Housing shortages on and off campus cause anxiety for incoming students
Macy Arnold spends her summer nights scrolling through rental listings with her mom. The pair will reach out to landlords, ask to view the property via FaceTime, and rarely receive a response. Arnold, an incoming second-year Environmental Studies and Geography major at UVic, has found the routine exhausting.
“I could send out five emails in one day, and a couple days later, maybe one gets back to me, but still it falls through, so it’s been really hard,” Arnold told the Martlet.
As students return to Greater Victoria for September 2021, a tight rental market and overcrowding on campus have made house hunting a stressful process. Faced with high rents, low vacancies, and bylaws that limit affordable housing options, students seeking to rent in Greater Victoria face competition and anxiety in the search for accommodation.
On-campus housing limited
With UVic reopening for in-person study, many students are returning to Victoria, seeking the on-campus residence experience. Incoming first-year students, students who deferred acceptances due to COVID-19, and upper-year students who have spent a year studying online, are all seeking the social and academic benefits offered by living on campus, resulting in a swell of applications for rooms.
In past years, the university has provided a first-year housing guarantee. For the 2021-2022 academic year, however, an unexpectedly high number of applications has led the university to establish a “first-year priority” rule instead. With this change, students are offered accommodation through a housing lottery format, meaning applicants receive a number and are offered beds in residence based on that number. According to the university, first-year priority means that first-year students will be offered rooms first, in numerical order, before any other students in upper years receive offers.
The lottery system was also used for fall 2020, when rooms on campus were limited due to COVID-19 restrictions. The decision to use a lottery again in 2021 was made before housing applications even opened. According to UVic, planning for fall 2021 needed to begin early in the year, when there was still a lot of uncertainty around potential pandemic restrictions. The decision to use a lottery was therefore made primarily in response to the need for flexibility to respond to the rapidly changing COVID-19 public health guidelines as well as uncertainty around the demand for on-campus housing.
A recent update published on August 5th on UVic’s residence service’s website announced that all rooms on campus have now been assigned, and that students with lottery numbers above 1975 are unlikely to be offered rooms. Over 90 per cent of residence beds were reserved for first year students.
For students who didn’t receive a room on campus, UVic has tried to offer additional support. A July 21 webinar on finding housing in Victoria remains available online, and the university is paying registration fees for landlords listing properties on a site dedicated to matching student tenants with landlords.
Although students were made aware of the decision to move to a lottery-based system during the admissions process, the lottery has still caused anxiety for many students–whether it’s incoming first-year students, many of whom are living away from home for the first time, or students like Arnold who are in second or upper years and still struggling to find places on or off campus.
“I applied for cluster housing, and my number is 45, so at first it seemed really promising,” Arnold said. But with each update from the university , she’s given up the idea of living on campus. Now, Arnold is searching for off campus housing, but because she lives on the mainland, she’s been unable to view properties in person, compounding the challenge of securing housing.
Currently, UVic is building a $232.4-million new housing and dining project, which will house 783 students. But construction isn’t set to be completed until 2022 for one building and 2023 for the second building, and the project involved the removal of two older, existing residence buildings as well as the Cadboro Commons Building.
“I just wish UVic could build more campus housing faster,” Arnold said. “It’s not super helpful for students now.”
Low vacancy and high rents off campus
Even for students who are rental market veterans, this year’s struggle is unique. Sofia Scholefield, a UVic student, said that they have found housing within a few weeks in previous years. This year, it took them two months.
Student housing in Victoria has been an ongoing debate for years, both on and off campus.
Between 2001 and 2011, population growth in the CRD was relatively steady at around 1 per cent per year. In the last decade, though, population growth accelerated dramatically, reaching 1.7 per cent per year. In Saanich alone in 2020, this seemingly small spike in growth rate has resulted in population numbers already exceeding projected expectations for the year 2026. Rapid population growth without commensurate increases in housing development has resulted in low vacancy rates and high rent. Scholefield even found herself in a bidding war over a rental property, with the landlord claiming other applicants were offering to pay rent a thousand dollars above the listed price.
British Columbia also has the highest rate of forced moves for renters in the country, mostly because of “renovictions” as aging properties require repairs and upgrades, or due to non-payment of rent. B.C. law limits the amount that rent can increase each year, but when renters are forced to move, they end up paying the “mover’s penalty,” or the difference between their old, controlled rent, and the rapidly increasing market rent.
Since 1991, the CRD has built 2062 purpose-built rental units in Greater Victoria. In that time, the city’s population also grew by 113,000 people.
Greater Victoria is Canada’s third most-expensive city, with median asking rates for studios at $1325 and one-bedroom apartments just under $1700 as of August 2021, according to PadMapper.
And while housing costs rise, student incomes have been declining. In an interview with the Martlet, Robin Pollard, the University of Victoria Student Society’s Director of Campaigns, outlined just how pronounced affordability problems have become for students.
“Many have seen a loss or reduction of income over the time of this pandemic, as workplaces—especially retail, food service, and hospitality, industries where many students work—have closed, temporarily closed, or reduced service,” said Pollard.
In 2017, a report by the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) found that 70.46 per cent of students surveyed reported a yearly income that places them below the national low-income cut-off. Over 58 per cent of these students reported spending most of their total income on housing, and almost half (42.23 per cent) had experienced difficulty paying rent in the last six months. The pandemic and resulting employment insecurity have only exacerbated issues that have existed in Greater Victoria for years.
Comparatively, rental rates for on-campus housing seem reasonable: a fully furnished cluster room in a shared unit costs around $904 per month, and a one-bedroom apartment in campus housing is priced around $1133 per month–below the median asking rate for one-bedrooms off-campus.
“Affordability is also a big challenge,” says Rita Rose Bunrayong, who is beginning her second year at UVic. She’s searching for housing with her girlfriend, an international student, but finds that most affordable options only allow one tenant.
Student advocacy through the UVSS Rent With Rights Campaign has led to recent changes to local housing policy. In 2020, the Saanich municipal council voted to legalize garden suites, which are defined as “detached, ground-oriented dwellings located in the rear yard of a property with a single-family house as its principal use” for long-term rental.
The same year, the UVSS advocated to change another Saanich bylaw that prevented more than four unrelated people from living in one dwelling. The bylaw disproportionately impacted students, who live with roommates to offset high costs of living–a 2017 survey of post-secondary students found that 36.79% of respondents lived with 3 or more people.
Despite this success, similar bylaws still exist in other municipalities close to campus. In Oak Bay, for example, living with more than three roommates is still illegal.
The Rent With Rights Campaign plans to continue lobbying for better housing options for students, Pollard says. The group continues to lobby for bylaw changes in Oak Bay, and has been part of a B.C.-wide campus housing working group seeking to create and implement the “residence minimum standards act” to protect students living in on-campus housing who aren’t protected by the Residential Tenancy Act.
Students say legal housing is hard to come by
But for students like Bunrayong, illegal housing can seem like the only option left.
“I’ve heard a lot of the housing in Victoria is illegal,” she said. “But with all the limiting options, I feel like that is unavoidable.” Bunrayong has been searching for housing for over a month without success.
Pollard explained that students use roommate arrangements to mitigate the costs of Victoria’s housing market.
“Making roommates illegal unfairly targets students and other people who are seeking more affordable housing options,” she said. “And it puts tenants who may be living this way in a precarious situation, potentially facing eviction, which can seriously put people at risk of houselessness when there are so few other options within reach.”
The search continues
“Some of them [landlords] told me they received over a hundred messages in under two hours,” said Bunrayong, who continues to apply for rentals. With so much competition, she worries she’ll be unable to find housing before her lease ends at the end of August.
Arnold also expressed concern over being unable to experience campus life if she can’t find accommodations.
“Will I even be able to go to the island now?” she asked, reflecting the uncertainty and anxiety among students returning to in-person learning on campus.
After the uncertainty and stress of the past year, students are eager to return to campus and a semblance of normalcy. But for students balancing school and other responsibilities, housing struggles are causing more stress and anxiety.
“We have to be able to reach work and school within a reasonable amount of time,” Bunrayong said. “Is this too picky? I feel like it’s not too pickly. I feel like it’s reasonable.”