Friday, December 15, 2017

The broken lease: Camosun students are struggling to study in a housing crisis out of control

November 15, 2017 by Felicia Santarossa, features writer

As any Camosun student who has tried to find a place to rent in the past year knows, Victoria is in a housing crisis. There are too few rentals, and they are too expensive. The vacancy rate is a miniscule 0.5 percent. Camosun students are clamouring to find places to live while pursuing their studies, and they’re suffering for it: their studies are suffering; their mental health is suffering. What is to be done as demand becomes greater than supply? What alternatives to this situation are available? What is being done to control the market?

And when will Camosun students be able to worry about their studies instead of worrying about survival?

What gives with the housing market?

The housing costs in Victoria are going up with the price of real estate, which has been significantly rising the past couple years, says newly elected Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) external executive Mitchell Auger-Langejan. Single detached homes will be approaching $1 million in the next few years, he says, which is similar to what happened in Vancouver. He says that the people who buy these places sometimes finance them by renting them or by using them as investments in order to get more property as a source of income and a way of building equity.

“It’s a way for investors to store money and it’s a way for people who are looking to get out of renting between storing money and equity,” says Auger-Langejan. “It’s a fairly safe investment, especially in a place like Victoria, and what that’s doing is that it’s raising the costs of rents very significantly. It’s not uncommon to go onto a forum like UsedVictoria and look for housing and find one-bedrooms that are going for $1,500.”

First-year Camosun University Transfer student Mckayla Meyer had to move in with her aunt after moving to Victoria from Prince George.

This story originally appeared in our November 15, 2017 issue.

“I came here and I kind of expected to just find a part-time job and take some classes, but I realized you can’t work part-time and afford a place,” she says, “so I’d have to either commit to school and get a good student loan where I could afford that, or rely on friends and family to help out, so my aunt agreed to let me live there as long as I’m going to school.”

Unfortunately, this struggle to find housing is common among Camosun students, who are often trying to balance getting an education with finding a place to live. Or, in some cases, they can’t even find a place to live.

Student snapshot

First-year Nursing student Mark Dos Santos found himself couch surfing as a result of the housing crisis. He came to Victoria in mid-August and found there weren’t many good housing options for September; things were really expensive and decent dwellings were already taken. This led him to have to share his friend’s apartment for about two months.

“The hardest part, actually, was not having a fixed address for ID and stuff like that,” he says. “I still have my ID from last year, when I was at school; you can’t update the ID unless you have an actual tenancy agreement and stuff like that. So when you’re couch surfing, you just don’t have a permanent address, which gets kind of weird with paperwork, shipping; it makes it kind of hard.”

Dos Santos managed to find a place for November, but only after checking 10 different apartments and many other different houses and other living situations. While he feels confident in his selection, he says it’s hard to find a place, as they get taken very fast.

And even if students happen to find a place, who’s to say it will be secure? First-year Digital Communications student Sharon Hill found what she considers to be a “nice place” near the Royal Jubilee Hospital, but she’ll have to move soon: the owner has decided to put the house up for sale. That leaves Hill hanging, because she has six months to go before the end of her program.

“Because rents are so high, I can’t afford to get my own suite,” she says. “And when you’re living in a shared accommodation, there’s never any real stability in that, because one person can just up and move, and that would leave you homeless or stuck trying to find a way to get a roommate.”

And if renting is such a bleak picture, home ownership, Hill notes, is “not even a thought.” For now, she’s focused on finding anywhere at all to live until she finds a decent enough job to cover the high costs of living and rent in Victoria.

Then there’s the little matter of illegal housing.

Stuck with a half-made home

First-year University Transfer student Isaac Barrios has dealt with his fair share of substandard homes. Coming to Camosun as an international student from Panama, his experiences with housing in Victoria have often been on the sketchy side.

“I have a place, but I’m trying to find another place because all of these have been, like, illegal suites, basically,” he says. “Not the first one, but afterwards, they were all illegal suites.”

After getting out of his first house, Barrios rented a place with a friend as his landlord, who proved to be a little problematic. While he was paying the $600 rent, another person occupied the room that he was to stay in. He says he had to sleep in the living room for two weeks, as he had nowhere else to go.

“I was couch surfing and it kind of sucked,” he says. “It was a weird relationship with this guy because he was my friend, but also my landlord. I’d be trying to do homework—and because I had no privacy, I’d just be doing my homework on the floor next to my couch—and he’d just come and vent his problems to me, and I’d be like, okay, I’ve got to be a good friend, and also don’t want to get kicked out.”

Barrios’ current living conditions are an example of what some students have to deal with in the current housing market.

“My bedroom wall isn’t even really a wall to the rest of the house,” he says. “It’s like a curtain with the door. It’s kind of odd, being made to pay $550 for not even a room.”

He says that the amount of noise he can hear from upstairs makes him wonder if his ceiling has any insulation. This can be frustrating, as he goes to bed early, and his landlords will still be making noise late into the night, he says.

“I’ve talked to them, like, ‘Yo, can you guys please just keep it down?’ They’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ It’s Chinese landlords, so there’s a huge language barrier there and also an emotional language barrier there,” he says. “I don’t know; it’s a culture thing. So now he’s having construction outside the house because he’s building a second floor in one section, and you’re not supposed to do that.”

Barrios doesn’t think he differs much from domestic students, saying, “It’d be kind of just the same situation,” as four out of the eight people he’s met during his housing struggles were domestic students struggling with these same issues. He considers himself an oddity amongst international students due to his ability to understand Western culture and his good grasp on English. He says that some international students find it hard to “manage themselves in this culture.”

“I had to help my Bangladesh roommate around with the whole housing situation, like, ‘You’ve got to read this, look out for that, look out for this.’”

Auger-Langejan says that he’s living in an illegal duplex and that “the house isn’t zoned to be rented to tenants.” While he could use his rights as a tenant to have it investigated, that could put him out on the street, he says.

“I spent the last year or so looking for a new place, and it’s been very, very hard to find a place,” he says. “They’ll rent out very, very unconventional spaces—like, they’re very clearly not meant to be apartments; they’ve only been refurbished very hastily and very cheaply in order to make rental revenue to take advantage of the housing crisis.”

Auger-Langejan says there are some legitimate places students can rent, but he says it’s difficult because students are all in a big lottery against other people, trying to get places they all need. He says students would have better luck by going in with a few roommates renting a floor of a house, but he says it’s tough no matter what. Over the past eight months, he says, he’s had very little luck finding another place to go from his current spot.

“Everything in the house is fairly poor in quality,” he says. “This summer, I had the ceiling in my bathroom fall through because the plumbing in the building has never been replaced. That took some time for them to fix. I did end up going to the rec centre for a couple of months to shower while they were working.”

Auger-Langejan encourages students to keep looking for a new place even if the housing situation is quite bad, pointing out that students need a healthy and safe place to sleep at night.

“If you’re a student, you need a secure place to live. You need a place that doesn’t make you depressed, has natural light, there isn’t a draft running through your house, proper heating… They need these basic amenities that I think homeowners that have been established in Victoria have taken for granted, and I don’t think that they realize that these are actually no longer something that is guaranteed as a renter in Victoria,” he says.

The housing crisis means there could be lineups of people checking out a place and then engaging in a bidding war, or it could mean that owners start asking for things like larger deposits, says Auger-Langejan.

“It’s not a want, it’s a need,” he says about housing. “It’s not something you can avoid getting, so, in creating these barriers, it’s very, very exclusive, and people need these things.”

Revisiting campus housing

With such a large housing demand from Victoria students, a possible solution is to create dorms or residences on campus. The students I spoke to for this story agreed, which left me puzzled as to why it hasn’t yet come to fruition. Camosun has been looking into dorms for a while; Camosun vice president of student experience Joan Yates says that when the college was founded, students tended to come from nearby; therefore, there was no need for dorms. But times have changed.

“We’ve been aware that housing in general has been an issue for students as a whole because they represent a demographic that’s young, and affordable housing is what’s really the issue because students don’t have the financial means that someone working full-time does,” she says. “And, of course, [with] Victoria’s housing crisis, the vacancy rate is extremely low right now. So it’s a bit of a combination of things that have occurred, and as part of that, Camosun has been looking at residences in some capacity.”

There’s been a lot of dialogue about campus housing, she says, although the major reason why Camosun has not gone through with residences is because the college is publicly funded; historically, funding agencies would fund classroom space but not dorm space.

Under provincial laws, post-secondary institutions are limited in their ability to borrow money, which would help them build residences on campus. The new NDP government has been making promises about creating more affordable student housing (minister of municipal affairs of housing Selina Robinson did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story).

Yates says that housing on campus at Camosun could serve other purposes as well, which is why she’s not concerned by the fact that students study at Camosun for a shorter period of time than students at, for example, the University of Victoria.

“In the summer, where we’re a little less busy, that would be an opportunity for summer programming,” she says. “That would be a whole different audience. Or even conferences, where we could be bringing people in. Currently, we don’t have any capacity for that.”

CCSS executive director Michel Turcotte says residences are a key component in aiding the housing crisis because of the very fact that some students are only here for a year, which is difficult to deal with in the current rental market.

“Also, some of the municipalities are trying to help by making it easier to increase rental stock that’s available out there,” he says, “but, ultimately, it’s a tough market, and it’s going to remain a tough market in the short-term because Victoria is a popular place to live and go to school.”

Meyer says that she’s avoided dorms or hostel-type living situations in the past, but, as long as the shared facilities are reasonable, she says that it’s an option.

“If there’s a dorm where maybe you have a shared main kitchen, something in your room where you can do your own basic cooking, and maybe your own toilet or something so that you’re not waiting… those are two things that have kept me out of looking at a residence type of situation. Otherwise, I’d be totally down for it,” she says.

At this point, says Yates, Camosun is assessing need is for dorms. She also points out that, on average, students at Camosun are generally a bit older than students at UVic, so Camosun might look at different arrangements, like housing with families.

“So we’re quite open to exploring it, once we get all the data in about what would be the best scenario,” she says. “I can’t tell you what the living situation arrangement would be like at this point because we don’t have that work done yet, but we will get there, I think, in terms of having a better idea.”

Running out of space

Ultimately, says Turcotte, there’s no shortage of people coming to Victoria for school and jobs, but space is running out.

“You have a lot of people who are moving here to work or for various other reasons, and a limited amount of land space in the central core,” he says. “I mean, there may be more room as you move up toward Langford—it’s hard to increase the density quickly in the main core—and there even is some resistance by existing residents to do that.”

But Victoria mayor Lisa Helps remains optimistic about the situation.

“The government has released its first budget focused on housing people who are homeless with modular housing, and I hope that in the February budget next year we’ll see significant new funding for affordable housing,” she says. “The province is committed to building 114,000 new rental units across the province in the next 10 years, so that will help. I’m optimistic that they’re going to deliver what they said they will, and that’ll help students.”

Helps says that Victoria’s tent city can be viewed as a cautionary tale, and that no one wants students living in insecure housing. When students are in school, their job is to focus, do well, learn, and take everything in, she says, not to be worrying about where they’re going to live next month.

“I don’t want to live in a city or in a region where students are couch surfing, so we’re certainly doing everything we can at the local level and trying to encourage the province and the federal government to do the same, so that we’ll have a secure housing market, so that we have secure students who can do well and succeed, graduate, and get jobs and live in Victoria,” she says. “So it’s all part of an ecosystem, and, certainly, part of my message is that if there’s anything we can do at the City to help students in their battle for housing, we’re certainly happy to do that.”

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