Low vacancy rates and a cut in residence rooms leave Halifax students desperate for affordable apartments

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abriel Baker wants to have an exciting fall in the city. The second-year engineering student from Kentville hoped to live in residence at Dalhousie University.

“It is a great experience to make friends initially at university and kind of an easier way to get used to living on your own,” he says. “That is what my parents have always told me is that it’s a great experience to get to learn, and it’s a safer way to get out of the house without being fully exposed to everything by yourself.”

While he was accepted into residence in his first year of studies, Baker declined. He opted to continue his online experience at home since the university was working virtually due to the pandemic. At the time, university officials encouraged Baker to reapply for residence in the winter term.

Knowing that Dalhousie would eventually reopen with in-person classes, Baker reapplied for residence in March without a deposit, assuming he would finally get the chance to live the whole university experience.

In June, Baker received an email from Dalhousie saying that he did not secure a residence spot for the upcoming term.

“I was stunned at first just because I had been so focused and had assumed I was going to be accepted,” he recalls. “After that, I would describe it more as angry just because they couldn’t accommodate someone who already invested their time and money going to their school. As well, I had already been accepted to residence in the previous year and thought I wouldn’t have a huge problem getting in another year, especially now that I have a year under my belt.”

In the email he received from the university, Dalhousie explained why they could not accommodate Baker. Due to the COVID-19 public health restrictions and protocols, the university reduced residency rates on campus to 80% (500 beds) by eliminating shared rooms. Also, the university gives residence priority to first-year students.

Dalhousie suggested that Baker could go on a residence waitlist or use university resources to help him find off-campus housing.

After the shock and frustration gave way, Baker texted his friends to see if anyone else got into residence, and no one did. Their parents got on a video call and started the hunt for shared accommodations for Baker and his friends, using Kijiji, Facebook Marketplace, and other websites.

“From what I was going through apartment listings, I was able to hit and message every four-bedroom apartment for rent in under an hour,” he says. “There weren’t all that many to be found. I feel like it’s either late or too early for people to start putting their places saying they’re available for rent because I was told tenants are supposed to give three months’ notice before they are about to leave. I was told in August things may open up a bit … I was hoping to get into the city and figure stuff out and then deal with rentals and all that stuff later.”

Luckily, the group stumbled upon a listing. Baker’s friend’s mother contacted the landlord, who already had 300 views on Facebook and 19 showings. As they spoke, they realized they had a mutual connection from their university days.

Ultimately, the landlord offered Baker and his friends the apartment.

However, Baker is not the only student going through a scramble to find housing this fall.

Madeleine Stinson

Dalhousie University Student Union president Madeleine Stinson says this is a common problem not just in Halifax but in university cities all across North America.

“We’ve heard from quite a few students; most of the students have reached out to the student union, not necessarily in their second year,” she says. “The big issue is that even with residence cutting its capacity, there’s still a housing crisis in Halifax. Having these 500 spots in residence not available, but they would be in a typical year, is making that a lot worse when you look at student housing. It is particularly not necessarily well maintained but is quite expensive.”

Stinson says the biggest issue facing students is affordability.

“The problem is a lot of those older buildings, less maintained buildings, in the city of Halifax are starting to be torn down and replaced by expensive apartment buildings and expensive condos but then students can’t afford to live there,” she says. “We’re running out of affordable housing in the city.”

The student union is trying to navigate students through the housing crisis. Working with off-campus housing, Stinson says having one full-time employee to devote their time to help tremendously but concedes it’s not enough.

“We’re trying to point students in the right direction whether it be on online marketplaces or online rental websites to try to get students to live together,” she says. “We know one of the biggest expenses of off-campus housing is furnishings and buying all the necessities for an apartment, which can get quite expensive.” To help with that, they’re working on a drop-off site for the community to exchanged used household items.

But ultimately, Stinson believes the affordable housing issue goes well beyond Dalhousie.

“Universities in the majority of Canada and the United States can’t pack students into residence that they normally have been able to,” she says. “Some areas are different from others, but largely across Canada, the situation occurs at other universities. Some cities are better equipped to handle an influx of students for off-campus housing. Halifax, unfortunately, is not one of them.”

Neil Lovitt

Neil Lovitt, planning division vice-president with real-estate consultancy Turner Drake & Partners, says the student housing scramble reflects a tightening of the market since 2016. It primarily holds in the South End of the city where Dalhousie, Saint Mary’s, and University of King’s College are located.

“The city overall has been growing quite strongly for many years starting in 2016 and sustaining it in every year since,” he says. “Cities that have been growing at twice the rate it had historically before that point. There’s just a large number of people coming into the city, and fundamentally, we’re not matching that amount of growth with increasing the housing units we have available. We’re not building enough housing. There’s been a shortfall building over two years.”

In 2019, the vacancy rate for the city was just 0.9%. During the pandemic, the vacancy rate grew to 1.9%, because people weren’t travelling and universities transitioned to remote learning. With the acceleration of the vaccine program and universities opening up to in-person learning, Lovitt expects the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s fall survey to show a new drop in the vacancy rate.

“We have not a lot of housing available; it’s been an issue that has been building up slowly, and then you have Dal cutting their housing inventory by 500 units,” he says. “That’s a pretty big number to try to work within one year. Everything south of Quinpool Road, where there’s a lot of students’ lot of the student body, will be trying to find a place to live.”

In 2019, there were only 40 vacant apartment units in that whole area. Last year, that number climbed to 370.

“For 500 units of housing to suddenly become necessary concentrated around the South End, that will be very challenging to accommodate,” Lovitt explains. “The university mentioned that there were off-housing options. Still, there is not going to be a lot close by and even looking further. I think it’s going to be hard for students to replace that loss of potential supply that used to be on campus; for this year coming.”

While Baker is disappointed he won’t experience residence life, there are some silver linings. Typically, he would have spent $11,000 on residence and a meal plan. With shared accommodations, he hopes he and his roommates can pool their resources and lower the food bill. He’s also expecting to have better Internet service.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” he says. “I was dead set on residence, and then I had the rug taken out from under me. Just keep your options open.”

Halifax Magazine