For many students, B.C. housing crisis threatens access to education

Vancouver Island University recently announced plans to build a much-needed student residence building, planned to open fall 2025. Photo provided by VIU on-campus housing.

Post-secondary education can open opportunities for young people in British Columbia, but many students face significant challenges to simply keep a roof over their heads. In the midst of an affordable housing crisis, getting an education can come at an enormous cost.

Securing housing was top-of-mind for Vancouver Island University (VIU) student Cole Reinbold as they considered making the move from Fort St. John to Nanaimo to pursue an education. “This was a huge move for anyone, let alone a first generation learner who didn’t have financial support from their family,” she said.

A search for student-friendly rentals came up with fewer than five listings close to campus, they said. “With so many unknowns in my first year, I wanted an option that was within walking distance and cheap. All that really mattered was that I had a roof over my head, and that was hard to find as an 18 year old with no renting history.”

Reinbold was relieved to learn that first-year students were guaranteed a spot in on-campus housing that year. “This guarantee made me feel comfortable accepting my spot at VIU for general studies,” she said. 

Sadly, that’s not something that incoming students can still count on. For the past academic year, applications for student housing were double the total number of spots, says Reinbold, who is now on staff as a Community Leader at VIU Residences and is also the VIU Student Union’s director of external relations. 

Paying for housing comes at a personal and educational cost

Michael Witcomb, Vancouver Island University’s off-campus housing coordinator, is always on the lookout for housing resources to pass on to students. As one of the main resources for students facing housing struggles, he knows people seek him out during crises and not always preemptively.

“Just simply knowing that the service exists, simply knowing that those support resources exist is a huge hurdle,” he says. 

Witcomb notes he’s often referred to after students have shown signs of struggling in classes, assignments or social life.

“I recently had referrals from an instructor, students possibly in trouble in that course. But it seems like housing is a root cause here and they come to me.”

In those cases, the university can connect students to housing crisis resources in Nanaimo, including Nanaimo Youth Services Association, Witcomb says. It can also offer short-term support to “just kind of cover the cracks for a couple of days.” This includes meal aid from the university, providing a select number of free meals from the cafeteria.

The ongoing struggle to pay for housing can be significant. It’s a challenge that Reinbold knows too well. They recall working three jobs over the summer, 70 hours per week with no days off, just to get ahead on tuition and living expenses for the next school year. 

“That wasn’t enough though, I still needed to work part time to keep my head above water, which led to a lower GPA, little social life, and eventually I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety for the stresses I faced trying to survive.”

What’s needed? First and foremost, more housing

Housing can be a challenge for students across the board, and advocacy groups such as the Alliance of BC Students state that simple budgeting practices are not enough to help students stay housed in the current market. For them, governments and schools must be compelled to cover some of the costs.

In a recent white paper report on the student housing crisis, the group recommended that the B.C. government enable institutions to take on debt to build more on-campus housing, and step up to cover 10 per cent of the cost.

That need was the focus of a September 2022 announcement that VIU would begin work on a 266-bed residence on campus. The B.C. government would provide $87 million towards the $87.8-million project. Doug Routley, MLA for Nanaimo-North Cowichan noted that the provincial support was in part to aid in the rental crisis.

“This will allow more students to live on campus, part of our continued plan to create and add to the housing supply, which benefits renters across the board,” Routley said in the news release.

Students are expected to move into the new building by the fall of 2025. But information on rental costs for the units remains unannounced, leaving some to wonder if this will result in housing that students can actually afford.

In the meantime, schools do what they can to offer support

Witcomb’s role as the off-campus housing coordinator was initially dedicated to VIU’s homestay program and finding international students a place to call home for a semester. It has since evolved into a catch-all to offer students resources and support for their housing needs. With Nanaimo in a rental crisis and students across Canada facing a housing crunch, Witcomb says his role is just as much about educating as it is aiding in crisis situations.

“The pre-emptive thing is to have the information available online and keep it as up to date as possible,” Witcomb explains. That information includes basic budgeting, realistic rates for rentals, and cost of living. He works on keeping information accessible and partners with programs such as RentSmart training to better prepare students for on-campus and off-campus living.

Witcomb says those accessing his services are still roughly 75 per cent current and potential international students. Those students have been a focus of the program and are also the most likely to reach out, he says. There, his focus is on making sure budgeting needs are clear and there are no surprises when it comes to the cost of housing and living in Nanaimo. 

But all students can benefit from getting to know the BC Residential Tenancy Act and what protections are in place. And VIU is beginning to focus more on outreach to other students, particularly those likely to face significant housing barriers.

Recently the Indigenous Living Learning Community began in partnership with VIU’s on-campus housing. The program works to remove barriers from student housing by connecting Indigenous students with network supports, access to an Elder living in on-campus housing two days a week, and cultural events to help foster health and wellbeing during school.

Reinbold hasn’t personally accessed services through Witcomb’s off-campus housing office, but has referred students there. From what she’s seen, the support is valuable, but given the scope of the housing issues that students face, “it seems like a job for more than one person.”

Source: The Discourse