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The student housing crisis that isn’t going away

Students are being priced out of their homes, and SFU hasn’t helped

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Priced out of options

Moving is awful. So is not knowing where you’re going to live for the upcoming semester. Everything about student accommodation in Vancouver nowadays is just terrible.

Now, imagine you were being evicted from your affordable housing so that it could be demolished, and everything on the market was significantly higher than what you currently pay. Does that seem like something you could handle?

The residents of the Louis Riel House at SFU were faced with that exact dilemma last summer when their building was condemned due to mould problems. Through grit and negotiations, some of them received the help they needed.

A year has gone by, and there’s still a serious lack of affordable housing at SFU. In fact, the start of the fall semester marked a significant increase in the rent for each residence building.

This feature is here to remind us of what has already happened, and what housing situation SFU students will find themselves in for years to come.

The good, the bad, and the mouldy

Built in 1969, Louis Riel House has been home to graduate students and families for most of the university’s existence. The units included their own bathrooms and full kitchens. In the Louis Riel House, a strong sense of community developed. One resident wrote on the Louis Riel House community website that she and her neighbours had a great relationship, leaving their doors open so their children could visit and play whenever they wanted. As a home to individuals living with disabilities, Louis Riel made a university education that much more accessible. It was an old building, but for many, it was home.

Natalie Knight is an organizer for the Alliance Against Displacement (AAD), formerly known as the Social Housing Alliance. Knight was very familiar with the appeal of the Louis Riel House community. In an interview, she explained that a reason students, especially international students, came to SFU is that the university “offered family housing at affordable rent. It was on campus, it was family housing, and it was graduate student-focused.”

Over time, the waterproofing at Louis Riel, much like the rest of SFU, deteriorated. Tim Rahilly, vice-provost and associate VP students at SFU, explained in an interview that the university had seen that “there was an increase in the number of incidents of water ingress that occurred and we became concerned about that and the building systems in general.” Every time there was a leak, it carried the risk of mould.

The Alliance Against Displacement became involved when they were informed of the residents’ worsening situation.

“The administration it seems had essentially allowed the building to go into disrepair for a number of years, enough for the black mould situation to develop on a pretty massive level.” Residents were “pretty outraged,” Knight added.

Those living at Louis Riel House became increasingly worried about their health and safety — so much so that the SFSS and the TSSU got involved in late 2014. Any veteran student knows that mould has been a long-running problem in the university’s older buildings. The Louis Riel House was just the next beloved campus space to fall victim.

Rahilly conceded that mistakes were made in deferring maintenance. He pointed to the fact that for years, “rates that were being charged to residents did not cover the operating costs of maintaining the buildings.” He also pointed to a lack of public funding designated to support university residences.  

“That resulted in what we call deferred maintenance, and so it’s the students of today that in this case had to live through this,” said Rahilly. He also gave the example that because of the age of the building, it became increasingly difficult to replace things like the windows because they simply weren’t being made anymore. In order to prepare for the potential demolition of the building, the residence licence agreement was changed so that SFU could not guarantee that residents could stay in Louis Riel past August 2015. As Rahilly himself said, “perhaps we were remiss in not always bringing that [change] to everyone’s attention.”

After a comprehensive air quality assessment, SFU announced in March 2015 that Louis Riel was going to be closed later that year and demolished.

The residents didn’t take the news lying down. If Louis Riel was going to be closed, they needed help finding and paying for somewhere else to live. Residents held rallies on campus and garnered support from across the university community. Knight remembered how “the administration was blindsided by our organization. They didn’t expect residents to resist or protest.”

There is a long list of letters of support on the community website, including ones from the SFSS, TSSU, and 182 faculty members. Word of the conflict reached mainstream media, and the rest of the Lower Mainland began participating. Knight described their involvement as they “started coming to meetings, presenting [the administration] with petitions, giving them firsthand accounts, having residents come and speak at meetings.” During the negotiations, there were some accusations of SFU being arbitrary in who they would choose to assist.

Rahilly recalled that the AAD and residents were “super reasonable, very interested in the process, trying to be forward-thinking.”

The end result of the negotiations was that some residents received funding to help subsidize their rent. Knight was emphatic, adding that “[the funding] would not have happened without residents organizing themselves.”

The skeleton of the Louis Riel House is currently still standing, as crews remove dangerous materials like asbestos before general demolition can take place.

Demo-victions, displacement, and the disappearing rental market

If Louis Riel existed in a vacuum, the fallout might have been very different. But the reality is, in the Lower Mainland, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find affordable places to live. After losing that building, many graduate students and families had to wade through a market with a 0.6 percent vacancy rate, according to The Georgia Straight, and no real affordable options for students with families.

The Rental Housing Index, a database and web tool established by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association and Vancity Credit Union, shows the Vancouver region is extremely expensive and overcrowded. According to the index, 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are spending more than half of their income on rent. The average rental price for a one-bedroom suite in the region is $909, including utilities.

According to Knight and Rahilly, this is a new problem for Vancouver. Knight mentioned activists doing anti-poverty work in the 1970s, noting that homelessness wasn’t a problem. “Sure there was [sic] terrible conditions, there was poverty, but people had homes,” said Knight. As for young people trying to break into this kind of spiralling real estate market, Rahilly summarized his thoughts on the housing crisis: “If you didn’t get on that housing ladder in 1970, you missed out.”

Recently, The Globe and Mail published an article drawing attention to two SFU students who were homeless on campus because of housing troubles. Nicholas Ree and Cindy Kao weren’t able to afford rent, and so had resorted to sleeping at one of the SFU Vancouver campuses. Knight wasn’t surprised, confirming the age-old stereotype of graduate students staying in their offices when they’re “between places.” She added that compared to the alternatives, “it’s a safe, warm place to be.”

Who’s caught holding the affordable housing hot potato?

The province, after years of resisting pressure to intervene in the housing market, has applied a 15 percent tax on foreign home buyers in an attempt to slow the rise in housing prices. However, critics have claimed the tax, combined with unemployment, might affect the real estate market adversely. Legitimate foreign buyers who won’t leave their houses empty might also be affected.

The Canadian Revenue Agency has said it will add 50 more auditors to filter through income and real estate, a measure that has been criticized by NDP MLA David Eby as too limited and “frankly, a joke.”

Knight said this might just be a local obsession taking shape, rather than actually addressing the issue. She explained that foreign investment driving housing prices is “ingrained in large part through contemporary media coverage of the housing crisis,” but that it also reflects “a long history here of anti-Asian racism.

“The problem isn’t where the money is coming from, the problem is that we have an unregulated market,” she said.

Elsewhere in Burnaby, some tenants in affordable housing buildings have been evicted to make way for new apartment buildings. In July, Knight was arrested and later released without charges along with others when they occupied one such building in protest. The conflict echoes a squat at the Woodward’s building in Downtown Vancouver that happened over a decade ago: community members wanted to establish affordable, social housing in the then-vacant Woodward’s building.

There is a need for affordable student housing, but progress at SFU is slow and complicated. Rahilly explained that while SFU has plans to build more residences, it is difficult for the university to meet demand. He said that “you don’t want to overbuild. You know, if you have unused residence capacity, financially it’s very difficult.” They have to be “self-sufficient” because “there’s no fund, or the government doesn’t support us to build residences.”

Rahilly provided a document from the province advising that the university is only able to run a deficit “under extraordinary circumstances.” Correspondence from the associate VP finance, Alison Blair, explained that the province has denied SFU’s requests to borrow money for the past four years.

To replace Louis Riel, the university has been in talks with UniverCity to build “low end of market” apartment units, Rahilly said. He added that the proximity to the school and daycare would be a more desirable environment for families. In the meantime, he explained that SFU has around $11 million per year available in “need-based funding.”

Knight expressed some distrust of what the university’s future plans are and some reservations of what led SFU to close Louis Riel. “I do think they were conscious about it, to let Louis Riel go into bad shape so that they could tear it down and build something else,” she said.

Things aren’t fine

It is hardly controversial at this stage to say that rent and housing prices are too high in Vancouver. But the reason that a closure like that of Louis Riel hit us so hard is that there are so few places like it.

It is paradoxical that SFU’s stated mission is to “develop healthier and more vibrant communities,” yet the university allowed the mould situation to progress as far as it did. We’re left with a gap in the community, and everyone is passing the buck of whose job it is to fix it.

SFU is planning on building more residences, but Rahilly has made it abundantly clear that their hands are tied by the lack of funding. The province enacted a new tax that, according to critics, fails to address the real underlying issue. Cities are downplaying their role in planning their neighbourhoods.

At some level, most of us understand that we won’t get cheap housing. But the way things are now, it’s questionable whether we’ll be able to get affordable housing at all.

  • Ali Zanati

    Let the market works, less housing less attractive to international and out-of-town students, until the city sorts its issues out…

    • Justin

      @ali_zanati:disqus , evicting so many graduate students and their families from the only affordable option on campus potentially ends those students’ studies prematurely. Your Econ 103-level analysis misses the economic consequences this had on those individuals, and the spillover effects on their families and the city (which, y’know, stands to benefit from an abundance of highly trained and qualified people). With so many externalities present, letting ‘the market work’ is hardly likely to lead to an efficient outcome.

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