Kendra Wong/Victoria News UVic Properties and Chard Development have partnered on a proposal to redevelop 1312, 1314 and 1324 Broad Street, as well as 615-625 Johnson Street into student housing and condos. UVic Properties and Chard Development have partnered on a proposal to redevelop 1312, 1314 and 1324 Broad Street, as well as 615-625 Johnson Street into student housing and condos. The proposal announced earlier this year earned praise, but student leaders are calling on the provincial government to do more as students travel greater distances or leave the region entirely to avoid high housing costs. Kendra Wong/Victoria News

High housing costs in Greater Victoria are forcing university students into suburbs

Students at the University of Victoria (UVic) are increasingly leaving the core communities of Greater Victoria, if not leaving the region entirely, because of high housing costs, says a student leader.

“With the vacancy rate being so low right and [rents] becoming more unaffordable as each year passes, students are having a hard time finding places to live — place that are close [to campus] and also affordable,” says Anmol Swaich, director of campaigns and community relations with the University of Victoria Students’ Society.

Students, in other words, face a choice between distance and cost and it appears that a growing number of them would rather commute to campus from further away, if they can save rent.

“You can may be find a place in Colwood or View Royal, where you can may be afforded,” she says. “But if you are a full-time student, who is may be working a part time, it is completely unreasonable to ask them to commute that far every day, especially with our transit system.”

While reliable statistics are not available, several thousand UVic students find themselves competing against each other, students from other institutions and non-students in the Greater Victoria housing market, says Swaich.

Student leaders warned last year that this phenomenon threatens to divide the community as students and non-students compete for the same shrinking supply of housing.

The regional vacancy rate consistently hovers around 0.5 per cent. The average rent for a one-bed room apartment in Victoria approaches, if it has not already exceeded $1,000 per month. Many landlords are charging well above this figure, as Victoria ranks among the most unaffordable communities in Canada, with rents pointing in only one direction: up.

Swaich has seen this phenomenon first hand. “When I was looking for housing last summer, it was two-bedroom suites for about $1,400 to $1,500,” she says. “This summer, it’s about $1,800 to $1,900 [for a two-bedroom suite near campus].”

Held up against the cost of tuition — according to Statistics Canada, average Canadian undergraduates pay $6,373 in tuition fees for the 2016/2017 academic year, a figure 2.8 per cent higher than in 2015/2016 — and other expenses, the rising cost of housing has forced many students to make less than ideal housing choices.

“I have heard of students sharing rooms, or turning living rooms into extra bedrooms [or] living in places with lower standards,” says Swaich.

A Camosun student earlier this year made regional headlines by revealing that he had been sleeping in his vehicle while attending classes.

Worse, it often takes students considerable energy and effort to find housing. Searches in some cases have lasted months.

Others meanwhile are changing their plans, with some actually leaving Victoria. “My roommate, who lived with me last year, actually decided to transfer to Capilano University, so that she could stay at home,” says Swaich.

So what is be done? Students leaders at local post-secondary institutions such as UVic and Camosun College have previously called on the provincial government to build more on-campus housing.

Swaich reiterated this demand by calling on the provincial government to lift the debt restrictions on universities. Such a move would allow universities to borrow money for student housing, thereby easing the pressure on students to compete in the local rental market, whose rules actually do not favour students.

Most landlords require one-year leases, says Swaich. But that might not work for students, who only attend campus for eight months, she adds.

Swaich encourages students not to give up in their search for housing. They can also make a difference for themselves and non-student renters by mobilizing.

“Call your local MLAs,” she says. “Tell them that you want those debt restrictions lifted, so universities can start building more on-campus housing. The university is also on board with that. They are ready to build.”

Earlier this year, UVic announced plans to increase the supply of student housing, albeit not on the main campus, but rather in downtown Victoria. While Coun. Judy Brownoff has praised this initiative, she also warned against high expectations.

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