By Sheila Avari
Cash-strapped students across the province are sleeping in tents, on mattresses on the floor and on friends’ couches. Some blame the lack of student housing on the province’s Tenant Protection Act, while others say I’s the lack of vacancies. But whatever the cause, the beginning of this school year has been the worst for students trying to find a home — and it’s been a month since school started.
Around Toronto, rent is higher and the wait is longer.
The waiting list for housing at Pitman Hall, the International Living and Learning Centre and O’Keefe House peaked at 220 students this summer, and 50 are still on the list, said Liza Nassim, manager of Ryerson’s student housing office.
The number of students on these lists has increased compared to last year, Nassim added. This means students have had to look for housing elsewhere, which can be more expensive.
The provincial government’s Tenant Protection Act, implemented in 1998, has become a nightmare for students scrounging to pay their tuition and find a decent place to live.
The act allows landlords to increase rent on units each time a tenant leaves, which means new tenants are forced to pay much more than previous ones. This means students leaving in May for summer vacation and returning to school in September, are at the mercy of landlords who can hike rents at will.
Students are also competing with professionals and families who are looking for places to live.
The Progressive Conservative government says the act isn’t to blame for the housing shortage.
“It is not the act as much as it is a low vacancy issue,” said Karen Vaux, spokesperson for the minister of municipal affairs and housing. “In big cities like Toronto there is more competition for low-income housing.”
Critics see the act as a way for businesses and landlords to benefit.
Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton blames the act for the increase in homelessness in Toronto and across the province.
“The Tenant Protection Act is the biggest part of the problem,” he said. “Landlords jack up the rent sky-high as soon as someone moves out. Then the students arrive and some have seen their rent go up by 100 per cent.”
The act also allows for the demolition of apartment buildings. This will dry up the supply of rental units, Liberal government housing critic David Kaplan said.
“The short supply means more competition, which means increased rent,” Kaplan said. “Students get the short end of the stick.”
The loudest critics of the act are students at Ontario universities.
To protest the shortage of housing, some students at the University of Guelph pitched tents in an open field on campus. Tent City was created to show policy makers students want housing shortage to be a top priority.
“I stayed in the tents for a few nights,” said Kyle Patton, Guelph’s central student association spokesperson. “We wanted it be a proactive service for students and not just a protest.”
The three tents have been taken down since because the students who lived in them managed to find temporary places to stay, such as friends’ couches or floors.
The university also offered mattresses on the floor of open areas on campus as temporary spaces for students without housing to crash. Half a dozen students used the mattresses.
But there were apartments available in the area, according to Pat Hagen, the University of Guelph’s off-campus housing officer. In their housing office, 150 ads were posted. “There were places available, but students were protesting [with Tent City] because of the lack of [single units].”
While most off-campus housing offices offered more than 100 postings for rental units, it’s the quality of the space that matters to students.
The University of Windsor is already having difficulty housing its flood of new students. To benefit from a growing demand from businesses for computer science graduates, the university boosted enrolment.
“Enrolment is going through the roof,” said Enver Villamizar, v.p. university affairs at the University of Windsor. “[The idea is to] let in anyone and everyone to get more funding.”
By increasing its numbers in a high-demand program, the school gets more money from the business sector. But any funding from the corporate sector is tied to specific programs only, leaving nothing to build more residences, Villamizar said.
He said a lot of students were rejected for campus residences. “It’s kind of a scary experience to be 17 years old and alone,” he said. “The school is not addressing their needs. Residence offers support.”
Besides the increased pressure from students looking for housing, universities also have t o gear up for the double cohort. In 2003-2004, huge increases in enrolment are expected when grade 12 and OAC students graduate together of Ontario’s new four-year high school system.
To prepare for this, the University of Toronto has slated Varsity Stadium for demolition. A smaller version of the stadium and student housing will be built on the land. The land originally was considered surplus and was to be leased to private companies for commercial development, including a five-star hotel.
To help students find homes, the University of Western Ontario opened a $10-million residence last month. That brings the school up to seven official buildings for students housing.
“We have spaces in residence for more than 3,300 students,” said Mark Kissel, the University of Western Ontario’s v.p. education.
But not every university can afford such solutions.
NDP leader Howard Hampton suggests the student-housing crisis can be remedied by scrapping the Tenant Protection Act.
He also said the province should repeal its municipal ban on granny flats or basement apartments.
At Ryerson, there aren’t any long-term plans to build more residnces on campus, said student housing manager Liza Nassim. She said the housing office is trying to increase the listings and inform students of the rights they have under the Tenant Protection Act.
She says, however, discussions are ongoing as to how to remedy housing shortages for students.
“The problem will probably continue for the next three o five years with the double cohort,” she said. “There aren’t plans to add more spaces, but the university is discussing other options for students.”