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for rent sign
A for rent sign in the window of a house in Sandy hill. Photo: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum
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Higher prices and lower availability are obstructing a return to the city and the campus

With winter term short weeks away, many students at the University of Ottawa are struggling to find a place to live in the city. 

More classes will be offered in person for the winter term, encouraging many students to seek housing near campus in order to return to the classroom. However, high costs and low availability are complicating the return for would-be attendees. 

Ottawa declared a housing emergency just before the pandemic, but the demographic and economic effects of COVID-19 have only exacerbated those issues in recent months.

It’s an issue that the University has acknowledged. In a statement to the Fulcrum, a U of O spokesperson wrote that “housing service is following the rental market closely through its off-campus housing service. The vacancy rate is very low in all sectors. We noticed that, due to the pandemic, people that usually rented rooms in a house or in an apartment became more reluctant. This caused a decrease in the number of low-cost or more affordable housing rental options.”

Erin Peter, a Fulcrum contributor and a second-year student in health science, is one of the many students still without housing for the winter term. Currently at home in Toronto, she spent the end of her last year of high school and the entirety of her first year at the U of O online. With three in-person classes in the upcoming term, she still hopes to move to the city. So far, she has yet to find a place.

“I find that the cost is really unreasonable. It’s not something that a student can easily afford on their own. I’m lucky that my parents can help me … I want it to be reasonable,” said Peter in an interview with The Fulcrum.

Peter is not the only student surprised and discouraged by the costs of housing in Sandy Hill.

“Really close to the school, a lot of things will be over $1,000 a month. And it’s interesting because I’m in some [online] groups where people advertise places,” she said. “So I’ll see students who want to rent or lease a place post their budget, and it’s like, maybe $700 to $800, around there. But the places that are being listed are much more expensive than that.”

A market in motion 

“What I suspect is that maybe students might find it more challenging now, not to find a unit but an affordable unit,” said Lukas Jasmin-Tucci in an interview with The Fulcrum.

Jasmin-Tucci, an economist with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), says that the more difficult market is a product of several factors, not the least of which is the pandemic. 

“I think it was a problematic trend that we had before the pandemic, maybe what’s a bit more difficult for people now is that there’s a greater number that are looking at those units. More people want to go into affordable units, maybe because they had their income affected by the pandemic. So you see it would be an indirect impact, the pandemic reduced the number of those units. The pandemic created a situation where the demand is higher,” said Jasmin-Tucci.

Jasmin-Tucci also notes the importance of migrants — including those who migrate over provincial borders — to the patterns of the housing market.

“During the pandemic, especially in 2020, there was less demand because people couldn’t migrate towards the city they wanted to live in, especially international students. So international students, when they have the opportunity to travel, are considered migrants, and they make up for a big proportion of rental demand. And it wasn’t the case in 2020.”

In addition, the overheating ownership market of the moment has altered the typical trajectory from rentals to ownership. 

“This could slow down the movement from renting to owning, especially for first-time buyers, obviously. So people that are renting and want to move in their own house will find it more difficult than it was before because the market is so tight, very difficult. Low listings, very high price. So this means that the rental apartments are not free, maybe as rapidly as they would be before. This slowdown might put some additional pressure on the rental market.”

The result of these interplaying dynamics is a drop in the vacancy rate for affordable units to in and around one per cent, according to Jasmin-Tucci’s CMHC numbers from 2020. Meanwhile, vacancy rates for higher-priced apartments have risen. 

The search continues

Lamiyah Khattar, a student in the first year of her master’s of digital transformation and innovation at the U of O, is one such international student. From Delhi, India, Khattar moved to Ottawa in October. She was only able to find a three month lease at the time, which is set to expire at the end of December. She has been consistently searching for a room since her arrival to the city and has not yet found a suitable place.

The additional limitations of being an international student — such as the difficulties of presenting credit confirmation or character references — have also complicated the process. Altogether, Khattar is left with few options as January looms. If she can’t find something soon, she says she’ll have to move out of the city.

“It is not like I’m not finding accommodation, it’s just that the stuff that I’m finding is one and a half hours from the University,” she said. 

It’s a stress that has hung over the first semester of her studies at the U of O. 

“Literally every two days, I’m looking at a place, looking at a house — you’ll see a place that’s good, but then you’ll see the nearest bus stop is 20 minutes away,” she said. 

While Jasmin-Tucci does not expect these market shifts to be permanent, he does anticipate that they will remain throughout the remainder of the pandemic’s disruption, an end date that is difficult to define.

For students like Peter, it is one more obstacle to the university experience she is missing out on.

“I think going to University for the first time is usually a fairly exciting experience for people. Already, that’s kind of gone for me, because a lot of my school, even since high school, has been remote,” she said.

“So when I signed up for my in-person classes, I was excited to finally be able to go and have the experience that my friends have already had. And it’s also nerve wracking, because it’ll be my first time living away from home on my own. But all of the exciting parts of that are taken away, because I’m worried about if I’ll find a place.”

The University spokesperson recommends trying the U of O’s housing portal while diversifying their search with multiple platforms. They also suggest looking in Gatineau for greater affordability.