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‘Most difficult year’ for UVic students hunting for housing as landlords stay on sidelines

Rachel Lee has her plane ticket booked to Victoria from Nova Scotia, but she still doesn’t know where she’ll be staying in her second year of university here.
UVic Residence Services administrative assistant Sabine Berg holds a Places 4 Students rental request sign on Mackenzie Avenue last week. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Rachel Lee has her plane ticket booked to Victoria from Nova Scotia, but she still doesn’t know where she’ll be staying in her second year of university here.

As with many University of Victoria students, she has been scrambling to find a place to rent from a distance — an extremely tough task.

“I’ve been tree planting all summer,” Lee said. “I have been looking for a place every day since I got back, so the end of July.”

Her roommate has been looking since the beginning of May.

That has involved phoning, checking online listings and posting on social media asking if anyone has heard about vacancies. Her mother has contacted people she knows in Western Canada to see if they have any suggestions, but nothing has worked.

It’s very frustrating, Lee said.

“Mostly because, regardless, school starts so I have to make the trip out there.”

She said she has some friends she can stay with “very temporarily,” if need be.

The student population at UVic in 2021-22 is expected to be more than 20,000. Typically, about 76 per cent of students are from outside Greater Victoria.

Lee, 20, lived in Victoria last year while doing her first-year classes online, but the place she stayed is not available this time. The housing situation was simply not as bad last year, she said.

She said the housing market is “kind of spooky” with school starting so soon.

Lee said she is eager to get back to class because she already took a year away from education coming out of high school.

She knows many people in situations similar to hers, and some are considering putting off their studies in 2021-22 as a result.

Robin Pollard, the UVic Students’ Society director of campaigns and community relations, said she has heard of people thinking about living in their vehicles or in tents.

This is the most difficult year that Jim Dunsdon, UVic’s associate vice-president of student affairs, has seen for off-campus housing in his 13 years at the university.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” he said. “One is, for sure, I think, there’s some hesitancy on behalf of people to open their homes to students even though we have seen high rates of vaccination amongst that population.

“The second is we’re also seeing people who have converted spare bedrooms and suites into offices as they’ve moved home to work, and I think that’s been a challenge.”

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation data suggest that the rental accommodation market is at historic lows in the city, Dunsdon said.

Another issue is that the long-held practice of guaranteeing on-campus housing to first-year students was put on hold.

“We had to do it this year in large part because we weren’t sure what the provincial guidelines were going to be back when we opened the application process,” Dunsdon said. “So early on, we didn’t want to mislead parents and students by providing a guarantee when we didn’t know actually how many beds we’d have available to us.

“Since then, as many institutions have seen across the country, we’ve seen an increase in applications to UVic so our entering class is larger than we’ve had in previous years.”

The result is that 2,100 first-year students have spots in university residences and 400 to 500 applicants do not. Overall, first-year students are split about 50-50 for living on- and off-campus, but the off-campus number is expected to be higher this year.

“We’re still moving through the wait list, though, so some students are finding accommodation off-campus and choosing not to live on-campus,” Dunsdon said.

“But it’s a real challenge right now for parents and for students, for sure.”

Dunsdon said help is coming in the next few years with new student-housing facilities opening in September 2022 and September 2023. “That’s going to add about 750 beds.”

Members of the public can play a role in dealing with the situation by renting out space in their homes, Dunsdon said.

“I think if we can reiterate that message across the community it would continue to help students who are still struggling to find accommodation, absolutely.”

UVic said in a statement that it is taking steps to address the issue.

“We are continuing to work with the community, municipalities and our partners to find ways to support families, including public outreach and incentives to list off-campus housing properties and units for students.”

And UVic said it is one of a handful of Canadian universities paying registration fees for landlords who put listings on a website that matches students with housing. Ontario-based, which works with about 180 campuses around North America, is part of that effort.

But even finding a place isn’t necessarily all good news.

“I ended up having to pay quite a bit more than I bargained for,” said third-year student Jordan Cheung, who had a long search to find a rental.

The 20-year-old said she will be paying about $400 a month above what she anticipated, with rent of $900 to $950 for a small room in a Gordon Head house she is sharing with at least four others. She said a larger room in the house costs $1,000 — a room that would have rented for $600 in previous years.

Still, she said she is better off than some others. “I am definitely one of the lucky ones.”

Finding a place was much harder than she thought it would be, Cheung said. “It’s pretty crazy.”

Pollard said she has been trying to deal with the housing issue through things like lobbying Oak Bay council to increase the number of unrelated people who can stay in a residence, which currently sits at three.

Concerns about student housing have been growing for some time, she said.

“The Greater Victoria area has been having a housing-affordability crisis for years, so that’s not new, and then finding affordable and stable housing for students has just become increasingly difficult over the years,” she said.

Along with that, there is an “unfair stigma” against students as being loud or just a bunch of partiers, Pollard said.

“But in reality, most of us we’re really here for school,” she said. “We’re here to work, often we’re working and going to school and engaging in the community.

“And many of my friends who are graduating or graduated have found full-time jobs here and are really trying to put roots down.”