The beginning of fall classes is just a week away, and many post-secondary students are still scrambling to find somewhere to live as they face skyrocketing rents, a dwindling housing supply off-campus and waitlists for residences on-campus.
Robyn McGrath, a paralegal student at Eastern College, has been couch surfing for months while searching for housing. “I am stressed. Like, I literally don't sleep. I sleep two to three hours a night trying to figure out what I'm gonna do,” she says in an interview with The Coast from a friend’s living room—currently her bedroom.
“There's no sort of affordable housing here,” she says. “Students have to make the choice on whether they're going to do well on their degree to get themselves a job, or if they're going to work double just to support themselves just to go to school.”
Victoria Gibbs, the president of the students’ union at the University of King’s College, says students are reaching out to her for help finding housing. She says more upper years are deciding to live on campus, and enrollment is up. “You put those two factors together in a city with a housing crisis and now you have 20 students, including first-years, still out in the water somewhere without housing.
“It's tough because some students don't feel comfortable going off campus those first years and you can't really blame them,” she says. “They're coming to university for the first time, post-pandemic, fresh out of high school, 18 years old, the place that they feel comfortable living is residence.” She suspects there are students who delayed starting school due to COVID, meaning more first-years and students who did school online but are coming to Halifax for the first time and want to live on campus, which is why residence buildings are filling up.
Out of the schools that responded to The Coast, residence buildings are full at Saint Mary’s University, the University of King’s College and Nova Scotia Community College. Mount Saint Vincent University has a few spaces left. (Update: a spokesperson for Dalhousie University confirmed its residences are also full.)
As for off-campus housing, an affordability and supply crisis will, of course, make things difficult for students. But a spokesperson for NSCC says student-specific rentals are drying up. “We have seen property owners shy away from renting to students during this time and/or make decisions to sell properties that were once available as rentals,” she writes in an email.
‘I feel like I made a mistake’
McGrath says her classmate in the paralegal program, after six months of futile house hunting, drove to school from Digby every day and stayed in a motel if she had a night class. And McGrath’s sister was a student when she was renovicted and had to live in a motel for three years with her four children.
McGrath has been applying for apartments with two potential roommates, but she says landlords turn her away when they find out she’s a student and on employment insurance. “Anytime I apply for a place and I explain to them that I'm on medical EI because of the fact that I was literally rear-ended by a transport truck, they immediately tell me that that's not income and I won't have a place.” she says. “I also require at least one if not two co-signers as a student, which is what I feel is part of the barrier.”
She says she had to fight “10 times harder” to be approved for EI after her accident because she’s a student, and after her medical benefits run out she’ll no longer qualify, again because she’s a student. “Six weeks from now I have to go back to work, medically injured or not, to pay for my stuff,” McGrath says. “I live daily with two major injuries and my neck. I live with an ongoing concussion where I'm physically not allowed to work, yet I'm still looking because of the fact that I have to guarantee housing.”
There’s no public support if you’re struggling to afford housing as a student here, she says. “There's that stereotype that all these students have money, like they come from money.” McGrath is debating changing her degree and moving to New Brunswick, where she “would at least qualify for some sort of help. Where in Nova Scotia, you're basically left to figure it out on your own.
“You should be excited to go to school, you should be excited to do those sorts of things. And honestly, I feel like I made a mistake,” McGrath says. “I wanted to go to school so badly. I wanted to do something so that I could make something of myself and the repercussions of that is basically I don't have a place to live, basically struggle.
“There's no reason for it to be like this. Like if we all work together, we could find a solution. But the problem is that it has always been about money and greed, unfortunately, and not about community, which is what Nova Scotia is typically known for.”
What are universities doing?
King’s has turned as many single rooms into double rooms as possible, says a spokesperson for the university. The school has also asked local alumni to offer up housing, and a few did. NSCC has also reached out to alumni, and is beginning construction on three new housing facilities: Two in Dartmouth and one in Stellarton. A spokesperson from MSVU says the school is accepting applications from students at other Halifax post-secondary institutions. SMU’s residences have increased capacity by 150 spaces, says a spokesperson from the university, as double bedrooms that were made single during COVID are now back to full occupancy. (Update: a spokesperson for Dalhousie University says the school has a housing resources page and a housing channel on the Dal Mobile app.)
“There's not much they can do. This is a situation that requires pre-planning and pre-thought that did not happen,” Gibbs says. “It's not just about the number of housing units or the number in residence but all these factors that are coming into play with the cost of living, the cost of food and the number of students coming in, the number of places available and the cost of them. And all of those factors are coming from different places. And so I think that this is a solution that requires collaboration from so many bodies, and it requires a collaboration maybe a year in advance, and frankly the university raised the flag on this issue to the community a month ago, and all that really can be done for students now is for them to sit on a waitlist for residence, or hopefully find somewhere in the city.”