First-year UVic students scrounge for housing amid shortage of on-campus spaces

As many as 300 first-year University of Victoria students, who in any other year would have been guaranteed on-campus housing for the fall session, are beating the bushes in a region with a very tight rental market to find a place to live before classes start in September.

The university had to abandon its policy of guaranteeing on-campus housing for first-year students due to an increase in new admissions, a commitment to house first-year students who deferred their freshman year because of COVID‑19 last year and the loss of on-campus beds as a result of renovations.

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Jim Dunsdon, the school’s associate vice-president of student affairs, said he’s hopeful more off-campus rentals will come online in August, and “members of our community will again rent out those rooms and suites to support students moving to Victoria.”

The university has guaranteed first-year students on-campus housing for about 10 years, but Dunsdon said it received 2,400 applications for about 2,100 spaces this year.

“In a typical year, we see about 2,000 first-year students living on campus and another 2,000 living in the community. This year, that community number will be higher,” he said.

The decision to abandon housing guarantees was made in February, and Dunsdon said families and potential students were informed immediately.

Fall registration has been strong, with enrolment for the fall term up 2.8 per cent at 19,275 this year, versus to 18,759 students last year. UVic typically enrolls about 22,000 students each fall term.

First-year students are trying to find accommodation in a region with a rental vacancy rate of 2.2 per cent and climbing rental prices.

Dunsdon said students are feeling the impact of the low vacancy rate, reluctance of some renters to reopen rooms and apartments as the community emerges from the pandemic, and hesitancy in renting to first-year students.

Wendy Albers, property manager at Complete Residential Management, said first-year students, in particular, face challenges. “If they are first-year students, the odds are they don’t have any kind of credit rating, they don’t have any kind of rental references and a lot of property management firms are leery about renting to them.” Even if they are willing to rent, prices can be high.

Albers said one of her clients chose to buy a condo in a strata property managed by Complete, rather than rent, just so their first-year student would have a place to stay.

“It was cheaper to buy the unit, even with strata fees, than rent,” she said. In some buildings, one-bedroom units are fetching rents of $1,495 to $1,695 a month.

Albers said it’s now the norm for students to rent units months in advance of school starting, and not to move out at the end of the school year. “They are now keeping them and subletting or just paying the rent to ensure they have something.”

A mother of a first-year student from Calgary said she was starting to consider having her son defer his first year, or buying a condo, before they managed to beat out dozens of others to get a rental house just three days ago.

She had been told by her Victoria real estate agent that it would be difficult to get a closing date in time for September, which meant the idea of buying a condo was shelved and they were back to fighting for a rental.

The mother, who asked not to be named, said it was stressful after her son was told in July that his waiting-list number was in the high 2,100s in a competition for fewer than 2,100 campus beds.

“Why are we having to deal with it so late in the summer?” she said. “They need to help students and give them information much earlier. Get it wrapped up by June.”

She said it’s just one more indignity for a group of students who in most cases missed out on in-person schooling over the last year, along with school sports and time with their friends. “They’ve endured enough over the last 18 months — this should have been a lot easier.”

Dunsdon said the university intends to return to its first-year guarantee next fall, as the first of two new on-campus housing options is expected to be completed in September 2022.

When fully built by the fall of 2023, the $232.4-million project near the Student Union Building will have two new residences with beds for 783 students.

Meantime, Dunsdon said the university is offering students tools and tips to find accommodations, along with free postings for people in the region who have a room to rent.

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