University students feel housing pinch in Metro Vancouver

Weeks before the school year begins, students are still trying to find housing in Metro Vancouver’s tight and expensive market. Monika Gul reports one student has messaged more than 100 prospective landlords and increased her budget by several hundred dollars.

The school year is right around the corner — and while it’s usually a time for optimism, some university students are in a stressful situation. But it has nothing to do with upcoming projects or deadlines.

Third-year University of British Columbia student Seemal Farooq has been looking for housing for about two months now. Expanding her search from Vancouver to include Burnaby, New Westminster and Richmond, she hasn’t had any luck finding housing for Sept. 1.

“I’ve been in Vancouver for a while now, [and] the market’s never been this bad before. I feel like there’s just so many people searching for a place in the past two, three months for this upcoming September semester, that no matter how many people you message, they’re just getting an overwhelming amount of responses,” she told CityNews.

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Looking at Facebook Marketplace and the classifieds on websites such as Kijiji, Farooq has had to increase her budget exponentially just to get a look in.

“I had to increase my budget [to $1,800], because what I was looking at before, which was usually the low $1,000 is just not practical anymore. Even if you’re looking [to share] places that are two or three bedrooms, you still can’t find a place for $1,200 or $1,300. Which is insane,” she explained.

Estimating that she’s messaged around 70 different people offering properties on Facebook alone, Farooq says usually she’s left on read, or once the listing goes up, it’s taken down within just a few hours.

“I’m just like, ‘How is this even possible?’ It seems like no matter how fast you respond to someone, no matter how quickly you’re willing to go through with renting something, there’s just always someone else who has something better [to offer],” she said.

Currently in Toronto before the school year begins, Farooq says not being able to view places in person is an added obstacle, “because there’s a lot of opportunity to get scammed.”

“A lot of the times they’ll ask you to send money before viewing, they’ll say send $100 deposit, and then we can proceed with the process. And I think people are so desperate at this point that they’re even willing to do so just for a chance to maybe get a place,” she said.

UBC Alma Mater Society President Eshana Bhangu says the shortage and unaffordability of housing in Metro Vancouver, in general, is making students really desperate.

“People who are renting out their places seem to be taking advantage of students as well, by charging significantly above market rates. As far as finding housing right before school starts in September is going … a lot of students are finding it tough,” she said.

Bhangu says some students are part of housing waitlists which can be thousands of people long, and others are looking to sublet apartments from other students, which is creating a sort-of bidding war.

“At the end of the day, you have students who are working multiple part-time jobs, and then you also have students who are trying to rent out a lot of the private properties in Westbrook, or that area surrounding UBC,” she told CityNews. “And they’re not able to find affordable housing there either, so there just seems to be a shortage in general. There’s a lot of price gouging going on.”

Bhangu wants UBC to increase student residences on and off campus, allowing for shorter commute times and more affordable options.

“The AMS wants to see commitments of nonprofit housing closer to campus, and I think the SkyTrain to UBC will also help, especially if we’re building housing along the SkyTrain as well,” she said. “I think there’s an amalgamation of efforts that can really help alleviate the stress on the housing market and students, in trying to find a basic roof over their head when they’re trying to complete their studies.”

Melissa Chirino, the chairperson for the BC Federation of Students, says an average rental price of $2,200 in B.C. is “absurd” considering the province’s monthly minimum wage is $1,565.

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“It just doesn’t add up — people are not able to afford that, especially students. We already know that the cost of education is very high. Students end up taking out loans for education, which leaves them with tonnes of debt afterwards. And if we add up factors like rent and food to the equation, it becomes impossible for students to study full time without having to work two or three jobs to afford living in B.C.,” she said.

However, the issue of housing is not limited to students — “It’s bigger than that,” she said.

“It’s not affordable and accessible. And people should be able to get housing without having to get more than three jobs to afford it,” Chirino said.

Even though finding affordable housing as a student might not be a new problem, with inflation rising at a record rate this year, Chirino says students are feeling the squeeze more than previous years.

“When the fall hits and people have to get places to live and they’re moving around, it’s definitely gonna be hard for folks to find places,” she said.

The federation is currently working with partner organizations to see how they can collectively work towards the issue of affordable housing, Chirino says, but notes that it all comes down to collectively reducing the overall cost of living.

“For a one bedroom, it shouldn’t be over $2,000. When we compare your minimum wage and housing costs, it doesn’t add up,” she said.

Farooq says it feels like there’s no way out of the housing situation, and it seems no one is really doing anything about it.

“So, all of us who are searching, we just have to accept it. I feel like someone should take responsibility, you can’t expect students to be the one leading this. We have so many other issues to worry about — we’re supposed to be focusing on studying but we’re here trying to find ways to be able to pay rent and be able to afford living in this market,” she said.

In an email to CityNews, Anne Kang, the province’s minister of advanced education and skills training, says the government continues to act on increasing affordability and access to housing.

“We know that it’s critical to students’ success to have access to affordable housing. This government continues to act on increasing affordability, access to housing, and access to public post-secondary education,” she said.

In the last year, new student housing has opened at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and at UBC. More student housing is on the way in the metro area at BCIT, Capilano University, Simon Fraser University, UBC and the University of the Fraser Valley, Kang says.

“We are working hard to deliver 8,000 new student housing spaces on campus throughout B.C. by 2028, and to date, we have more than 6,800 new spaces open or underway throughout the province, with more to come.”

With files from Martin MacMahon and Monika Gul

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