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Jack Knox: Students' housing horror stories drive home rental squeeze

“50-year-old wanted me to pay $500 a month to split an RV and become maid/girlfriend” is one of many examples on a banner of students’ tales of woe unveiled at the legislature
Lane Cook, left, and Ton Tran of the University of Victoria Students' Society hold a banner that was marked by students with stories of housing issues. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Among the squirm-worthy student-housing stories:

“Rats, mould and loud-peeing neighbours for $900 a month.”

“Landlord made me pay for a new septic tank out of pocket.”

“50-year-old wanted me to pay $500 a month to split an RV and become maid/girlfriend.”

How’s that last one make you feel, Dad? Would you want your own daughter agreeing to a rental deal like that?

No? Then how about this: “Free rent if you send naked pics.”

Apparently that last one wasn’t a solo request. Another student had the same experience.

Those examples, and many, many more, were Sharpied onto a banner recently after the University of Victoria Students’ Society sought out tales of off-campus housing desperation. The students unfurled the banner outside the legislature this month in an attempt to drive home (as it were) how hard it is to find a place to live.

During the just-concluded local election campaign, UVic writing instructor Mark Leiren-Young, who was running for Saanich council, read some of the banner’s entries aloud during his allotted time at all-candidates meetings. Audience members gasped.

Such anecdotes might be commonly known in the post-secondary orbit, but to many of us outside that circle, they can be shocking.

That is, we all know there’s a student-housing crunch, but since those being squeezed are often out-of-towners, the rest of us are unlikely to be privy to tales like:

“Landlord lied about all-female roommates and put me in a house with three men twice my age.”

“Rent was $600 in August 2022 and $1,200 in September 2022.”

“90-minute one-way commute. Needing nepotism to find a rental. Friends forced to take a semester off or be homeless.”

“ ‘Happy’ to find housing for only $1,250 a month.”

“Landlord asked for money under the table to make up for ‘unexpectedly high’ heating cost during winter.”

“Walk-in closet for $600.”

“Landlord wouldn’t fix pipes and my place flooded.”

“Had to pay $800 in rent to live in a living room.”

“Would not call exterminator to get rid of pre-existing cockroach infestation.”

Now, the plight of out-of-town students might seem an unlikely vote-getter in a local election campaign, but Leiren-Young is glad he raised the issue. No, he wasn’t elected Saturday, but he feels good about getting the word out among his fellow candidates and residents.

“I don’t think people had any idea what’s going on,” he says.

OK, finding housing has long been a scramble for students. For the entire decade Leiren-Young has taught at the university, he has had his sleeve tugged by old acquaintances looking for somewhere for their kids. “I get emails and calls every single term, saying: ‘Do you know any place they can stay?’ ”

But the pandemic made things tighter. When in-person classes were shut down, some landlords who would usually rent to students filled the void with non-students who have yet to move out. Some pulled their lodgings off the market altogether.

Leiren-Young says he first became aware of the depth of the problem while teaching a humour-writing class. Write about what scares you, what makes you angry, he advised students looking for a well from which to draw inspiration. What came back were stories about housing.

Then Leiren-Young attended a workshop where a woman spoke about students who were spending so much on rent that they had little left for food. That got him looking deeper.

He learned, for example, about a road that each night is crammed with students sleeping in their cars. “That’s the street where they’ve figured out that they’re not going to get in trouble.”

When the banner was displayed at the legislature, he pulled out his camera and began interviewing students about their experiences. Look up “student housing horror stories” on YouTube.

The picture isn’t all bleak. A new 398-bed residence opened at UVic in September, raising the on-campus total to 2,500. Another 385-bed residence is expected to open next summer.

Leiren-Young also hears stories of good-hearted people taking in students not for the money, but to give them a home.

Still, when real-life examples are right in your face, it’s disturbing. “I’ve got students who are dealing with this, and I find it horrifying.”

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