A look at how Canada's housing woes are straining the budgets of foreign students
Hedieh Rostami Far, an international student from Iran studying at the University of Calgary, poses on campus in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, August 28, 2023 3:00PM EDT
Housing woes for international students have made headlines in recent weeks as they grapple with lack of housing, inadequate placements or fake admissions offers.
Some say what drove them to come to Canada in the first place was a good education and opportunities. Now that they're here, they're feeling squeezed.
Here’s a look at some foreign students and their experiences securing accommodation in Canada:
Anubhav Gupta, 24, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax
Gupta is in his fourth year of a Bachelor of Commerce degree, pursuing a double major in finance and computing and information systems. He completed much of his degree remotely from India while waiting for his visa. Since arriving in January, he has lived on campus.
He'd like to move off campus this year, but his search for something more comfortable and affordable has come up empty.
"Now I have to stay on campus in a room that I don't want, basically," says Gupta, who is from the northern Indian city of Chandigarh.
"There's such an extreme shortage of supply that you can't find a place at all to begin with and then the ones you do find there is no quality control.... That's why you hear so many students falling for scams or paying deposits and the place doesn't exist and all that stuff.”
Gupta says the university flat costs $1,150/month and he'll share the one-bath, three-bedroom unit with two roommates. He bemoans the "tiny kitchen" and no common spaces: "You don't really get the best deal," but he notes it doesn't seem any better off-campus.
"The affordable places that you see on Facebook Marketplace, like $400, even though it says one bedroom it means that you're sharing one bedroom with someone else. You see living rooms put up on Facebook Marketplace," says Gupta, who recently found a $1,150 sublet but declined to rent it because it had no lease or the ability to contact the landlord directly.
Aside from cost and supply, move-in dates have posed an added complication: residents leaving campus were told to vacate Aug. 23 so their room could be prepared for the next round of students, he says.
“But most (off-campus) places are either becoming available Sept. 1 or Sept. 7. So there's a lot of couch-surfing going on right now,” says Gupta, who paid a $200 "stayover fee" to gain early access to his new flat.
"One of the rooms that I'm going to look at later on, the move-in date is the seventh. (And) hotel rooms or Airbnb or whatever is like $200 per night at the minimum, right? So is the cost worth it?”
Gupta, also vice president of advocacy for the university’s students’ association, wishes the university could help students find off-campus housing and understand their tenancy rights. He believes the government and post-secondary institutions must work together to better accommodate international students, who he says fill key roles in Canada's economy, especially in health-care and construction.
“It's a systemic problem at this point that has been going on for a while. And it's getting worse with no strategy in place by the government, all these institutions.”
Hedieh Rostami Far, 19, University of Calgary
Hedieh Rostami Far is originally from Iran but came from Malaysia where she attended a high school with an Ontario curriculum. She’s in her third year of a psychology degree at the University of Calgary.
Rostami Far says she recently found a two-bedroom unit in a duplex that she shares with a roommate.
But it took her months to find, and it’s about half an hour by transit from the university. Her share costs $800 to $900 a month, including utilities.
"I was scrambling and I was stressed about whether I was going to be homeless or not," she says of her search.
"It's already such a privilege to be able to afford an education overseas, but being barely able to afford a roof over my head, it's just not something that we expected, my family and I."
In her first two years, she lived on campus. The single room in her first year and shared unit in her second year each cost $900 per month.
Rostami Far says universities need to think about housing for international students when they market their schools.
She says Calgary has been attracting more people because it's considered a cheaper city to live in. But the province does not have rent control, and many units are beyond student budgets.
Meanwhile, the University of Calgary announced significant tuition increases that took effect in May. All international undergraduate students except those in engineering and foreign-trained lawyers program saw a 10 per cent jump while new engineering students got an eight per cent hike, according to the school's tuition fees breakdown.
"Eight per cent or 10 per cent for us is a lot of money, especially because our savings aren't in Canadian dollars,” says Rostami Far.
“What we've saved up for tuition — all of that is dependent on exchange rates, which fluctuate, and they are unpredictable."
Ajané Adams, 25, Centennial College, Toronto
As president of the Centennial College Student Association, Ajané Adams has become accustomed to hearing about the housing woes of international students who attend his Toronto school.
But the Jamaican transplant admits that he, too, has been overwhelmed by the cost of living in Canada and struggles to cover his share of roughly $2,100 in monthly rent for a one-bedroom-plus den that he shares with his younger brother.
Adams recounts a rocky rental history full of upheaval and frustration since leaving Jamaica in 2017 – first to study aircraft engineering in Gander, N.L. where he paid $400 for a fully furnished basement unit.
Adams says he applied to several schools in Canada and “chose the cheapest,” which was the College of the North Atlantic. He soon realized neither the program nor the city was for him, and he moved to Toronto in October 2017 to start again at Centennial’s law clerk program.
Adams says the unexpected move came with a host of new expenses that left nothing for rent and so he couch-surfed for months. His first Toronto rental was a “closet” next to the laundry room of a large house that was a 10-minute walk from campus.
It was relatively cheap at $450 a month, but he shared the home’s single bathroom and small kitchen with about 17 other tenants who shared the home’s five bedrooms.
Adams said he had kept his struggles secret from his family until then, but finally asked them for help and received some financial support. Soon afterwards, his brother moved to Canada and they moved in together at the end of 2018.
Adams says they found an $800 one-bedroom basement apartment that was a 40-minute bus ride to campus but were forced to leave in early 2021 when the homeowner put the property up for sale.
Adams says that’s how they ended up in their current apartment – located just 10 minutes by foot to his Scarborough campus, but at $2,100 a month, housing pressures are stretching their budget.
"I have a job and it's happening to me, I can only imagine what's happening with others out there, especially my students that I have to help,” says Adams, who just completed a paralegal program.
— With files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2023.