From coast to coast, Canada is in the grips of a housing crisis. That, everyone can agree upon. When it comes to a solution, however, that’s a different story.
Last week, Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities of Canada, Sean Fraser, made headlines when he suggested that Canada could (key word) see a cap on international students.
Particularly in the notoriously pricey cities of Toronto and Vancouver – where average rents have soared to $3,340 and $2,849, respectively – an influx of international students can, in theory, put pressure on already fragile housing markets.
Fraser’s comments come at a time when the country’s impossible-to-ignore housing crisis is front and centre on political agendas. The federal housing minister was quick to acknowledge that a potential cap on international students is just one possible solution to Canada’s complex housing affordability crisis. Still, he inevitably ruffled some feathers with the suggestion. Admittedly, however, it inevitably begs the question: Has Canada’s housing crisis gotten so bad that it’s indeed time to regulate the number of international students we permit?
No renter needs the reminder that – after a brief cooling in the thick of the pandemic – rents have dramatically climbed across most of the country. In a climate of sky-high mortgage rates keeping more people in the rental market longer, as well as record-breaking immigration targets and limited supply, an influx of international students could add pressure to housing markets, say some experts.
“We always try to note that it’s not their fault, but international students do add pressure to the rental market,” says Giacomo Ladas, communications manager at Rentals.ca. “There’s such a supply and demand issue in the rental market right now and they add to this imbalance. The study permits for international students have increased by 75% in the last five years. Last year, we had over half a million permits. So, that’s a huge influx of people coming in and nowhere to put them.”
Gayathri Menon, an international student from India doing a postgraduate degree in public relations at Humber College has seen this influx first hand.
“Last September, after in-person classes resumed after COVID, the flights from India were packed with international students,” Menon said. “Once we arrived at the airport in Toronto, the immigration line took about four hours due to the sheer volume of all the students coming from all over the world."
Unless you live on campus, it’s not a great time to be a typical student in Toronto when it comes to housing (without wealthy parents, that is), whether you’re an international student or not. Many students are now priced out of rentals close to their schools. Whereas they’d traditionally look for accessibility – close proximity to campus and downtown – students now prioritize affordability, says Ladas.
“About 50% of international students are in Ontario, with Toronto and Ottawa as top recipients,” says Ladas. “What’s happening with international students coming into places like Toronto is, not only are they only able to afford housing far from their schools, they’re opting to live in close quarters with many roommates. Some are staying with five or six others and renting rooms, as opposed to apartments. They’ll settle with a room somewhere. So, they’re living further away, leaning toward affordability, and getting roommates wherever they can.”
Menon lived in three different Airbnbs the first week she arrived with students she met on Facebook. “We were house-hunting on places like Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji,” she says. She managed to find a renovated three-bedroom, two-bathroom, basement apartment in Etobicoke, close to Humber, with three other students.
“We actually got really lucky, because I have a big private room for $750,” says Menon. “But not everyone has been so lucky. It’s really tough for some.”
But if she wants to move downtown once she gets a job, Menon admits that it may be a stretch at first to afford Toronto rents. “My friend pays $1,250 a month for a room downtown,” says Menon.
The whole rental market – and how we view renters – has changed as of late, highlights Ladas. “Today’s renters are young families – people with good jobs,” says Ladas. “These are the competition for students.” With sky-high rent prices, persistently high inflation that jacks up the cost of living, and heightened demand, rental units typically reserved for students are quickly snatched up by people with decent jobs.
Those priced out of the rental market in Canada’s biggest cities have started to shift their sights – and rental dollars – to other parts of the country. “People are moving to the Maritimes and Alberta,” says Ladas. “This is causing rents to rise in these places; Calgary is currently experiencing dramatic rent increases. So, it’s a Canada-wide issue.”
Toronto-based realtor James Milonas, however, says that it’s not international students who are the problem in the rental market or with the rental crisis. “The average renters are the ones putting pressure on the rental market – the ones who can’t afford to buy due to high interest rates,” Milonas told STOREYS. “There aren’t enough rentals out there. International students have a lot of money; they’re not going for the $1,900 rentals. They’re looking at $2,500-$3,000 and usually want to be in condos close to the universities. They’re not the ones not paying their rents.”
Milonas says that international students are having a hard time renting, however, because landlords don’t want to take risks on them. “They have no established credit and no income,” says Milonas. “That’s why a lot of international students are paying a full year’s rent in cash up front in advance to sweeten the mind of landlords regarding their lack of credit or income. But I would rather have an international student in my apartment because they’re only there for 10 months, but pay the full year.”
Not Everyone is On Board with the Cap
While some agree that an influx of international students is exasperating the affordable housing situation, passionate voices have pushed back against Fraser’s suggestion, saying that capping international students is not the solution – far from it.
In the wake of Fraser’s comments, it didn’t take long for Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) – the voice of Canada’s largest post-secondary education network – to issue a statement. When STOREYS reached out for comment, we were directed to this statement.
“Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) is troubled by the recent comments regarding a potential cap on international student enrollment by federal officials,” it begins. “Canada’s housing crisis is complex and multifaceted. We need sustainable solutions and an integrated approach that underscores shared responsibility across all levels of government. Although implementing a cap on international students may seem to provide temporary relief, it could have lasting adverse effects on our communities, including exacerbating current labour shortages. Furthermore, we want to emphasize that students are not to blame for Canada’s housing crisis; they are among those most impacted.”
Not surprisingly, reps from Canada’s post-secondary institutions are not on board with a potential cap on international students. “The university, in discussions with IRCC, has been clear that we do not support a cap on international students,” Matthew Ramsey, Director of University Affairs at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, told STOREYS.
The Value of International Students
There’s no denying the value that international students bring to both post-secondary institutions and to Canada’s cities.
“UBC greatly values its international students,” says Ramsey. “International students are an important part of contributing to the university’s academic mission, talent recruitment, and retention. They bring unique and diverse perspectives to the learning environment and campus community. Canada is competing globally for this talent.”
Toronto Metropolitan University’s Executive Director, International Student Enrollment, Education & Inclusion Garcia-Sitton echoes this sentiment.
“International students add to the diversity of Toronto Metropolitan University and play an important role in creating a culture of global engagement through their experiences and interactions,” Garcia-Sitton tells STOREYS. “Not only do international students contribute greatly to our economy through tuition, residence, and discretionary spending, they support local businesses by filling important skills gaps and are a huge part of the city’s multicultural identity. Additionally, they are also an important resource to fill our labour market needs and contribute greatly towards Canada’s immigration objectives as they are ideally suited to become permanent residents post-graduation. The federal international education strategy further highlights the role of international students in creating a more diverse student population, and stimulating innovation, creativity, and cross-cultural competencies.”
Aligned Regulation is Needed
In particular, Fraser points fingers at privately run schools, which critics say are driven by dollars, for essentially exploiting international students.
“Within the context of the discussion, Sean Frasier’s comments emphasized better oversight of institutions, mainly in the private sector, that are enrolling more international students than they can support,” says Isaac Garcia-Sitton, Executive Director, International Student Enrolment, Education and Inclusion at TMU. “It is important to better regulate institutions that continue to enroll students without adequate facilities or resources, and are exploiting international students simply to earn a profit.”
While Ladas stops short of suggesting that a ban on international students has become essential, he says Canada does need to find a better balance between supply and demand and highlights the need for an aligned regulation strategy. “There are too many people coming into the country for the number of available units that we have,” says Ladas. “There needs to be alignment along all levels of government, along with our colleges and universities, to build purpose-built rental units. It’s crazy how the system is set up: the provincial government is responsible for regulating schools, while the federal government is the one issuing student visas. Plus, there’s no benchmark colleges and universities need to hit when it comes to student housing.”
Before worrying about limiting population growth and immigration, this alignment is needed, says Ladas. “We need to be on the same page and have enough supply for the demand we’re seeing,” he says.
More Student Housing in the Works
In its statement, CICan assures that more student housing is in the works across the country
“Canada’s colleges and institutes have long recognized housing shortage challenges and have taken decisive action to accelerate the development of and approvals for building new accommodations,” it reads. “Our commitment to finding solutions that specifically address student housing is further fueled by the transition back to in-person learning and the resurgence in program demands post-pandemic. In our recent submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, we reaffirm our willingness to be a part of the solution and ask the government to prioritize the collection of federal data on student housing essential for informed decision-making and effective action and invest $2.6 billion over three years in a new Student Housing Loan and Grant Program.”
On a local level, Canada’s universities are doing what they can to increase student housing. The University of Toronto has shiny new dorm rooms in the works. In London, Huron University College (affiliated with the University of Western Ontario) has a new student housing facility nearing completion as well.
“Over the last 12 years, UBC has invested $670M to build 5,5500 new student residence beds on the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses. UBC is the largest university provider of student housing in Canada with 15,325 beds on its two campuses — 13,205 in Vancouver and 2,120 at UBC Okanagan,” says Ramsey.
Ramsey notes that UBC has also recently created a plan to construct another 4,800 beds over the next 10 to 15 years as part of the community engagement on Campus Vision 2050. “That number includes 3,300 new beds and 1,000 replacement beds for UBC Vancouver, and 500 new beds for UBC Okanagan,” says Ramsey. “We are also exploring a new graduate student housing community for UBC Vancouver, which could increase that target.”
In its statement, CICan highlighted how it recently published a submission to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), which outlines recommendations for improving the International Student Program. “We have also been working with IRCC this past year to develop an approach that would see sustainable growth in international student enrollments with better alignment to the availability of student supports and to labour market needs,” reads the statement. “We will continue to collaborate with the federal government to meet Canada’s labour and talent needs.”
The Great Exodus
Housing international students is one thing; keeping them around post-graduation is quite another. A major problem, says Ladas, is that – thanks to the cost of living and the housing crisis – many international students are leaving shortly after the ink dries on their degrees.
Ladas points to a poll from the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, which found that 30% of new Canadians 18-34 and 25% of international students say they’ll leave in the next 18 to 24 months. “They’re coming and they can’t wait to leave; that’s not Canada,” says Ladas. “They can’t afford it and no longer feel welcome. And the people who are here can’t find places to live. So, even though it’s a student rental thing, it affects all Canadians and the way people view Canada as well.”
Particularly at a time of record-breaking immigration targets, we need to do more to accommodate Canada’s immigrants across the board, says Garcia-Sitton.
“Given that international students are prospective permanent residents, there is also a need to invest in more streamlined immigration processes, targeted labour market integration programs, community integration plans, and truly concerted efforts from federal and provincial policy makers, educational institutions, businesses, as well as local communities,” says Garcia-Sitton. “However, jurisdictional coordination in a federation like Canada adds a layer of complexity to the policymaking process, making it difficult to align priorities and seek consensus amongst key stakeholders.”
Finally, Canada needs to put the (basic) needs of international students first. “Research studies have indicated that Canada’s established policies, systems, and processes are not strategic in scope and lack an emphasis on student well-being — favoring the recruitment of international students but not necessarily their transition or settlement once they arrive,” says Garcia-Sitton. “To sustain the growth trends in our international education sector, a more holistic approach that emphasizes international students’ wellbeing is required, along with allocation of resources and accountability of institutions responsible for supporting students during their time in Canada.”