Efe Türker looks back at his first attempt at moving out as a complete disaster.
An international student at UVic from Turkey, Türker was told by rental agents that because of where he was from, he wouldn’t be selected as a tenant. Often, he says, he was even refused a rental application form.
“I was told that I wasn’t Canadian or ‘even European,’ so I didn’t stand a chance in their selection process,” says Türker, now in his third year at UVic and the Director of International Student Relations for the University of Victoria Students’ Society.
“When I brought up those comments to the company, I was told they were professionals and I simply didn’t understand what they ‘actually meant’ or how the rental market works.”
Türker is not alone in this experience. With a vacancy rate of 1.2 per cent and 78 per cent of UVic students living off campus, finding a place to live as a student in Victoria can be tough. But added financial hurdles, scams, potential language barriers, and overt racism are just the tip of what some international students have encountered in the struggle to find and maintain housing.
One of the most common hurdles Türker has witnessed has been landlords requiring proof of income from prospective international student tenants to ensure they can pay rent. International students often don’t have significant income from inside Canada, as student visas prohibit them from full time employment. Income from abroad, such as through money transfers or credit cards from their home countries, is often not considered a credible enough source of revenue.
“Being an international student makes it significantly harder to rent … I had a hard time convincing the rental agents that I had a stable income, and I wasn’t going to trash their apartment,” says Türker.
“Being a uni student as well as an international student certainly affects any chances of renting negatively.”
Since some international students may have little experience in Canada before searching for housing or aren’t able to fluently communicate in English, they can be targeted by certain landlords and taken advantage of financially. Some landlords charge international students more for rent than their domestic counterparts — which Türker says stems from a “cash cow mentality” that all international students are wealthy.
The root of most of these negative experiences, however, is racist behaviour exhibited by some landlords, rental agents, and property managers in their interactions with international students.
Paula Raimondi, a fourth-year UVic student from Mexico, has encountered this several times since moving to Victoria.
After moving in to her first house in second year, Raimondi was horrified to discover that it was infested with fleas. When Raimondi told her landlord, she was met with the first of many racist comments that she describes as “subtle but still hurtful.”
“The landlady asked me if I was sure I hadn’t brought [the fleas] from a hotel in Mexico,” Raimondi says. Later, it was revealed that the infestation was actually caused by the landlord’s dog.
Soon after, Raimondi moved out of that house.
“Upon my leaving, [the property manager] told me she was sure I could cash in my security deposit from ‘the community I came from,’” she says.
At both of the places she rented in her second year, Raimondi says her landlords assumed she did not know her rights as a tenant. Since then, she’s avoided renting a place without people she knows.
Julianna Nielsen, who co-chairs UVic’s chapter of World University Service of Canada (WUSC), has helped to resettle nine international refugees in Victoria within her last year and a half of involvement, working with three of those students directly. For students that are from outside the country, outside the province, or are first time renters, Nielsen sees unfamiliarity with the B.C. Tenancy Act as an issue contributing to housing insecurity.
“It’s important that students coming into Victoria are familiar with their rights and responsibilities as tenants, protecting them from unfair rent increases, wrongful claims to damage/security deposits, and illegal evictions,” she says. However, she feels this information is hard to come by for first time renters.
Although she grew up on Vancouver Island, Nielsen has her share of negative experiences with renting in Victoria herself (as do many domestic UVic students). Last August, her landlord proposed a 16 per cent rent increase (B.C. set the legal limit for rent increases at 2.5 per cent for 2019). Nielsen’s upstairs neighbours had recently been evicted so the landlord’s family — with a newborn and a toddler — could move in, and she ultimately decided to move to avoid the noise and having to negotiate a fair rent increase.
“It was really frustrating, and we ended up having to move much further away from the university,” she said.
Both Nielsen and Türker, though heavily involved with international students and housing both in their work and as students, are unaware of any official support systems for international students faced with these issues. Homestays facilitated through UVic can be expensive, limited, and sometimes restrictive, although Türker personally attests to the positive impact of this program at Camosun College.
“I think a lot of the housing support for students is provided by other students,” says Nielsen.
When coping with housing issues in her second year, Raimondi found support in her group of UVic friends from Mexico who helped give her a place to stay between apartments.
“The hard lesson I learned … is that when you’re international, you gotta stick with your people, find a community that shares your nationality and/or culture,” she says.
“Alone, I was vulnerable — no one to understand what I was going through and no one to help me.”
Türker encourages any international student being exploited, targeted by scams, or subjected to discriminatory behavior to reach out to him through the UVSS or file a dispute with the Residential Tenancy Branch.
“I just want to make sure everyone knows their rights and how to handle the rental market,” said Türker. “It’s almost an inevitable destination for all of us.”