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100 messages, four replies: Victoria students desperate for housing

With vacancy rates for affordable rentals at rock-bottom levels, many students are desperate to find housing in Greater Victoria ahead of the fall semester

When Kalpana Jha, a PhD student from Kathmandu, Nepal, learned she had been accepted to the University of Victoria in May, she started looking for housing immediately.

Over the three months that followed, she sent hundreds of inquiries about housing listed as available on Facebook and classifieds websites — including rooms in shared accommodation as well as suites and apartments — but only received four messages back.

They were all rejections.

Jha is among many students desperate to find housing in Greater Victoria ahead of the fall semester.

With a two-bedroom apartment renting for an average $2,480 a month, Victoria is one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, behind only Vancouver and Toronto, according to a rent report from listing site Zumper. Vacancy rates for affordable rentals are at rock-bottom levels.

In February, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported that Victoria had less than 0.5 per cent vacancy for units renting for less than $1,400 a month in 2021. CMHC said bachelor units saw the sharpest decline in vacancies — dropping from 9.1 per cent to 3.4 per cent — as students and young workers returned to the region after COVID-19 lockdowns ended.

It’s a tight squeeze for all renters, and students — especially international ones — are feeling the strain.

“I don’t have any strict criteria,” said Jha, who is in her early 30s. “I started looking early on, but then the situation in Victoria started looking really bad.”

Jha’s budget is about $900 a month — roughly 60 per cent of her fellowship income — but as desperation set in, she started looking at even pricier options, and is now considering staying at an Airbnb.

“I have to come the first week of September, and there’s nothing that’s worked out,” she said. “Honestly, it’s been pretty bad on some days. I’ve been extremely stressed and I can’t sleep.”

In her desperation, Jha nearly fell victim to a scam. One of the few messages she received was about a bedroom in a shared home, but the person she messaged with wanted her to send the security deposit and sign the papers before they had met on video.

Thankfully, Jha reached out to someone she trusted in Victoria, who told her it was likely a scam. Jha said she normally would have known the room was too good to be true, but the situation was so dire, she felt like she had to explore it.

“It’s the desperation that seeps in after an amount of time, when you haven’t been able to secure a place to live,” she said. “I really wanted this to be real. It was somebody that was responding and I hadn’t heard back from anyone.”

With about two weeks to go, she still doesn’t have a place to live. “[Victoria] is not a place I’ve been to before. If I’m stranded on the street, that’s my biggest fear.”

Thinking ‘outside the box’ for rentals

While not all attend in person, UVic has roughly 22,000 undergraduate and graduate students, including 4,000 international students. About 3,000 international students come to Victoria on study permits.

UVic has a first-year-student residence guarantee, with an additional 500 spaces available for upper-year undergraduates. Those spots are doled out via a lottery, with offers made to students over the summer.

The first of UVic’s two new housing and dining buildings opens in September, providing 398 beds. The second building is set to open next June, offering 385 beds and bringing the total supply of on-campus housing to 2,500 beds, the most the school has ever had.

Camosun College, which has more than 19,000 students — including 2,100 international — does not provide on-campus housing or dorms.

Mark Taylor, director of accounts at Places4Students, a website advertising rentals for post-secondary students across Canada, said the situation has become critical, particularly over the last few years. Places4Students has been doing outreach work to bring more options online.

“We’re trying to think outside the box and find new opportunities for places for students to live and to study,” Taylor said. “We’re reaching out to empty nesters, retired people, people who have rentals but haven’t rented to students in the past that might consider doing so, in an effort to find more places for these students to live.”

Taylor said multiple factors led to this year’s crisis. In 2020, when students were studying from home, many landlords rented to non-students, and those rentals may still be occupied. Some landlords also sold their properties while the market was good.

Now, as students who may have taken a year off to avoid remote schooling return to campus, and new students flock to the region, they’re feeling the pinch.

“Now you have this inflated class of students coming in with less housing available and it’s creating a bit of a crisis,” Taylor said. “We’re hoping [for] a combination of the schools building more housing and maybe partnering with some property-management companies.

“Those are future solutions, but in the meantime, we’re trying to find all these other options that might help out as a bridge to those situations coming to fruition in the future.”

Desperate students easy prey for landlords

In the meantime, many people are left vulnerable, said Nahid Pourdolat Safari, a graduate student and director of student affairs at UVic’s Graduate Student Society.

Students may accept rentals in illegal suites, where they have no rights, or take on undesirable living arrangements just to secure housing — and like Jha, they are also more susceptible to scams, said Safari, who hears regularly about students losing money to online scams.

“In less than 30 minutes [after posting], landlords will receive hundreds of requests,” Safari said. “In 30 minutes, they are done [and] many will remove the advertisement. It is a good time for the scam advertisements and taking advantage of the students’ desperation.

“We ask the students to be wise, to fact check to see if the advertisement is correct, but when you are in a hurry, when you know that if you are a little late you will lose the house, you are a great victim for this situation. It can make you completely vulnerable.”

Safari has also heard of students accepting cleaning work and chores as part of their rental agreements. She said international students might face even more hurdles.

“Many have a strange name like mine, and when you have a foreign name and you don’t have a reference, many landlords don’t even open your message,” she said. “When you are really new, the situation can be really scary.”

In an email, Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang called the student housing shortage a longstanding issue, and said the government plans to deliver 8,000 new student housing spaces across the province by 2028, including the 783 beds rolling out at UVic over the next year.

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

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