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Canada: students face “traumatising” search for housing

When Umme Mim Mohsin moved from Bangladesh to Halifax, Nova Scotia, last year to study at Dalhousie University, her biggest challenge was finding a place to live.

The search for student accommodation can cause physical and mental distress. Photo: pexels

In Kingston, Ontario, the rental accommodation vacancy rate is just 0.6% – while a rate of 3% is considered healthy

It was difficult to search for Halifax apartments from her home country. After a long struggle, she finally found a modest loft through connections in the Bangladeshi community.

“The housing market in Halifax is unfair to its own citizens let alone us international students,” the graduate student in international development told The PIE News. “For many of us, searching is a traumatising experience that results in physical and mental distress.”

“Searching is a traumatising experience that results in physical and mental distress”

International students face an uphill climb in competing with Canadian applicants for housing. Many landlords want references from previous apartment rentals or credit scores, which overseas students may not have.

In addition, rents are soaring across the country due to limited supply, making apartments out of reach for students on a budget.

It’s a challenge facing international students everywhere, whether they are studying in big cities such as Toronto and Vancouver or smaller towns. There is a shortage of housing in almost every place that has a post-secondary institution.

Unfortunately, international students are usually unfamiliar with the Canadian rental market and desperate to find accommodations, making them easy marks for scammers, said Dania Majid of the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario in Toronto.

Students have responded to apartment-for-rent ads online and paid deposits of $3,000 or more – only to find that the person advertising the apartment was not the landlord and that there was no vacancy. The scammer disappears after collecting the money.

Majid warned that international students should be on guard when searching for an apartment. “If they see a deal that is too good to be true that is a red flag. If the person is asking for money before seeing the rental unit that is a big red flag.”

She encourages students to seek advice from their university or college housing office. “If an international student thinks they have been scammed, they can contact their local community legal clinic for assistance.”

It is not a problem unique to Canada, with Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia and the UK seeing housing problems of their own.

But in some Canadian communities, innovative solutions are being proposed.

The University of Regina in Saskatchewan is bundling tuition and housing for both domestic and international students in a discounted package called “The Really Big Deal”. For international students, the school says the savings could amount to $21,000 over the four years of an undergraduate degree.

“For students seeking to live off campus, the choices are very slim,” said Haroon Chaudhry, acting associate vice-president of international at Regina. “This often leaves them to choose between extremely high rental costs that continue to increase, their safety and well-being, and proximity and/or access to essential services.

“When students choose to take the Really Big Deal opportunity, they are choosing their community, their education, and enhancing their security and well-being.”

In the province of Québec, the non-profit organisation UTILE is dedicated to building housing to meet the needs of students. It has five buildings either constructed or in the pipeline in Montréal, Québec City and Trois Rivières.

Umme Mim Mohsin has called on institutions to offer more support.

However, UTILE will only have 715 apartments in the province. Montréal alone has more than 320,000 post-secondary students, including 37,000 from overseas.

For Alex Usher, of the consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, a shortage of housing could limit Canada’s capacity to increase the number of international students coming each year. Furthermore, he expects political pushback as moderate-income Canadians struggle to find accommodation while being squeezed out.

“Some institutions have been packing in students without regard to local housing supply, which contributes to the steep rise in housing costs not just for international students, but for all renters and first-time home buyers,” Usher said.

Take Kingston, Ontario as an example. It’s a small city that is home to more than 30,000 students who attend Queen’s University and St. Lawrence College. The rental accommodation vacancy rate is just 0.6% – while a rate of 3% is considered healthy.

“Some institutions have been packing in students without regard to local housing supply”

Queen’s guarantees first-year students (both domestic and international) a place in its dormitory residences. However, upper year students and grad students are mostly on their own. The private sector is constructing a number of student-oriented apartment buildings near campus, but little is being done to help low-income Canadian renters. The result: A growing problem of homelessness for Kingstonians without a well-paying job.

For Mohsin of Halifax, post-secondary institutions need to do much more than recruit students – they should help with housing. “The universities we came here to attend only give us advice. The university, the provincial government and the city all need to work together to make us feel welcome.

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