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Soaring rents squeeze Vancouver-area students

Caitlin McCutchen needs to find a new place to live, but it’s a problem she’s trying to ignore.
Caitlin McCutchen, Kwantlen Polytechnic student and chairperson of the Alliance of British Columbia Students, is among many students seeking affordable rentals.

Caitlin McCutchen needs to find a new place to live, but it’s a problem she’s trying to ignore.

“I am trying not to think about it because it’s honestly stressing me out,” said the fourth-year political science student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

“I’m looking right now, which is actually terrible timing, because all students are looking for housing,” said McCutchen, also the chair of the Alliance of British Columbia Students.

In the three years since McCutchen last searched for a home, prices have surged in Metro Vancouver and rental availability has plummeted. McCutchen and others say the region’s soaring housing costs are eating up more of students’ budgets, pushing them further into debt or forcing them to spread their studies over more years.

McCutchen attends university in Surrey and lives in New Westminster. She wants to remain there, but her roommate has moved out and the lease expires soon. If she can’t find a new home, she has a backup plan, but it’s not ideal.

“My mom said I can put my stuff in storage and I can sleep on her couch until I find a suitable place,” she said. Her mother lives in North Vancouver.

“I’m a 29-year-old adult with a full-time job and I’m going to be couch surfing if I can’t find something. That’s frightening, and that’s not just me. That’s quite common,” she said.

The average debt for debt-holding Canadian students is $26,819, according to 2015 figures from the Canadian University Survey Consortium. An older report by the Bank of Montreal said B.C. students expect to have the highest average debt at graduation of any province: $34,886. But that figure is four years old.

B.C.’s higher debt definitely is because of housing costs here, McCutchen said.

Postings on Craigslist and word of mouth are the go-to ways for students to find housing — and this is crunch time. “I’m actually looking at places on Craigslist right now and you can rent for $300 a bed in a dining room with a privacy curtain,” she said. “That’s kind of what’s out there.”

There are signals that mounting housing costs and overall student debt are weighing on students, said Hangue Kim, the president of Simon Fraser University’s student government.

“We’ve been seeing an increase of reliance on student free services,” said the fifth-year finance student. “We operate an emergency food bank program with our university where they are able to redeem food vouchers from local food vendors and there has been a significant increase in the usage of this program over the past few years.”

He said they’ve also logged an increase in demand for counselling services. “We’re seeing an increase of students using psychology and counselling services,” he said. “The amount (of) claims submitted, has increased by around 55 per cent over the last five years.”

He said SFU has space in student housing for only seven per cent of its 25,000 students, meaning the majority are searching — and often paying more — for market housing off-campus. He said that will improve to about 15 per cent once the next wave of student housing is complete.

Meanwhile, the University of British Columbia says it has invested nearly $500 million since 2011 to add much-needed student housing on its Vancouver campus.

“In 2010, we did a campus plan and we wanted to grow our housing by 3,000 beds,” said Andrew Parr, UBC’s managing director of housing. With that increase, UBC expected to increase its percentage of full-time students housed on campus to 35 per cent from 28 per cent. But they couldn’t keep up with the university’s rising enrolment.

“We’ve added 3,012 beds since 2011,” Parr told Postmedia. “But our percentage of the full-time population (housed on campus) hasn’t changed very much. I think we’ve gone up one per cent.”

He said UBC has a housing waiting list of about 6,000 students. The lowest rent on campus is for a shared dormitory, which is $652 for the full year. “The highest rate is $1,900, and that would be for a four-bedroom townhouse unit in our family housing area,” he said.

UBC is hearing from students that expensive or far-flung housing is making them take on more debt, said Darran Fernandez, UBC’s director of student support and advising.

He said his office provides help to students with budget planning, student loan and bursary applications, as well as emergency funding in some situations.

“We have seen a bit of an increase in students coming to us to ask for additional help, but nothing that’s been a significant jump,” he said.

The effects of rising housing costs and debt are clear, says McCutchen. “More people are choosing to stay and live with their parents or perhaps going to a local university or college instead of leaving to do a degree they really want,” she said.

B.C. students have to work almost double (180 per cent) the minimum-wage work hours today as they did in 1975 to pay for their tuition, McCutchen said citing a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report based on Stats Canada data.

“You can’t just go to school,” she said. “You have to work.”

Stress and debt fears are also affecting students in the class, said Simka Marshall, chairperson of the British Columbia Federation of Students. “Students are already having to put in an immense amount of time to be able to study, and having to balance that with work is something that’s challenging,” she said.

“We’re also hearing more about students having to drop down to part time studies,” she said. That means more students are taking five or six years to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree.

“That’s something we hear pretty commonly on campus.”

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