Canada: Potential housing crisis as foreign students increase and rental vacancy drops
Panoramic view of Metro Vancouver. Image via Shutterstock.

An aggressive strategy to lure more international students into the western Canadian province of British Columbia (B.C.) has created a new dilemma for the government – the volume of foreign students will soon outstrip housing vacancies, which means many may not have a place to stay.

According to the Vancouver Sunthe government has “virtually no strategy” to house the growing number of foreign student applicants, who will be flooding the province in unprecedented numbers. In the past five years, the number of foreign students have risen by 44,000.

On Monday, the B.C. government announced that it had attracted 130,000 foreign students in total, the highest number of foreign students per capita in all of Canada.

“These students enhance our global perspectives and connections, and their presence helps lay the groundwork for a prosperous and economically diverse future for B.C.,” said Canada’s Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson.

But such numbers worry residents in Metro Vancouver, which local politicians say suffers from one of the worst rental vacancy rates in the world. According to the Metro regional district reports, the rental vacancy rate dropped for the fourth straight year to just 0.7 per cent in 2016 – this means only seven units out of 1,000 are available at any time.

“We have drastically increased demand with foreign students at the same time rental vacancies are almost non-existent,” said Gary Liu, a research scientist and foreign-student tutor who is also a director with Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT).

Prof. Qiyan Wu of Simon Fraser University said increased foreign-student pressure on the rental and housing markets is part of the “studentification” of key neighbourhoods in globalized cities, such as London, England, and Metro Vancouver. These foreign students usually come from wealthy families compared to locals, allowing them to outbid local students in terms of rental rates.

“They definitely affect the rental market. Only a small proportion of international students have a family that can afford to buy a place for them in Metro Vancouver,” Wu said.
His research also found that rent and housing prices go up as international students move into these neighbourhoods near schools and universities, which forces other residents out due to differences in “lifestyle expectations and available services”.
Downtown Vancouver’s rental rates were the hardest hit by the inflow of these students, causing a dramatic rise since 2008, according to Wu.

University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Vancouver Campus. Image via Facebook/UBC.

Short on beds and data

As the city struggles with this rental crisis, a look at the province’s universities and colleges reveal either a public education system with inadequate campus housing for international students or a private education system that does not keep track of how these students find housing.

Its public institutions provide campus housing for only a fraction of the 130,000 foreign students, 51,000 of whom are from Mainland China, 13,000 from Korea and 12,000 from India.

Data on how the remaining 68,000 international students attending smaller private colleges around Metro Vancouver find housing is unavailable.

The government agency that oversees these private enterprises, the Private Career Institute Training Branch, has said it doesn’t collect data on where international students find housing. City officials also do not have the facts and figures on where international students reside, whether in rental units, with families or in purchased dwellings.

In UBC’s Vancouver campus which has the most number of residential beds at 10,000, they have to be divided about equally between local and foreign students. Image via Facebook/UBC.

Since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration’s subsequent immigration policies, future international students seeking higher education have set their sights on Canada instead. Many higher education officials have said they expect another hike in the number of international students who want to study in Canada, including UBC’s President, Santa Ono.

In view of this and the current stress on B.C.’s rental market, Lui and Wu said they support the City of Vancouver’s tax on empty dwellings.

According to a census-based report last week by SFU city program director Andy Yan, there are 25,000 empty or under-utilized units – a record number.

Throughout Metro Vancouver, there were 67,000 empty or under-utilized dwellings, almost seven percent of the total housing stock.

Lui said it is imperative that the B.C. government changes legislation to allow all the municipalities of Metro, not just the City of Vancouver, to tax empty dwellings so owners would be motivated to rent them out.

Wu added that he supports encouraging condo strata councils to change more owner-occupied units into rentals as well.

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