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

The student scramble for affordable housing

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.

City Council opposes U of T bid for Spadina-Sussex residence

University’s appeal to Ontario Municipal Board rejected based on heritage, height concerns

City Council opposes U of T bid for Spadina-Sussex residence

On October 2, Toronto City Council adopted recommendations by city staff to oppose the university’s application at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to amend zoning bylaws in order to build a residence on the northwest corner of Spadina Avenue and Sussex Avenue. The motion passed during the review of the Order Paper; it was passed with consent and no debate from council.

The accompanying report by city staff criticized the proposed residence, saying that it is not consistent with provincial plans and that the 23-storey building “is not appropriate for its context as it is too tall, too bulky, and does not provide appropriate tower setbacks.”

The university recently published a report as part of its application to amend the St. George Secondary Plan, which projects a need for 2,300 new beds by 2020 to meet the increased demand for student housing.

Christine Burke, Director of Campus and Facilities Planning, said that this urgent need for residence spaces motivated the appeal to the OMB. “We heard [the community’s] concerns and we made adjustments to the project,” Burke explained, “but we did put in an application in October of last year and with more than three years of consultation, we felt that we needed to move the project along towards a resolution so we could move the project forward.”

The report further elaborates that the proposed demolition of 698 Spadina conflicted with the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. 698 Spadina was designated a heritage resource by the city in March 2017, approximately seven months after the university had submitted its application to the city.

The university objected to the designation and has brought the issue to the province’s Conservation Review Board, a tribunal that is able to make recommendations to the municipal council or the tourism minister to repeal heritage designations. Burke said that the university does not believe the site has heritage value based on the findings of heritage consultants retained by the university.

A prehearing conference was held in July, and party status was granted to the Harbord Village Residents’ Association. The report claims that the prehearing was adjourned for four months  “to allow for public consultation and settlement discussions,” though according to Burke, there have been no settlement discussions. “Essentially, the university is seeking to resolve this appeal together with the OMB appeal, so in more of a comprehensive settlement,” Burke said.

The report also raises concerns over the possible intrusion of the building into the silhouette of 1 Spadina Crescent as seen from the southwest and southeast corners of College Street and Spadina.

The report marks bicycle parking as inadequate; current bylaws require a minimum of 238 long-term bicycle parking spaces for the proposed development. The current plan allows for only 116 long-term spaces.

Burke contends that the bylaws do not have bicycle parking standards specific to student residences. “So what we did with our transportation consultants in planning the residence is… we took a comprehensive study of the demand generated at other student residences that we own and operate to try and understand and figure out what the… appropriate parking rate would be and that’s what we applied to the project.” Burke also added that the St. George Secondary Plan had “substantially” more bicycle parking spaces than required.

The university has requested that the OMB conduct a mediation to settle this conflict. The first prehearing is scheduled for January 2018, where an assessment will be done to identify all parties for the mediation.

In the meantime, the university has other plans to add more residence spaces. Burke said the university is looking to extend Graduate House along Harbord Street and to provide more student family housing in the Huron-Sussex neighbourhood.

Even with the rising opposition against the Spadina-Sussex project, Burke remains “optimistic” that a settlement will be reached, hoping that “it’s just a matter of time.” Burke also maintained that the university remains committed to its guarantee of providing residence spaces to first-year undergraduates.

Housing horrors

Ten students share their unfortunate experiences with leaks, landlords, and roommates

Housing horrors

The demand for student housing is growing as U of T’s population continues to expand. While finding affordable housing close to campus can be a struggle, for some students it is only the beginning. Vanishing landlords, pests, leaks, and bad roommates are just a few items on the list of things to look out for when considering moving out and renting your own place. Here are just a few stories of housing horrors from U of T students — and advice on what to look for when looking for a place off-campus.

 

Tegan

teganFifth-year | Criminology

“In second year I lived in a house across from a run-down apartment building in a rough area. There were always cops with their sirens blaring, babies crying, and occasionally prostitutes would knock on our doors asking for money and directions.”

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off-campus housing next year? “Get in contact with previous tenants to ask for past issues.”

 

McKenzie

mckenzieSecond-year | Environmental studies

“I lived on the top two floors of a three-storey house with a couple of roommates, but we didn’t know our neighbours downstairs before we moved in. When it got cold in the winter, our house was less than ten degrees. We called the landlords multiple times and brought them in to find out what was wrong, but they couldn’t figure it out. Months later, we found out that our downstairs neighbours had control of the heat and were turning it off when they were warm enough, not letting the heat get to us, even though they knew that we were cold.”

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off campus housing next year? “Before you move in, ask your landlords what their policy is for dealing with leaks, heating issues, and other potential problems so everyone is clear with how to deal with them.”

 

Molly

MOLLYSecond-year | Undeclared

“Before I moved into my place, I didn’t ask any of the important questions. Unfortunately, I let my landlords take advantage of the fact that I was young and new to Toronto. This seems to be a common problem — a lot of my friends have had the same thing happen to them. Everything I took for granted when I was living at home just didn’t work properly — broken appliances, drafts, pests, you name it.”

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off-campus housing next year? “When you’re house-hunting in Toronto, all I can say is check everything. Water pressure, drafts, check behind the stove for bugs or signs of mice, ask how new the windows are, and ask if the bathroom fan works properly. These things can seem nit-picky and over the top, but you’re talking about your home for the next year.”

 

Steph

stephFourth-year | History

“Around two and a half years ago, I moved into my first apartment with a couple of friends near Spadina and College. We were a bit too eager and moved into one of the first places we looked at. We should have known that the whole situation was sketchy when our landlord never got us to sign a lease and asked for a ‘security deposit’ of $800. During our two years of living at this place, we had countless problems. The ceiling caved in twice, the hot water pipes burst multiple times, part of the front door caved in, and the worst situation was when the whole apartment flooded over six inches with water. If that all wasn’t bad enough, when we would call our landlord for help, he wouldn’t answer! We were forced to fix all these problems ourselves, and we did not hear from our landlord again until we moved out. We never got back our $800 security deposit.

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off-campus housing next year? “My advice for students who are house-hunting for the first time is to accept help. Landlords are notorious for taking advantage of students, especially those moving into their first place. Whether it is your parents, friends, other family members, coworkers, or a U of T housing advisor, involve them!”

 

Emily

emilySecond-year | Political science

“House hunting in Toronto as a student was very challenging. I didn’t end up getting an apartment until mid-August, which was very last minute and I am lucky I secured a place before September. In my search, I saw bachelor apartments the size of my dorm room for $700, and an above-store apartment with a hotplate in the kitchen for a hefty $900.”

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off-campus housing next year? “You should really start looking before the summer starts; securing a place early will relieve a lot of stress. When looking for a place, make sure it has appropriate safety features, laundry in the building, and utilities included. Lastly, if the advertisement sounds too good to be true, it probably is; be cautious, and never look at a place alone!”

 

Justin

justinThird-year | Chemistry

“I moved into an apartment above a Pizza Nova. The apartment always smelled great, which was awesome, but I could hear mice running around at night. Even though I was really careful about not leaving food out and taking out the garbage, the mice never went away and got into the cabinets. Even worse than the mice, I also gained 15 pounds thanks to the friendly owner of the Pizza Nova who would give me deals.”

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off-campus housing next year? “I don’t think that it’s the best idea to live above a fast-food place. It’s loud, attracts animals, and is too [tempting].”

 

Michael

michaelFourth-year | Engineering

“I rented a house with my girlfriend, who I had been dating for eight months, and a couple of friends from my program. When me and my girlfriend broke up six months into our year-long lease, we were forced to live together for the rest of the year. Our landlord refused to let us break the lease, and our other roommates refused to move. It was a bad situation for everyone, and I really regret the move.”

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off-campus housing next year? “I would recommend everyone who is renting a place to ask their landlords to clearly outline what the terms of the lease are and what the protocol is for breaking the lease.”

 

Kaitlyn

kaitlynFourth-year | Psychology

“I attempted to move into an apartment building where I had already paid first and last month’s rent, totalling $1,700. When I tried to move my things in, there were cockroaches and bugs everywhere. I contacted my landlords and told them I was moving out because I didn’t want anything to get infested with bugs. The landlords didn’t want to give us our money back and denied any bugs being in the apartment, even though my roommate and I had pictures. The landlords delayed the process of getting our money back for three weeks, and in the end only gave us one month’s rent back.”

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off-campus housing next year? “If you are moving into a building, make sure it’s clean and look up bed bug reviews. If you are moving into an apartment, make sure you have a nice landlord and cover all your bases. Don’t settle for an uncomfortable living environment!”

 

Luke

lukeSecond-year | Sociology

“I moved into a new apartment with a good friend this year, and we just assumed that everything would be fine with the place since it was so new. There was a pipe that burst behind our unit that we didn’t notice until our landlord sent us the hydro bill for the month, which was $400 over what it usually is.”

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off-campus housing next year? “Check the areas around your house regularly to make sure you’re not missing anything important.”

 

Shannon

shannonThird-year | English

“I moved in with my roommate from first year, and living in an apartment was very different than living in residence. She was a slob and we ended up fighting all the time. She eventually dropped out and moved out of the province with her boyfriend, and now I’m back living at home with my parents. Needless to say, we don’t really talk anymore.”

What’s one piece of advice you have for U of T students looking for off-campus housing next year? “Be careful when choosing someone to live with.”

Proposed student residence rejected by City

U of T claims it needs at least 2,000 more beds by 2020 to keep up with growing demand

Proposed student residence rejected by City

The Hotel Waverly and Silver Dollar Room will remain as they are for the time being. The Wynn Group had proposed plans to tear down the buildings to build a high-rise for the purpose of a privately run student residence. The Toronto and East York Community Council (TEYCC) — a City of Toronto community council that makes recommendations and decisions on local planning and development — criticized the proposed building for its size.

The proposed plan was to include a mixed-use student residence building with a fitness centre and a juice bar on the second floor. The Wynn Group also planned to redo the Silver Dollar Room. The building would have had a total floor area of 14,676 square metres, with 1,622 square metres allocated to the non-residential floor area and 13,054 square metres allocated to the residential areas above. The plans also called for 202 residential units and three levels of underground parking.

The TEYCC cited a number of concerns with the proposal, including the proposed building height of 70 metres — four times the 16-metre height permitted under relevant zoning laws. This spring, Toronto’s Heritage Preservation Services — a section of the City Planning division that advises on the conservation of heritage resources — is expected to decide whether the existing buildings should be designated as heritage properties.

According to a report released by the TEYCC on January 15, “The proposal in its current form is not supportable. The proposal does not promote a harmonious fit with the existing neighbourhood context, and is not consistent with the relevant Official Plan Policies.”

The Wynn Group’s proposal is one of a number of recent student housing projects intended to address the increased need for housing at U of T. As the university increases its international student enrolment and nearby reasonably priced living spaces are increasingly hard to find, both U of T and private organizations have tried to fill this gap. U of T estimates it will need 2,000 more beds by 2020 to meet the first-year residence guarantee.

In December, a similar proposal went to a hearing at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Knightstone Capital Management — a private development group — proposed a similar 25-storey building at the corner of College Street and Spadina Avenue. Community groups opposed this proposal, citing concerns such as densification, location, and building size. The OMB is expected to issue a decision soon.

Although the university supports the proposed Knightstone residence, the building would not be formally affiliated with U of T.  The Scion Group — a company that runs privately owned student residences — was asked by Knightstone to run the residence.

There is also a proposal to tear down the Ten Editions Bookstore, the non-operational post office, and the volleyball court at 698 Spadina and 700 Spadina to build a new student residence. The plan, which is in its preliminary stages, was proposed by U of T.

George Luste, a resident of the area since 1971 and former physics professor at U of T, expressed concern over the loss of the bookstore. Luste also insists that any proposed residence building must provide some means of keeping the bookstore in operation.

“U of T students could lose a used bookstore of value to them if Ten Editions has to close due to the housing project by the University,” said Luste. “In addition, the neighbouring community would also lose, as would others, because quality used bookstores are disappearing in Toronto.”

The residents of the building and the bookstore’s owner, Susan Duff, have been told very little about the project, except for a brief meeting with the city indicating this proposal was underway. U of T has not contacted any of the affected parties in the area at this point.

Due to the necessity for more student residences, it is unlikely that these three cases will be the only instances of new residence building proposals in the coming years. The Wynn Group plans to appeal the decision to the OMB.