Students caught up in rental crunch

Finding housing can be a challenge for students at UVic and Camosun College

University of Victoria student SJ Valiquette and her roommates found accommodations in Gordon Head after months of trying in the highly competitive rental market.

It took SJ Valiquette and her roommates nearly three months to find a place together ahead of the school year, but they found one.

The trio are among the lucky University of Victoria students, as they move in to their new house today (Sept. 1), a three-bedroom in Gordon Head.

Before they found their place, they came up short time after time, where each showing would have at least five other parties there, said Valiquette, a third-year theatre major.

“As soon as we saw it, we were driving around the block and realized, this is a good place, we better go back and offer a deposit with the application,” Valiquette said.

Their haste paid off as they signed a lease right away.

“We knew from going to previous showings that it would go fast, and we were told multiple offers came in, sight unseen, after we signed the lease,” Valiquette added.

As a third-year, Valiquette said she and her roommates aren’t interested in living on campus anymore. Valiquette waited three years after high school before entering UVic. However, she does want to live close to the school.

In the 1990s, it was normal to find second, third and fourth-year students living on campus. However, with the growth of the enrolment at UVic to 20,000 students per year, and the number of resident beds staying the same at 2,200, it’s part of the strain on the already-low vacancy rate of 0.6 per cent in Greater Victoria.

There is a similar problem at Camosun College, where the school has greatly expanded over the past 20 years with multiple long-term programs, yet has no on-campus housing for students. Between Camosun and UVic, which hasn’t added resident buildings since the early 1990s, there are thousands of students seeking housing in the region each year, mostly in Saanich.

“The situation is more intense than I can recall, there’s an unprecedented need for housing for [Camosun] as an organization,” said Rachael Grant, Camosun College Student Society’s external executive. “Unfortunately, Camosun has no residences, and there’s not a lot we can do directly other than talk to politicians and put pressure on them.”

The solution Grant sees, as do many, is to build more campus housing. But to do so, the provincial government must relax the legislative restrictions around borrowing money for a new campus residence. The provincial government’s reporting entity accounting rules require the capital investment to be recorded as province-wide debt, which is not permitted.

In the meantime, the Camosun Student Society can only direct people to online resources, same as the UVic Student Society, which try to provide help beyond the listings for rentals on Craigslist and UsedVictoria.

“We try to make people aware of their rights as tenants, as this housing market often puts people in predatory situations where there’s illegal setups, such as makeshift kitchens with hot plates instead of a stove [and oven],” Grant said.

Joel Lynn is UVic’s executive director of student services, which runs a series of programs for first-year undergrads, who are all guaranteed a place on campus.

“The rental shortage in Greater Victoria is a concern to everyone, including students, who are subject to the same market forces, but the rental market factors are often beyond the control of the university,” he said.

UVic has about 2,000 first-year undergrads this year, and only 2,200 bed spaces in total, which includes 181 spaces for grad student family housing.

Cluster housing, which was once reserved to third and fourth-year undergrads, is also reserved for first-years.

Lynn said that UVic has started the process of adding on-campus housing. An architectural consulting team is in place and is looking at sites on campus, moving forward with early planning that will provide housing for upper-year undergrads and grads.

However, it should be happening now, said Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming, of the NDP.

“Students can’t find a place to live because the B.C. Liberals won’t let schools like UVic, SFU and UBC build residences,” Fleming said. “B.C.’s universities have the reserve funds to build newer, much-needed residences. UVic should be allowed, at a minimum, to immediately begin building 500 more [beds].”

At this stage, the demand for housing outstrips the risk of debt for post-secondary campus housing, Fleming said, not to overlook the low interest rates.

It’s an issue the B.C. Liberals raised six years ago, he said.

“Christy Clark has totally failed to fix an issue her government promised to address six years ago. We’ve got the tightest vacancy rate in Canada and the third highest rents in the country. Our region’s housing needs have never been greater. More rental supply would help all renters in our region.”

Until more student housing is erected, there will continue to be stories of improper suites for rent.

“We nearly accepted a suite with two hot plates and a toaster oven instead of a kitchen,” Valiquette said.

At one point, one of her roommates had given up hope and attempted to find a place for herself.

“I was adamant we would find a [decent] place for all three of us,” Valiquette said.