By Mariana Ionova
Ryerson University may have to dish out up to half a million dollars of its operating budget to subsidize the cost of a new residence.
President Sheldon Levy said the university has exhausted all other options and has “failed” to find a way to provide low-cost, 8-month student housing without supplementing its cost from the university’s $350 million budget.
“It’s an impossible set of conditions,” Levy said. “Something has to go. So either, they have to be more expensive, on 12-month leases, or the university has to take money from its operating budget to subsidize them. I think we just simply have to accept that building residences is going to be a cost on the operating budget. We just have to get over that fact. There’s no choice.”
Levy said Ryerson has been trying to find an alternative so that money is not taken “out of the classroom to subsidize residences” but there has been no progress because affordable housing near the university is rare.
“You’re in downtown Toronto and it’s just too expensive to assume you can do it in a neutral cost or that you can do it without hitting students heavy in the pocketbook,” Levy said.
Currently, there are only 840 spots and there was a total of 1,485 applications to Pitman Hall, the International Living and Learning Centre (ILLC) and O’Keefe House this year. Although there is no geographic cut-off point, many students don’t get in because other applicants live further, according to student housing services manager Chad Nuttall.
The waitlist maximum is currently 424 and, when it fills up, students are directed to off-campus residences like Campus Commons, which is not directly affiliated with the university. But, even with some off-campus options available around the university, space is still insufficient for everyone in need of housing.
“The very recent argument that is being made by the executives is that we are missing out on some of the best students because they’re going elsewhere because we don’t have residence for them. So that could be a compelling reason to add spaces as well. Schools that have a residence guarantee find it easier to recruit,” said Nuttall. “Whereas our message is very different. We say, ‘well, you probably won’t get in depending on where you live.’”
The university has been discussing a new residence for the past five years. When Levy announced the Master Plan in 2006, he outlined the need for more housing on or near campus as a priority for the university. Two years later, the Board of Governors approved the plan and the university has been unsuccessfully striving to expand student housing since then.
Earlier this year, the university put out a Request for a Proposal (RPF) looking for a company to build and operate a residence space on 111 Gerrard St. or the parking lot opposite of the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre. Levy said this request, like many before it, garnered no results.
“My preference would be that we build, operate and own the building ourselves,” Nuttall said. “[With a third-party company] we wouldn’t be able to make all the decisions that would need to be made. So, we can’t dictate their fees, we can’t say they should reinvest in the building…If all the residents at Pitman Hall decide they’re going to party hard over at Campus Common, then we have no control over student behaviour that goes on over there.”
But an entirely university-owned and operated residence is not a viable option at this point because Ryerson has already incurred a significant amount of debt through other projects like Maple Leaf Gardens, the Image Arts renovation and the Student Learning Centre.
Nuttall also noted the university is still paying mortgages on Pitman Hall and ILLC.
Levy said Ryerson is exploring all its options, including subsidizing the building cost of a third-party company and then retaining control over the operations of the residence.
But operations of another residence may be costly since the current annual budget of housing services is $6 million. Levy said a wholly third-party owned and operated residence would alleviate financial pressure and is not out of the question.
“If someone else said they want to build another residence we would say ‘thank you very much, we love you.’ I would say that would be great,” Levy said.