Photo: Parker Townes.
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The city saw over 900 new student apartments in 2019

A slew of luxury student residence buildings has opened in Ottawa, prompting questions about the growing student housing market.

The booming industry saw another bump with the opening of the University of Ottawa-affiliated Annex residence in September.

Although the U of O operates the residence, Annex is privately owned, joining dozens of other purpose-built student accommodations around the city.  Envie—the owner of the titular towers in Little Italy—is building a third new tower on Rideau Street, just blocks away from the heavily advertised THEO residences.  

This new wave of private residences is defined by their high-end amenities including fitness centres, study rooms, game lounges and planned social events. But responses to the business model from students have been mixed with some students criticizing the circumventing of tenant laws, and the behaviour encouraged by the residence staff.

“The entire idea weirds me out. Residences exist because most of us were not ready to be out on our own” says Gregory Hadduk, a third-year communications student at Carleton. “Staying (in residence) for four years seems like the kind of thing you do if you don’t want to grow up.”

Hadduk explains that the atmosphere encouraged at many of the private residences seems juvenile. “It’s a very TV idea of university. Like you are going to binge drink, sleep around, and play X-Box. A business built around that—it’s like your dad organizing a house party.”

But for Katherine Pasternak, her time in a private residence was a necessity.

“The market is swamped. New apartments open in Sandy Hill, and they are all gone in a week,” she explained. “Add in subletting for co-op and the stigma of being a student—no one can rent to you except these big box residences.”

Ottawa’s universities experience a significantly higher enrollment growth rate than other schools in Ontario— U of O experienced a staggering 15 per cent growth in applications in 2018. The city saw a 6% growth rate in student population across the city’s universities in the same year, not including colleges and  trade schools. Ottawa has experienced the largest increase in students in Ontario and twice as much as the next runner up.

However, despite a University population of over 60,000 students, only 8,500 beds are available in official residences.

The result is an incredibly competitive rental market, as thousands search for housing in a constrained downtown market. The city’s rental vacancy rate has decreased to less than 1.7 per cent in recent years, making the Ottawa market one of the tightest in Canada.

International students feel the sting of these numbers far more than most residents. “We don’t have a credit score, we move a lot, we don’t speak French, we don’t have a history,” says Jordan Zhang, a second-year international student at the U of O.

“Canada’s rent laws are confusing—these residences are safe, easy, and guaranteed. Our parents feel safer knowing we are with a reputable company, and they pay extra to feel that way.”   

In the past ten years, the international student population at the U of O has tripled in size, passing over 5,000 individuals.

An exploding student population in a competitive rental market has created an environment where easy housing options thrive—for the right price.