant the amount of new housing has been unable to keep up with population increases in general, across Ontario and across Canada.

The 2022 Housing Affordability Task Force report, a set of recommendations that the Ontario government commissioned from a task force composed of academics, businesspeople, and public servants, determined that restrictions on new housing developments played an important role in creating the current shortage. 

The report called for the provincial government to facilitate the building of 1.5 million homes in Ontario, mostly by the private sector, over the next 10 years to keep up with the province’s rising population. To do so, it recommended that the government reduce bureaucratic obstacles that prevent housing developments that more people can live in, including permitting zoning for taller buildings which contain more units without needing special approval from city councils.

Housing affordability was an important topic in the recent Toronto mayoral election. Some candidates, like Mayor Olivia Chow, advocated for more student co-ops while others, like Ana Bailão and Brad Bradford, called for looser zoning by-laws. 

According to Strange, NIMBYism, which uses an acronym that stands for “not in my backyard,” has played a role in increasing housing prices. The acronym ‘NIMBY’ is used to refer to people who push back against housing development, such as student residences, being built in their areas.

“That sort of NIMBY attitude, I understand where it comes from. But there are a lot of costs, especially for people who have to pay high rents to go to U of T because we don’t have enough rental housing,” he said.

University takes a stand

Post-secondary institutions like U of T have advocated against imposing limitations on the number of international students. U of T’s Vice-President, International Joseph Wong released a statement in August, titled “Message to the Community on International Students and Housing,” where he argued that the government should allow schools like U of T to continue admitting international students at a growing rate. 

“We are deeply concerned that recent conversations around housing affordability and availability have unfairly focused on international students. The housing challenges Canada faces are a complex and long-standing societal problem with no single driver,” Wong wrote.

In the past, international student advocates have criticized U of T for exploiting international students to increase their revenue, by enrolling students without providing proper information or resources to support them. U of T has accepted increasing numbers of international students and relied increasingly on international tuition as government funding has stagnated and the provincial government has capped tuition charged to Ontario residents. 

International students made up 30.9 per cent of undergraduates in the 2022–2023 school year, with U of T charging international undergraduate students enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Science $60,510 while domestic Ontario residents in the same faculty paid $6,100. The university’s Enrolment Growth Plan aims to welcome 2,550 more undergraduate international students by the 2027–2028 school year, increasing the proportion of international students to 31.5 per cent.

International students are victims of the housing crisis

“[International students] are not the cause of Canada’s housing crisis, and in many ways, they are the victims of Canada’s housing crisis,” said Moffatt.

Rho echoed similar sentiments to The Varsity. “It’s actually current and former international students, migrants, and working-class people who are right at the centre of this massive housing crisis and affordability crisis,” she said. Rho added that international students face specific challenges when apartment hunting such as a lack of a credit history in Canada or a Canadian guarantor. This can lead to international students only being able to receive approval from landlords with illegal listings. Rho spoke of listings with no protections against illegal clauses like curfews, or poor conditions like a lack of privacy.

Laeticia Halbedel, a second-year international student specializing in biological physics, majoring in neuroscience, and minoring in physics, has considered leaving U of T due to high housing costs in Toronto.

Halbedel currently pays $1,850 for a bedroom in a two-bedroom apartment and had to pay five months of rent in advance to secure the deal. This is illegal, as Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act requires that landlords cannot collect more than one month of rent for an initial deposit, or the rent for one rental period, whichever is less. She said a main challenge for international students was that many only arrive in Toronto right before the start of the school year, when rent is much more expensive, compared with domestic students located in Toronto who can start looking months earlier.

Singh said a lot of the apartments he could find were in poor condition: he described them as “ratholes in a basement somewhere.” 

“With the way the Toronto housing market is going, it’s only going to get worse over time,” he said.

Raghav Arora, a third-year international student studying math and computer science at UTSG, told The Varsity he has faced landlords demanding months of rent up front and a gap between Canadian incomes and rents that “seems a bit insane.” 

“I don’t have any long-term plans on staying in the country,” Arora said. “Simply because the cost of living seems too high and also given these political stances, and these things that are done to blame foreigners.”

Strange said that the rhetoric against international students can harm Canada’s future. “One of the things Canada has been very successful at as a country is attracting educated immigrants who contribute in various ways to Canada’s culture and productivity. Many of them started by coming here as students.”