The Hunt for Affordable Housing (Habitats 2022)

Finding affordable housing has long been an issue for students across OUSA’s member institutions. We have long advocated for supports to help students renter and young graduates enter the housing market. While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated students’ struggles with finding quality housing, the issue has persisted for much longer. Rent prices have gone up significantly over the past four years, with the quality of housing decreasing simultaneously. A report conducted by a rental housing website found London, Hamilton, and Toronto to have experienced significant annual increases in average rent, increasing by 18.3%, 15.9%, and 14.3%, respectively.(1) How has the province of Ontario allowed the housing crisis to get so bad? More importantly, how can both the provincial and federal governments support municipalities in getting the housing market back on track? 


Rise in International Students 


The housing crisis is a national concern in Canada that has affected not only students, but all Canadians. Each province has unique contributing factors that illustrate why the housing crisis has reached unbearable levels. For Ontario, specifically for students, one of the most salient reasons students have difficulty securing affordable and quality rentals is due to the desire of post-secondary institutions to attract more international students. 


“Since 2012, we’ve had a number policy changes that have increased the number of immigrants to Canada, but also made Canada a popular destination for international students, many of whom stay and become permanent residents,” Dr. Mike Moffatt Senior Director of Policy and Innovation at Smart Prosperity Institute, told STOREYS.(2) Under the Harper government, pathways to permanent residency were made easier as they were allowed to find off-campus employment. Under the Trudeau Government, the immigration quota was raised to allow for more immigrants to seek residency in Canada. Over the past decade there have been many policy directives to increase the accessibility of gaining entry to and acquiring permanent residency in Canada, but many provincial policymakers have failed to consider how an increase in international students means there equally needs to be investments into housing to accommodate the rapid increase of immigrants coming into the country. 


Over the past two decades, post-secondary institutions have been using international student tuition to fill the gaps created by decreases in government funding. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada statistics showed a 13% year-over-year increase in 2019 of international students in Canada, bringing the number of study permits for secondary and post-secondary education to 404,000.(3) At this same time, the Trump administration tightened their regulations around immigrants entering the country, deterring many international students from choosing a school in the US to study at. In the UK, too, under Theresa May, the rules for international students were tightened. Canadian universities, particularly those in Ontario, saw an opportunity and began recruiting aggressively.


With institutions taking a more aggressive approach to recruiting international students, little has been done to address their quality of living once they arrive. The availability of affordable housing has long been scarce in the province, but with the rise of international students and without adequate investments into the housing sector from all levels of government, both domestic and international students are put into a precarious position. There is now a very high demand for housing, with little availability that is affordable and safe to live. There have been numerous reports over the past 5 years highlighting international students being exploited by landlords due to the lack of housing options. As there is often a language barrier and a shallow understanding of tenant rights, many international students are conned into accepting subpar housing.


This could have been avoided with greater intergovernmental communication. As previously mentioned, the federal government made increasing the country’s immigration quota a priority, which is a policy directive that OUSA supports. However, policymakers failed to collaborate with municipal and provincial governments to ensure there is an effective growth plan in the province to accommodate the sudden rise in demand for housing. As we head into a provincial election and the federal government continues to review their mandate, we would like to see greater collaboration and communication between the different levels of government on this file to ensure both international and domestic students have access to adequate housing in the province. 


Rental Housing Licensing


The significant increase in international students is only one piece to a very large puzzle. There are a number of contributing factors that have led us towards our current housing crisis, but instead of looking at the past I believe our focus should be on the future: how can we immediately address students’ pleas for safe and affordable housing? An emerging solution that municipalities in the province are adopting is a rental housing licence. 


The City of Windsor recently announced a rental housing licensing project, where landlords with rental properties with up to four units will be charged a fee of $466, and an annual renewal fee of $276.(4) This fee will be used to hire staff that will inspect the rental properties and ensure they meet standards akin to those set out in the building and fire codes. The City of Hamilton has also decided to initiate a similar pilot project to support tenants in their city.(5)  


While many landlords have spoken out about the bylaw and suggested they will offload their fees onto students, the licensing project will ensure that the quality of housing is suitable for tenants. While students can currently report unsafe living conditions to the Landlord and Tenant Board, reports indicate that there is a 6 month backlog and many tenants are waiting months – with some waiting years – for their cases to be fully resolved.(6) Marion Overholt, executive director of Legal Assistance of Windsor has said "The level of substandard housing is shocking.” She adds, "We're talking about rodent infestations, fire and electrical hazards, no security, constant interruptions in basic needs of water and heat. We cannot afford to delay the intervention and relief that this bylaw will provide for tenants."(7)


We believe this program will be greatly beneficial for tenants and students. We have long advocated for The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to implement a standardized process that would require all landlords to register for an annual license of any rental property.(8) Through this process, the onus would be on landlords to prove and provide a report that states, prior to students moving in, that the unit is in a good state of repair, fit for habitation, and complies with health, safety, housing and maintenance standards. 


If students are going to succeed academically and in the early stages of their careers, they need to feel safe and supported in their communities. They should not have to pay egregious rental prices, deal with predatory landlords, and unsafe living conditions just to live in Ontario. Access to suitable housing should be seen, and treated as, a human right. Provincial support, and more importantly intergovernmental collaboration, is needed to ensure municipalities are able to meet the needs of all their residents, including students. 


*This article was written by Shemar Hackett and originally published in the 2022 edition of Habitats. It is being published on OUSA’s blog now to highlight the student housing crisis during our spring 2023 campaign “Stop OSAP Clawbacks: Housing Edition.” Other relevant blogs on student housing or OSAP clawbacks include Jacob Marinelli on housing in Kingston (2021) and Eddy Avila on OSAP clawbacks (2021)

    1. ​​"Rentals.Ca April 2022 Rent Report". 2022.
    2. Sharma, Neil. 2022. "Ontario Housing Shortage Blamed On Poor Intra-Government Communication". Storeys, , 2022.
    3. Ibid.
    4. CBC News. 2022. "Windsor Moves Ahead With 2-Year Rental Unit Licensing Pilot Project", , 2022.
    5. "Rental Housing Licensing Pilot Program". 2022.
    6. Hristova, Bobby. 2022. "Landlords Wait On Tens Of Thousands In Unpaid Rent Due To 'Exhausting' Ontario Board Delays". CBC News, , 2022.
    7. CBC News. 2022. "Windsor Moves Ahead With 2-Year Rental Unit Licensing Pilot Project", , 2022.
    8. To read more about OUSA’s stance on housing, please see: Owen Bourrie, Akash Jain, Mackenzy Metcalfe and Julia Pereira, Policy Paper: Housing, Transit, & Community Development. Toronto: Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, 2020.