As the winter holiday draws closer, students without family or friends nearby to retreat to may face a tough predicament — scrambling to find alternative, temporary accommodation as their residence closes for the winter. Students from overseas are especially affected as they often cannot return home for the break or do not have immediate family to stay within the area.

Multiple campus residences will close for the winter break, including those at Woodsworth College, St. Michael’s College, and Trinity College, and the residences at UTSC.

University residences have historically shut down during this period as part of U of T’s winter break closure. This year, the university is closed from December 21, and will reopen on January 2. Residence buildings closing for the break usually stay closed a few days after the university opens, as late as January 7 this year. Some residences will remain open during the break, including the Chestnut Residence, residences at New College, and residences at Victoria College.

In the past, students have been able to pay for temporary accommodation at the Chelsea Hotel or the CampusOne residence, but those options have been very expensive. Neither is open to students seeking temporary accommodation this winter holiday.

Confusion, restrictions surrounding campus accommodations

Jackie Ko, a third-year criminology and socio-legal studies major, recalls a lot of confusion and miscommunication when she applied for residence and winter accommodation in 2022. She told The Varsity in an interview that she requested winter accommodation while applying for residence at Victoria College but wanted to stay in the all-women’s residence, Annesley Hall, during the school year. Later, Ko recalled, she found out that only students living at Margaret Addison Hall and Rowell Jackman Hall were eligible to stay in residence over the break and that, because of her residence request, the housing coordinators had assumed that she did not want winter holiday accommodations.

Ko is an international student, so going home for the holidays was too expensive of an option for her. But, she noted that winter housing on campus can also be quite expensive. Ko recalled that she had to pay approximately $1,000 to stay over the two-and-a-half week period during the winter break. Comparatively, staying at a summer residence at Victoria College over two months costs a single occupant $1,675, before accounting for the damage deposit. 

Food offerings may also be limited in student residences during this period. Beethal Phlaphongphanich, a second-year arts and science student at University College, recalled in an email to The Varsity that the cafeteria in Sir Daniel Wilson Residence closed during the winter break, and his friends who stayed behind in residence only had access to the residence’s “semi-functioning kitchen.” As a result, Phlaphongphanich noted that friends staying in the UC residence had to spend a lot of their own money on food. 

The Chelsea Hotel

U of T has also offered the Chelsea Hotel as alternative housing for stranded students during the winter holiday in the past few years. Students could stay on hotel premises, pay reduced prices for the food at the hotel restaurant, and access its various amenities at a discounted rate. 

This option did have its drawbacks, though — primarily its price tag. Students had to pay at least $2,322 to stay at the Chelsea for the full 18-night winter break period, or $129 per night. Ko recalled that she had to pay $2,700 to stay there in winter 2022, before accounting for the cost of buying food during that period. 

Students also had to stay at least five nights at the Chelsea to qualify for temporary residence. This prohibited any students leaving Toronto a few days after their residence closes or returning to Toronto a few days before their residence opened again from accessing this service. The deal was also unavailable for students under 18. This winter, the option is no longer available. 

Finding off-campus accommodations

Yehjeen Cha, a fourth-year student who previously lived in St Michael’s College, told The Varsity in an interview that she has stayed in an Airbnb for the past three years. Although Cha has Canadian citizenship, she has no family in the country.

“It was kind of weird when winter break would come, and people would leave one by one to the US or within Canada to their families. And then the international students and I will be like, ‘Oh, we have nowhere to go.’” Cha recalled. To find accommodation, Cha said she and other students in her situation came together to find Airbnb accommodations. The predicament “was a bit bitter.”

Cha noted that Airbnbs could be much cheaper than accommodations like the Chelsea Hotel. They may also help to reduce food costs, as students can access a fully-functioning kitchen.

However, finding an Airbnb during the holiday season can be quite a hassle. Cha described that she has had to spend a lot of time searching for available houses due to high tourist demand around Christmas time. This significant demand means that prices are also high — Cha said she paid a similar amount for an Airbnb and food over the 2022 winter break as she would have paid for the Chelsea Hotel.

There was also the hassle of moving in and out. Cha recalls that one year, her Airbnb was near Eglinton station, which is about five kilometres north of UTSG. “I just remember lugging around luggage we’d have to use for a month,” Cha said, noting that students cannot retrieve anything from their rooms over the break. 

This year, Cha lives off campus and will not have to deal with all the hassle of searching for accommodation and dragging around luggage as her peers go home to their families for the holidays. “[That] was the biggest reason why I moved out,” Cha said.

Disclosure: Medha Barath is currently serving as the Academic Commissioner of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC). Jackie Ko is currently serving as VUSAC’s chair.