Housing & Residence Life

“They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To”: Off-Campus Housing Support for Students

Maybe I’ve got Ghostbusters on my mind, but I think Ryerson’s new Off-Campus Housing Office is battling a supernatural monster: the Toronto housing market. Our city might as well be haunted, since the invisible force of the luxury condo boom has been wiping out affordable housing and terrorizing our off-campus students.

Why are we creating an Off-Campus Housing Office?  

Ryerson is the most recent Canadian institution to join the off-campus housing fight. Our downtown Toronto location means we have some serious territory to defend. And if behemoth condo prices aren’t scary enough, our students have to compete with over 250,000 other people to find housing in the downtown core (and over 2.6 million in the Toronto area). The demand for a support office is high. In an ongoing survey we’re conducting, 50% of Ryerson student respondents self-identified as “off-campus” i.e., paying rent in downtown Toronto by our definition. This number will increase in Fall 2016, with 67% of our respondents planning to rent downtown Toronto, 10% of whom say they could commute from home if necessary. With average commute times of 75 minutes one-way, however, the desire to live downtown isn’t shocking.

What is alarming though is the forced compromise between budgets and personal space. On average, it’s costing our students $1,000/month to have an actual bedroom of one’s own (versus sleeping in a non-bedroom space like a den). In order to keep rent at $500-750/month per person, our data shows that students are sharing 1 bedroom and 1 bedroom+den apartments with at least 2 other roommates—usually in spaces under 700 square feet, roughly the size of a three-car garage. For many students, securing an appropriate (and affordable) place to live is nothing short of a nightmare.

Where are we starting off?

With the addition of a dedicated Off-Campus Housing Facilitator (hi!) on the Housing & Residence Life team, we’re preparing to train our students to overcome the monstrous process of finding and securing appropriate housing in Toronto. While my fearless colleagues have long provided off-campus housing support off the side of their desks, we’re getting ready to open up a dedicated office in August 2016 to provide information and resources for off-campus living.

The data we’re gathering about our students’ housing priorities will assist in creating an intentional and strategic plan for support. We’re also compiling educational material for our soon-to-be website, and setting up campus-wide promotion of our available services. We plan to be a central resource for all Ryerson students to feel comfortable dropping by, booking a meeting, or checking out the online resources for assistance with house-hunting and living off-campus. Feeding the multi-headed hound of off-campus housing begins with providing foundational support for key issues like effective searching, budgeting, and understanding tenant rights and responsibilities.

What do we hope to accomplish?

Ultimately, we want to make peace with the beast and develop sustainable student access to safe and affordable housing options.  

In the short term:

Over the next year, we’ll be focusing on creating awareness of the Office and developing resources to defeat the fear of starting an off-campus housing search.

Instead of proton packs, we’re building a website to equip our students with the tools they need for a successful skirmish with the Housing Gatekeeper. This includes links to the Places4Students Housing ListingCLEO’s guide to the Residential Tenant’s Act, and connection to supports like the RSU Legal Services and Ontario’s Landlord & Tenant Board for high-level conflicts.

We will also offer workshops and webinars on topics including avoiding phantom scams, navigating the spectre of vague listings, demystifying leases, how to deal with common creepy crawlies, as well as financial tools to manage expectations about the frightening reality of Toronto rental costs.

In the long term:

We may never capture the mythical “$500/tenant for a non-basement apartment close to local amenities and public transportation” common in smaller cities, but we hope to eventually offer a repertoire of housing options without vampiric rent costs.

In time, we see ourselves expanding our support services to include developing landlord-specific education on their rights and responsibilities. To reduce the misconception that all landlords are villains, we intend to explore providing tips and guidance on maintaining positive landlord-tenant relations to both our student tenants and our community landlords.

Lastly, an ongoing goal of the Off-Campus Housing Office is to continue improving our commuter student support. We’ve been proud of Commuter Hostel’s success, and we will be continuing to seek ways to provide the same high-level personal and academic support to our off-campus population as we do our residence students.

What are our biggest challenges ahead?

It won’t be easy to combat Toronto’s ever-increasing housing prices. We fully expect to get slimed in the process of training our students with the skills and knowledge to be their own advocates and strike out on their own. Furthermore, we have a few key questions of our own as we develop our strategy for support…  

  • With condos vying for Toronto’s primary renting option, will the new model of “luxury living” unleash an untold evil on our students? What lifestyle is being imposed on (or adopted by) our students if “luxury” becomes the defining aspect of student housing? Maclean’s articulates our concern.
  • With no apparent “Ryerson-neighbourhood” like the University of Toronto’s Annex, are our students losing out on the community experience of living in a shared neighbourhood? What are our on-campus options to foster a commuter/off-campus culture?
  • With scarily high rent and frighteningly few options, will Toronto’s increased living costs affect program choices for students? Will housing prices impact enrolment?

The answers aren’t clear. The city’s high density and high demand make for an exceptional monster, but we’re ready to do our best. We welcome all feedback and discussion from our peers leading off-campus units across the country.

As for our Ryerson colleagues, the next time one of your students is struggling with housing—who you gonna call? The Off-Campus Housing Office! (416-979-5043)