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University students struggling to find housing in Calgary and other cities

Similar concerns have been raised across the country as vacancy rates go down, rents skyrocket
Luis Sanchez Diaz, an international student from Mexico studying at the University of Calgary, leans on a statue on campus in Calgary, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Luis Sanchez Diaz didn’t win a lottery this year for on-campus housing at the University of Calgary, but he still considers himself lucky.

The international student, who’s in his fourth year of a political science degree, studied online during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 from Cuernavaca,Mexico. He moved to Calgary in fall 2021 and lived in a campus residence until he lost his spot in April.

“It was a lottery, so it really didn’t matter how early you applied, if you have paid your fees, how good of a tenant you were,” said Sanchez Diaz, 24.

“So, whoever got it was offered a place to live in residence and whoever didn’t was put on a wait-list.”

Sanchez Diaz searched for a place to live off campus, which he said was stressful, and managed to find a small, shared apartment five minutes away from school with “pure luck.”

Not everyone has been so lucky, however, as post-secondary students across the country struggle to find a place to live before school starts this fall.

The University of Calgary’s Students’ Union said it has heard from many students facing challenges, including some who are forced to live in the far corners of the city where they are poorly served by transit.

“They are seeing hour-and-a half, two-hour commutes, which makes it really difficult to work, let alone actually get to the classroom,” said vice-president external Mateusz Salmassi.

“For those students who are able to find a place closer to campus, many of them are sacrificing safety for affordability and living in increasingly unsafe conditions — and then you’ve got students who are living in their cars because they don’t have an alternative.

“We’re sounding the alarm. This is not OK.”

Similar concerns have been raised across the country as vacancy rates go down and rents skyrocket in many cities.

In Halifax, an organization that helps women find shelter was recently asked by one of the local universities to support incoming students who could not find a place to live.

“I was shocked, really, that someone would come to an organization like ours,” said Sheri Lecker, executive director of Adsum for Women and Children. “We’re not the right people and we are also snowed under.”

Lecker said all housing providers are struggling to find safe shelter for people who are staying in tents, on benches and in cars.

The lack of affordable housing for all Canadians, including students, was a major focus at this week’s cabinet retreat as the federal Liberals prepared their agenda for the fall sitting of Parliament.

Politicians promised concrete action on housing, but didn’t put any specific new programs on the table.

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations has called on the federal government to spend $3.2 billion to build 15,000 residence units across the country within six years.

Some universities have tried to ease the crunch, but say it’s difficult to keep up with the demand.

The University of British Columbia opened a new student residence in Vancouver earlier this month, which is to provide 316 additional beds for students this fall.

“The No. 1 challenge is the same challenge that we are facing across the country right now, which is the shortage of affordable housing,” said Andrew Parr, associate vice-president of student housing and community services.

“There’s very limited access for students to find affordable and proximal housing off campus. So, that puts a huge demand on what we’re providing for students.”

That demand grows every year, he said, despite having added 5,500 on-campus beds in the past 12 years.

In 2010, the wait list for student residences peaked at 3,200 students. It grew to 8,000 students this year.

“The wait list has grown by the same amount of beds that we’ve actually added,” said Parr.

Shane Royal, senior director of ancillary services with the University of Calgary, said the Alberta school hadn’t had a wait list for on-campus housing for almost a decade.

“Post-COVID, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in applications to stay in residence,” he said.

The waiting list grew to 750 students this year, but Royal said it has been whittled down to 74 students, as most of those who were waiting found off-campus housing.

“What’s pushing that now is the housing crisis in the city,” he said. “The availability just is not there for students when our vacancy rate is below two per cent.”

Salmassi said all orders of government need to do more to solve the housing crisis.

Calgary’s city council, for example, has a chance to help this fall by moving forward with recommendations from an affordable housing task force, he said. Those recommendations include increasing and diversifying the housing supply and improving living conditions in rental housing.

“Every level of government points at the other and is telling them to jump first on affordable housing,” Salmassi said.

“You can’t do that in a housing crisis.”

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press