Students left without housing as classes start

Campus Local News

Unable to find housing, students ask whether or not to defer 

UVic residence buildings
Photo by Michael John Lo.

For many students, starting school at UVic in September also meant finding housing in Victoria. In a city notorious for its low vacancy rates and high rents, students struggled to find housing. Some were still looking in mid-August and worried about finding housing before classes began. 

One of these students, Jashan Khandal, is a second year student from Abbotsford. They did their first year remote and are preparing to move to the Island as soon as they’re able to find housing. Their options, however, are limited.

“By the time you even send a message, somebody else has already gotten the place,” says Khandal. “The last place I came across was an abnormally small room described to me as stinky and funky. So even the remaining options are not the best.”

Khandal now spends their days scrolling through housing posts, sending emails, and calling anyone he knows who might be able to help. 

“I can’t have a conversation without bringing [my housing search] up,” says Khandal. “It’s terrifying. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

Khandal’s experience is not unique. A tight rental market, last year’s pandemic deferrals and a loss of on-campus beds due to the new residence construction have all contributed to a lack of student housing. By the end of August, many students were left searching for accommodation. 

Numerous students still without housing

There has been a housing crisis in Victoria for years, but students say this year seems worse. The UVic Off Campus Housing Facebook Page conducted an informal poll in a post on August 17. Through the poll, 302 people said they were students still looking for housing. 

The latest report from the Canada Mortgage Housing Association showed the vacancy rate for Victoria at 2.2 percent in October 2020. The average price for a one-bedroom apartment has soared to $1 756 this August.

UVic’s residence construction has added to the number of students looking for off-campus housing. 

UVic currently has 2 100 beds on campus and new residences are under construction to provide an additional 621 beds. The first of these won’t be available until next fall and the project removed two old residence buildings plus the Cadboro Commons building. Before the latest residence construction was approved, there were other housing projects in motion. Initial plans proposed turning the old Ducks building downtown into 108 units of condos, with 59 units of market rental housing giving preference to grad students. The plan was scrapped in favour of the construction of a hotel. This will be the second hotel, along with Swans Hotel and Brew Pub, owned by UVic Properties, a subsidiary of UVic.

UVic stated this year that they could not guarantee first year housing like they have in the past. 

“Within the context of the ongoing pandemic, it was difficult to know how many students would be interested in traveling to Victoria and living on the UVic campus this September,” says Joel Lynn, Executive Director of Student Services. 

Some of the city’s rental housing is reliant on independent landlords and the pandemic, as well as the competitive market, have changed how they’ve managed their properties.

“Landlords have taken advantage of the red hot real estate market and sold their properties while others remain concerned about renting to students given lingering pandemic related considerations,” says Joel Lynn, Executive Director of Student Services.

Landlords are receiving a high amount of applications and some even deal with bidding wars from potential tenants. Students say some landlords are also making their search more difficult.

“I’ve seen landlords taking advantage of the situation, purposely raising their prices, because students are so desperate,” says Khandal. 

Municipality bylaws can also amplify the housing crisis by prohibiting secondary suites or extra roommates. Maximum occupancy limits mean that houses that have room for more students aren’t legally allowed to fill all of their bedrooms. The Saanich occupancy limit was increased from four to six last summer but in other municipalities, such as Oak Bay, limits are at a maximum of three unrelated roommates to a residence. Secondary suites are also illegal in Oak Bay.

Between the residence construction, hot property market, and municipality bylaws, it’s no wonder students are having trouble finding housing. For some, the situation has made it so dire that they’ve had to consider deferring their education.

Students unable to return to campus

UVic history student Bradley Carston knows these housing struggles all too well. Because of the pandemic, Bradley Carston decided to take a year off and stay at home on the mainland and work. He gave up the housing he’d secured in Victoria, not expecting it would be such a challenge to find a place when he returned.

“It’s such a big problem that [UVic] hasn’t really been dealing with…they left it to the last minute,” he said. “[Housing solutions] don’t happen in the space of four months.” 

Having worked in the wood industry throughout his education, Carston says he’s in a better spot financially than most students but he’s concerned about his peers. 

“I know that people are going to be making sacrifices to come back, whether that’s food or whatever else,” says Carston. “Or they may not come back at all.” 

Kaela Whittingham, a third year biology student, is an active member of the UVic Off Campus Housing Facebook group. Whittingham managed to secure housing for herself but she’s been helping others find homes by editing application letters, going to showings on behalf of students, and trying to find potential landlords. 

“I’ve experienced homelessness in Victoria. I’ve moved five times in the past two years,” says Whittingham. “I have experienced dealing with landlords in Victoria and it’s been rough.”

She’s spent hours calling hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs, asking if they’d be willing to lower their prices for students. 

“A lot of tourist-based industries have been hit really hard by COVID. It’s a big ask for them to lower their prices.”

When vacation rentals didn’t pan out, Whittingham switched to churches. She and a group of volunteers have been calling pastors and going to churches on Sundays in the hopes of getting the message out to parishioners who might have spare rooms or suites in their homes. As a professional landscaper, Whittingham has even offered her skills to try to entice potential landlords. 

Whittingham is disappointed with how UVic handled the housing situation this year. 

“UVic’s attitude towards housing students has been really apathetic to say the least, and cruel at the worst,” says Whittingham.

Stories detailed in the Facebook group or on the Instagram account @tentlife2021, confirm Carston’s and Whittingham’s fears. Some posts say that students have been forced to give up their UVic dreams, or even give up scholarships, because they could not find affordable housing. 

“UVic has failed not only its students and the Victoria community, but the Canadian community, the international community,” says Khandal. “We have international students coming here that still don’t have places.”

Petition calls on UVic to help

Lottie Peer, a UVic student, launched a petition calling on UVic to “help find housing solutions for students.” At the time of writing, 1047 signatures were penned. 

Peer is one of the lucky ones. After just under 1 000 emails, a house resume, and a lot of hours, she secured a place to live. 

“It was like a full time job, 9-5 just corresponding with landlords to find a place,” says Peer. “There were people wearing suits at house showings, and every one I went to had like 30 groups looking and the landlords were super overwhelmed.”

Peer felt she had to do something for her peers who were still searching. 

“It’s so hard to believe or comprehend what’s happening: people asking for couches, organizing living in tents, because they actually have no other options.” 

She hopes the petition will raise awareness and maybe spark some action from UVic. Since creating the petition, Peer says she’s had an overwhelming number of responses. Peer is especially passionate about lobbying to change bylaws around the number of roommates in a house. Peer is currently one of six tenants living in a seven-room house because the bylaw prevents an additional roommate. 

Other Universities have opted to house students in hotels. In 2011, Guelph University housed 64 students in a Best Western when acceptance offers were higher than usual. And last year, during the pandemic, hotels became a popular solution for American colleges in order to maintain physical distance within their residences.

“There are so many people trying to solve [this problem] that are students,” says Peer. “Really the best way to solve this issue is to have the university look at it because they have money, they have people and they have the resources.”

UVic is covering the registration fee for landlords posting properties on their partner housing site Places4Students. The deferral deadline for students was extended from August 1st to August 6th. Those in the housing lottery had until August 31st to defer. On July 21st they held a webinar about finding housing in Victoria. 

“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,” says Lynn.

With classes started, this problem isn’t likely to disappear. Students are still desperately searching, others who have chosen temporary solutions will be forced back into the rental market soon. Many found homes by stretching themselves financially. 

And students who deferred this year may find themselves looking at a similar market next year and wondering: What good is a university acceptance or in-person classes if you have no place to live?