A Saanich councillor is calling for more housing after a university student attacked Saanich’s approach towards enforcement of housing bylaws.
“This is a matter of intergenerational equality,” said Coun. Zac de Vries. “We need to do more to ensure that students have secure access to housing.” He made these comments after Saanich council heard from Emma Edmonds, a third-year political science student and varsity cross-country runner for the University of Victoria (UVic).
On Jan. 21, she told councillors of an open forum that Saanich is evicting her and six other UVic students under Section 5. 20 of Saanich’s zoning bylaw, from their residence in the 1800 block of Teakwood Place near the intersection of McKenzie Avenue and Gordon Head Road. The bylaw section states the number of “persons unrelated by blood or marriage” in a dwelling “including boarders shall not exceed four.”
The housemates have been told they need to leave the home by Jan. 31, with Edmonds stating she is not advocating for herself and her housemates, but for others caught up in similar situations.
Edmonds said her case is not unique in calling on Saanich to change its bylaws. “[Section 5.20] is discriminatory towards students and needs to be amended,” she said.
Mayor Fred Haynes interrupted her to tell that she could not talk about bylaw enforcement issues under open forum procedures. He did, however, encourage her to talk about student housing in general, an offer she accepted.
“When students say to Saanich ‘we need affordable housing’, we are dismissed and given a reality check,” she said. Students are told to move elsewhere, while on the other hand, Saanich readily listens to non-students, who complain about students living in their neighbourhood, according to Edmonds.
“They aren’t told, ‘this is the market here.’ Instead, they are told, ‘don’t worry, get one more of your friends to complain and we will evict them’. I’m here to say that the current complaint system is not working.”
This prompted the mayor to remind her again of the procedures, while encouraging her to talk to Saanich bylaw enforcement. “We are totally committed to addressing the housing crisis,” he said. “We have done some heavy lifting on student housing, but I don’t want to get into more dialogue on this, because this is not the appropriate forum.”
De Vries, who himself recently graduated from UVic and is familiar with housing issues through his past work in the student government, said he is not calling for leniency. But he is calling for comprehensive changes to reflect the current situation.
“Bylaws restricting the number of unrelated occupants in one residence were not conceived in the context of housing crisis, much less the context of a student housing crisis,” he said. “I think the prudent policy solution here is that the bylaw be amended to allow for the number of unrelated residents to correspond to the number of bedrooms in a residence.”
Coun. Rebecca Mersereau said Edmonds has a point.
“Although it was not the right avenue to raise a concern about bylaw enforcement, I thought the delegation of UVic students at the meeting last night raised a legitimate policy-related concern: that our current bylaws that limit the number of unrelated individuals who can occupy a single home may be discriminatory against students,” she said. “In fact, in light of our very expensive housing market and a rental market with near zero vacancy, it’s possible that it could be construed as discriminatory toward a much larger group of people, such as those on lower incomes.”
Edmonds’ appearance before council has once again drawn attention to the tension between non-students and students seeking housing in the same area.
Of the 18,000 undergraduate students that attend UVic, 78 per cent live off-campus. While some live with their parents or other family members, many are competing with other students and non-students for an increasingly shrinking and therefore unaffordable supply of rental housing with several factors stacked against them.
Most students generally need housing for eight months of the year, but landlords are often looking for a longer commitment. Landlords also hold considerable leverage over rental rates in the region, and some municipalities have artificially limited the supply of off-campus housing by prohibiting certain types of housing. Restrictive municipal bylaws (such as Oak Bay’s ban on garden suites) continue to restrict what could be accessible options for students, although municipalities have begun to lift some restrictions of late.
It is against this background that authorities in all spheres of government are working to improve the supply of student housing. Saanich has taken various steps designed to expand housing options off-campus, while the provincial government has taken steps to build more on-campus housing.
In October 2018, the provincial government announced $200 million for more student housing on the UVic campus that will result in a net gain of 620 units.