Canada Education : Affordable Housing: A Crisis Still In Need Of A Response

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Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s minister of colleges and universities, announced that she would be hosting a roundtable with municipalities, private colleges, the province’s 47 public universities and colleges, and construction companies “to remove barriers to creating affordable student housing on and off campus”.

This is only the latest indication that Canadian politicians have realised that the lack of affordable housing for students is a major contributor to the housing shortage in the nation’s largest and most diverse province.

In the absence of affordable student housing, many of the 412,000 international students studying in Ontario are forced into local rental markets, which distorts them and leads to housing precarity.

One day after Dunlop’s announcement, responding to the fact that the 800,000 international students in Canada this year are tied to the nation-wide housing shortage, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Marc Miller floated the idea that ‘trusted universities’ – institutions that help international students to find affordable housing – would see their applicants’ visa requests ‘fast-tracked’.

These most ‘trusted’ institutions would also, the minister said, be responsible for ensuring that these students were bona fide international students.

It is an indication of the disarray in the government’s response to the housing affordability crisis, which dominated the news this past summer, that two days before saying that the government was considering the ‘trusted universities’ programme, Miller told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that he was concerned that the public was blaming international students, as well as the almost one million immigrants who came to Canada last year, for the housing crisis that has been building for a number of years.

In the last decade, Ontario’s population has grown by almost two million people, from approximately 13.5 million in 2013 to 15.3 million in 2023. During that time, only 700,000 homes have been built.

“I do worry about the stigmatisation of particular people of diversity that come to this country to make it better, and that includes international students,” Miller said.

Sarom Roh, a leader with the Toronto, Ontario-based Migrant Students United, is also concerned that international students (as well as immigrants to Canada) are being stigmatised and unfairly blamed for the housing crisis that her organisation argues is caused by structural issues and predatory landlords.

“International students are mostly racialised people from working class families in the Global South. For them to come here, their families had to make massive sacrifices, including selling land and taking out very expensive education loans. There is anti-immigrant xenophobia that current and former international students (and migrants) are facing.

“But there’s also stigmatisation that comes from structural issues when it comes to housing. A stigma looks like the inability to find safe and affordable housing because landlords ask them to pay six months’ rent upfront [which is against the law].

“There’s the kind of stigmatisation that comes from not being able to have locks on doors or privacy [when two or three people are sharing a single mattress in a basement apartment] or to control your own heating and cooling.

“An estimated 4% to 5% of migrant students are homeless. When we consider the numbers, tens of thousands (45,000) … are going to be class stressed, hungry and not knowing where they’re going to sleep next,” said Roh.

Cap on international student numbers

At the end of August, at the governing Liberal Party of Canada’s summer caucus retreat, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was widely expected to announce a programme to deal with the housing crisis that, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association, had seen prices for new homes jump 40% in the past five years and 6.3% in the past year alone.

 

The average price for a home in Vancouver, British Columbia, is now almost CA$1.2 million (US$889,000), while on the other side of the country, in the much smaller city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, average home prices jumped CA$20,000 between July and August to CA$700,000.

Nationwide, rent for two-bedroom apartments have risen by an average of 9.6% annually. In Ottawa the rise was 12% while in Montreal, Quebec, the rise was 15% and in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 8.4%.

The one trial balloon to come out of the retreat called for the federal government to consider a temporary cap on the number of international students. “I think that’s one of the options that we ought to consider,” says Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Sean Fraser. The balloon was quickly shot down.

Quebec’s objection turned on the perennial Canadian debate about federal and provincial powers.

“Quebec does not intend to impose a cap on the number of foreign students in its jurisdiction,” said Alexander Lahaie, a spokesperson for Christine Fréchette, Quebec’s immigration minister.

“Although the issuing of study permits is the responsibility of the federal government, education is the exclusive power of Quebec. It’s up to Quebec and its educational institutions to determine the number of people they can accommodate,” he said.

Few Canadians missed the irony here. Citing the difficulty of integrating immigrants into Quebec’s French culture, the (nationalist) government of Premier François Legault refuses to take more than 50,000 per year of the more than million immigrants allowed into Canada in the past two years even though, with a population of 8.8 million, Quebec is the country’s second most populous province.

For its part, while the government of Nova Scotia declined a request for an interview, spokesperson Monica Grace MacLean provided University World News with this written statement:

“We are aware of the comments made by Federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser about placing a cap on the number of international students. At this point, it would be premature to comment as this is not a new policy, but an idea. If this is something the federal government pursues, Nova Scotia would want to be given the opportunity to be consulted.”

Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan), which represents the publicly funded post-secondary sector, issued a statement saying it “is troubled by the recent comments regarding a potential cap on international student enrolment by federal officials”.

It stated unequivocally that “international students are not to blame for Canada’s housing crisis; they are among those most impacted”.

A cap on “international students may seem to provide temporary relief, [but] it could have lasting adverse effects on our communities, including exacerbating current labour shortages”, it said.

As do most analysts, CICan underscored the fact that “Canada’s housing crisis is complex and multifaceted. We need sustainable solutions and an integrated approach that underscores shared responsibility across all levels of government”.

Roh poured scorn on the idea of a cap, noting that it had been tried, albeit by circumstances, during the COVID shutdowns and had been found wanting.

“There’s a supply and demand story that we’re being told here. But it simply doesn’t add up when we look at the numbers. Very rarely do you have an opportunity when you can test a theory, but COVID gave us the chance to test the theory of a de facto cap,” said Roh.

“For most of 2020 and all of 2021 the borders were closed and there were very few people here on temporary permits, and yet, prices for housing spiked drastically,” the cumulative rise, according to Statistics Canada, was 18%, said Roh.

Changing attitudes to immigration

Until recently immigration has not been the hot button issue in Canada that it had been in the United States and Britain. Rather, it has been called the most successful policy in modern Canadian history, as no major national political party has called for cutbacks.

 

Indeed, the Liberals and the Conservatives, the only two parties likely to form the national government, are seen as competing with each other as to which party will admit more immigrants.

In 2014, the last full year that the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper were in power, Canada admitted 260,400 immigrants. Under current Prime Minister Trudeau this figure grew to 313,000 in 2018-19 and one million last year.

The leader of the country’s official opposition, Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre, has been attacking Trudeau over the housing crisis for months, but one thing he has not called for is a cutback on immigration.

One reason for this political support is that in 41% of Canada’s 338 federal ridings new Canadians make up a majority of the population; many of these are in a ring around Toronto where Canadian federal elections are won or lost.

However, a poll by Nanos Research published in The Globe and Mail on 11 September shows that Canadians are souring on the high levels of international students coming to Canada and the high levels of immigration. 55% of Canadians want the federal government to accept fewer international students than this year’s figure of 900,000.

Concomitantly, more than half of Canadians want the country to take in fewer than this year’s target of 465,000 immigrants; just last March only one-third of Canadians wanted to see immigration cut back.

Age did not make much difference in wanting to see the number of international students curtailed, with 57% of 35 to 45-year-olds and 52.9% of 55 and older Canadians thinking so.

Market distortions

The link between the growth of international students and the housing crisis has been studied by Professor Mike Moffat, who teaches business, economics and public policy at the Ivey Business School, University of Western Ontario, and who presented his research at the Liberal’s caucus retreat.

As he told University World News last June, London, Ontario, where the university is located, is fairly typical. The city is also home to Fanshawe College. Together they have approximately 83,000 students.

 

In 2022 Fanshawe enrolled 26% more international students than it did the year before, making its total number of international students 6,500; the University of Western Ontario enrolled 4,759 international students. Together, the schools brought in 11,250 international students into London, a city of just over 400,000.

The city of Kingston, Ontario, has a population of 124,410, and is the home to Queen’s University and St Lawrence College. In 2014–15 Queen’s enrolled 2,071 international students, while St Lawrence enrolled 679. In 2021–22 the figures were 3,985 and 4,444, respectively, according to a report, Working Together to Build 1.5 Million Homes, published by the Ottawa-based PLACE Centre and written by Moffat.

When asked how large numbers of international students impact local housing markets differently than do the Canadian students who choose to go to college or university away from home, Moffat said that domestic student numbers have remained relatively stable over the years.

What has changed is the number of international students who come, for example, to Fanshawe College and the University of Western Ontario.

Given that neither school has invested in building the number of dormitory rooms needed to house these students they are forced to look for housing off campus. These students, through no fault of their own, he was at pains to emphasise, cause a ripple effect that moves through the local housing market.

“We’re seeing a lot of single-family homes getting converted into student rentals. Previously, as in most communities with colleges and universities, there were kinds of informal boundaries between where the students live and the townies. But now, the student area has been expanding out from many colleges by a block or two every year. So, the catchment area where students live is growing, particularly along bus lines.

“The effect cascades through the entire housing system. What’s happening on the student side is causing shortages on family-sized homes because of those conversions into student rentals,” said Moffat.

Large numbers of student renters distort the local rental market not only because they end up renting homes that might otherwise have been rented by families, which creates a shortage that drives up the cost of housing in the area. Additionally, as Roh explained, landlords charge students more for rent than they do families, which further drives the cost of housing.

 

Roh’s point can be seen in the premium landlords charge above the average cost of housing in local markets as determined by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

According to On Student Housing in Canada, a research report conducted for the Montreal-based Unité de travail pour l’implantation de logement étudiant (UTILE), a not-for-profit organisation that builds and manages affordable student housing, three- or four-bedroom houses – the kind that international students often live in as they share the rental costs among many students – cost students 44% more to rent than the average rental costs determined by CMHC: CA$1,797 versus CA$1,310. In Vancouver the difference is 30%; in Toronto, 55%, and in Edmonton, Alberta, 30%.

“Many students find apartments that are much too expensive for their budget,” Laurent Levesque, co-founder and CEO of UTILE, told University World News.

“They survive and manage their studies. But they are living with the financial stress of having to cough up that very high rent month after month. To pay their rent, students are forced to take more jobs and that, of course, reduces the time they can focus on their studies,” he said.

Levesque also drew attention to the study’s finding that 29% of respondents whose rent exceeds 70% of their income rated their mental health as either ‘very fragile’ or ‘fragile’.

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