Seeking out safe, affordable housing is often a significant source of anxiety for students, one that has only intensified due to the disastrous financial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montreal, in the thralls of a housing crisis, currently has an extremely low vacancy rate of about 1.5 per cent. Low vacancy rates are caused in part by a lack of social housing and increased properties dedicated to short-term rental services, such as Airbnb, thus creating a housing shortage and giving landlords the ability to refuse long-term rentals. By leaving apartments of the market for long time periods, landlords are able to increase rent significantly for future permanent tenants. As 50 per cent of McGill students come from outside of Quebec, McGill has a responsibility to ensure that students living off-campus have the resources necessary to find affordable housing.
Increased rent prices combined with soaring unemployment rates due to the pandemic have created a storm of terrible renting circumstances for students. The issue is only becoming more pressing as support funds from the government such as the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) and Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) are no longer available. On top of this, McGill does not provide institutionalized funding for student housing. Instead, Student Housing and Hospitality Services (SHHS), a completely self-financed entity, manages all student housing and does not fund student accommodations. This leaves behind first year students living on campus in March when they must search for their own apartments for the next year. To add to this, COVID-19 has made it exceptionally challenging for students to rent as it is now more difficult to tour apartments in person before signing leases. This will leave students with no other choice but to sign a lease before seeing their apartments and arrive in Montreal without knowing what to expect of their living conditions.
The housing information that McGill does provide comes in the form of a dismal webpage with little to no advice on renting for the first time in Montreal. Student Housing and Hospitality Services provides the website “places4students.com” as the only suggested resource for students to find apartment listings. According to an SHHS representative who answered the information hotline, the university neither screens posted listings on the site nor guarantees safe and scam-free rentals. This allows landlords to attract international and out-of-province students and present them with inflated rent prices because they have not been presented with an accurate representation of the cost of rent in Montréal.
The Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) is a valuable service for students looking to rent, aiding them where the university fails to deliver. Last year, SSMU developed an Affordable Housing Plan designed to educate and inform students of their rights as tenants. The mission of the Affordable Housing Plan is to protect students, who cannot be guaranteed fair rent in an open market, from exploitation by landlords. In addition to this, the plan collaborates with Montreal-based organizations to move forward affordable student housing development. SSMU has partnered with The Unité de travail pour l’implantation de logement étudiant (UTILE), a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of student housing in Quebec and strives to create locally-governed real estate projects that offer affordable rent. UTILE has funded much of the SSMU Affordable Housing Plan. A partnership with UTILE would be a crucial first step for McGill to ensure that its students have access to safe and affordable housing. By partnering with SSMU and UTILE, McGill has an opportunity to directly support the already-existing initiatives promoting the accessibility of sustainable student housing.
SSMU, having limited resources and funding compared to the McGill administration, does not have the same leverage as the university. As COVID-19 leaves students in desperate need for McGill to take action towards securing affordable housing, McGill needs to extend resources to better educate students on their rights as tenants, and commit to advancing affordable student housing.