This article was written by Dianne Rinehart, Editor of CourseCompare.ca
Ana Leal Cornejo was a student with a coveted spot at Ryerson’s School of Journalism and a Toronto apartment with a two-year lease when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020.
She immediately moved back in with her parents in London, Ont., but had to continue paying rent. After all, who was going to sublet from her in the middle of a pandemic?
A year later, she has finally sublet the room she had rented in an apartment with her sister. “But we still pay part of the rent because we couldn’t find anyone who would pay the full price,” she says.
Now Cornejo says she doesn’t think she could return to the hustle and bustle of a city even if classes will be held on campus. “It makes me anxious after over a year in quarantine,” she says.
Students are not the only ones affected in a rental market that has been totally upended by the pandemic.
Landlords, whose main source of income is student tenants, are also suffering.
Last year was bad, says Tony Irwin, CEO of the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario, which has 2,200 members. “This year is certainly not better.”
Students would normally lock down their apartments for the fall semester the January before, says Irwin. But this year landlords don’t think they will know if their units will be rented until August.
That’s because universities and colleges are holding off making final decisions on whether their campuses will re-open for classes on campuses to see how the pandemic plays out, or indeed, whether public health officials will allow them to open for classes.
Right now, plans are vague. Some universities say they will hold labs with small class sizes on campus, while larger courses will continue to be taught online, according to preliminary findings by CourseCompare.ca.
Others, like the University of Toronto, which is in a hot spot, cannot predict whether they will be able to open their campuses or be under health orders to stay in lockdown.
It’s not just students from across Canada who are afraid to commit to a rental unit if classes are going to remain online.
International students are unsure of whether they will be allowed in, further exacerbating the situation for landlords.
“They are a significant portion” of the student rental population, says Irwin.
Indeed, Canada is the world’s third most popular destination for international students, and Ontario is home to nearly half of them.
In 2019, for example, 642,000 came to Canada to study.
Last year, students travelling to Canada for full-time studies were exempted from a travel ban on foreign nationals due to the pandemic.
But this year plans for some have been thwarted first by last month’s announcement of a 30-day ban on all flights to and from India and Pakistan. Last year 220,000 students came to Canada to study from India, alone.
If that wasn’t creating enough financial uncertainty for international students and landlords, alike, Doug Ford’s government managed to make things even more confusing when it asked the federal government to suspend the arrival of all international students to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Ross Romano, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, further muddied the water when he tweeted that the Ontario government had “not made a formal request to ban international students” – when it had asked the federal government to do just that.
Irwin doesn’t understand the Ontario government’s confusing stance on the issue. “It’s our understanding that universities and colleges have protocols in place for quarantining international students,” he says.
Sebastien Lalonde, a spokesman for the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario, agrees that Ford blaming international students for the spread of the COVID is ludicrous.
Those who are entering the country already have a two-week quarantine period and four COVID tests, taken before and after they come to Canada, he points out.
Further, Lalonde says international travel is only responsible for the spread of about 1.6 per cent of all COVID cases, and students would make up a very small percentage of that.
Canada can help international students, he says, by adjusting the length of time they have to prove they were in the country to get the residency points they need, he says. That would recognize that many have been unable to travel back to Canada.
For domestic students, universities can make sure that students have a period closer to September to opt in or out of classes, with a full refund.
Landlords who house international students are not the only ones who have been hard-hit by the pandemic.
Those in university towns such as Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo and London, “rely on students coming every year,” Irwin says. “That is their business.”
Unlike landlords in Toronto, they cannot look to a corporate clientele to fill vacant apartments.
And even if they could, they couldn’t attract those types of tenants because most employees don’t want to live in the student-dominated communities in those cities, Irwin points out.
“Certainly, there are a lot of smart landlords around the province who are struggling,” he says.
In this market, they could only wish for student tenants like Luke Ettinger.
The fourth-year media studies student at the University of Guelph Humber, not only booked his Toronto apartment for the fall semester, but he continued to rent it through the summer to avoid pandemic travel.
And he is using the summer to jump ahead in his studies by doing work on his thesis so he can complete his studies in December, rather than next spring.
“I am optimistic that I will be on campus more than (last) winter, during the fall,” says Ettinger who hails from Noel, N.S.
For students and landlords, alike, one can only hope.