UVic students say Victoria’s rental market is driving grads away

Victoria is facing a brain drain as high rents squeeze young people particularly hard

By Kate Korte
February 17, 2021

UVic students say Victoria’s rental market is driving grads away

Victoria is facing a brain drain as high rents squeeze young people particularly hard

By Kate Korte
Feb 17, 2021
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

UVic students say Victoria’s rental market is driving grads away

Victoria is facing a brain drain as high rents squeeze young people particularly hard

By Kate Korte
February 17, 2021
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UVic students say Victoria’s rental market is driving grads away
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

When Kira Razzo left Victoria for Kelowna in March, the rental market was a big factor in her decision to move. 

Razzo, a recent UVic grad, had been living with five roommates in her Saanich home. In Kelowna, her rent is $100 less per month for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a central location with one roommate. 

“I would not move back to Victoria,” Razzo said. “It’s so frustrating because you’re living in this horrible place [with mould] and you’re trying to deal with school so you have all of this stress compounding.”

The phenomenon of young skilled people leaving a city is sometimes known as brain drain. This emigration of young people can have detrimental impacts on the workforce and economy of any given city by limiting the pool of available applicants for any given position—this is felt especially acutely in cities like Victoria that are hoping to develop skill-hungry tech sectors. 

In an interview with the CBC in 2019, then-Minister of Finance Carole James said there is “no question” that urban centres in B.C. are facing a brain drain. James also mentioned the brain drain phenomenon in her 2018 budget speech and specifically linked it to the lack of affordable housing for young professionals.

In the Capital Regional District’s Housing Needs Assessment, student housing is identified as a service gap. The assessment says students face an “affordability crunch” when it comes to housing and the demand for student housing is currently not met.

The average price for a home in Victoria just hit a record-high $1.2 million dollars. The cost of rent is also rising at an alarming rate—according to 2020 data retrieved by Capital Daily, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1185, up 5% from 2019. 

The high rental costs, coupled with classes moving online, has already pushed some students out. A UVic survey revealed that only 65% of undergraduate students and 50% of graduate students are living in Victoria this year. In the summer of 2020, Victoria’s vacancy rate climbed to 2.5%—the highest it’s been since 2013—as student renters left the city. The vacancy rate in Saanich, near UVic and Camosun, was a particularly high 3.3% in 2020.

As the restrictions ease and UVic prepares to welcome students back to in-person classes in the summer, students will need safe affordable housing. If they can’t find it, they might just leave. 

The student struggle to find and keep housing 

UVic students and roommates Andrea Farmer and Lily Hamilton both moved in with their parents during the summer to save money. Hamilton was only gone for one month, but Farmer was gone for four and couldn’t find a subletter for three of those months. 

Farmer, who is from Edmonton, Alta., admits that if she wasn’t a varsity athlete, she likely would not have returned to Victoria for this academic year because of the rental market. 

“If it wasn’t for swimming, I’m not sure that I would have come back out here because it is expensive,” Farmer said, adding that UVic’s student housing options for mature students are limited.

Emily Lowan focuses on student tenants as the lead organizer for the Rent with Rights campaign with the University of Victoria Student Society (UVSS). She says the struggle to find safe, affordable housing “has such detrimental impacts on student well-being.”  

The pandemic has not made things easier. Victoria’s Vital Signs report stated that 5% of adults in BC thought they would have to move due to COVID-19, whereas that figure was 8% for 18-29-year-olds. 

In March 2020, the BC government brought in a temporary rental supplement program and a moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent. The three-month rental supplement provided $300 per month for tenants with no dependants and $500 per month for tenants with dependants. However, it excluded students like Farmer who did not lose employment and were not eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or Employment Insurance. 

Hamilton was able to receive the rental support but still had to take out a student loan to afford housing. 

For those looking for housing, finding a suitable place to live can still be challenging, even though Victoria’s vacancy rate is currently at a seven-year high.

First-year student Sie Douglas-Fish moved to Victoria in September and discovered scam listings with absentee landlords during their housing search. Three of the 12 landlords they inquired with told them they were in the US and would mail the keys after the lease was signed and deposit was paid, but the landlords refused to show the places in-person or through video. 

Many students live in residence, but this year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, only 800 of the normal 2,150 spots were available. UVic is currently building a new student housing and dining project, with 621 new student housing spaces planned to be available in 2023.

Students lack support from landlords with maintenance

Razzo has seen her fair share of mould; she lived in a shared house with mould in her bathroom for three years. After she raised it repeatedly with the landlord, she said nothing was done. 

Blaine Willick, another recent UVic graduate, is no stranger to it either. Willick says there was a “big circle of mould in the ceiling” for eight months, and the landlord just told him to not go in the mouldy room. Farmer also lived in two shared homes with mould. She says the landlords refused to hire inspectors for the fungus.

Farmer and Razzo also recall their landlords bringing in friends to do maintenance so that it could be done free of charge. But these friends did not properly fix the problems. 

Making his bed one night, Peter—who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution from his current or future landlords—noticed a line of mould in his closet and along his baseboards that had made its way onto his mattress. He lived in a 150-square-foot room in a basement suite with four other roommates. 

Peter said the landlord was unwilling to pay for an inspection and opted to end their lease. The mould in Peter’s room was washed off the walls so the suite could be rented to new tenants—with no legitimate changes made to the flawed construction. Peter says his landlord required him to show the place to new tenants and specifically advertised it to students. 

When Peter and his roommates moved out on Jan. 31, they found more mould in three of the four rooms. 

A representative from BC’s attorney general's office could not comment on the specifics of any given case between a landlord and tenant, but noted that of the 600,000 active tenancies in BC at any given time, the “vast majority” of situations go without conflict. 

Gavin Torvik, director of membership for the Victoria Tenant Action Group (VTAG), is hopeful that a new bylaw that outlines the Rental Property Standards of Maintenance (RPSOM) will help tenants. The RPSOM bylaw came into effect Jan. 31 and outlines the basic living standards any rental property should have. 

“There was an opportunity in this bylaw to create a mechanism of real accountability for landlords to ensure that their rental properties meet the basic legal standards,” said Leslie Robinson, volunteer tenant organizer with VTAG. “But the burden remains on renters to gather their own evidence—including expert evidence—file disputes, and seek mediation.” 

The attorney general’s office says the Residential Tenancy Branch has not seen an increase in disputes during the pandemic, but Torvik says that’s exactly the issue: nothing has changed. He noted that the current dispute resolution process doesn’t offer tenants immediate protection if they are being harassed, threatened, or unlawfully evicted with short notice. 

Students set their sights beyond Victoria 

For students readying themselves to graduate, the prospect of living and paying rent in Victoria after graduation is a daunting one. In Victoria’s 2020 Vital Signs report, 82% of survey respondents disagreed that young adults have access to affordable housing. The survey also indicated that the median individual income in Victoria is $37,481. A common personal finance rule suggests that tenants spend 30% or less of their income on rent. An average one-bedroom rent of $1,185 would equate to 38% of the median annual income going towards rent.

"It’s an expensive place to live, but there are hopefully enough strategies in place that will keep students here after they graduate. If you can pay a little more and live in paradise and get a good job, some people are making that trade-off," said Victoria mayor Lisa Helps, adding that there are lots of plans for new rental housing and condos in the city in the coming years.

But for many students, the rental market and lack of promising future job prospects in Victoria are pushing them out now.

Some landlords go above and beyond to ensure their tenants are respected—but the price of housing is still unaffordable. Farmer and Hamilton said their landlord has been helpful and prompt in helping with maintenance, and even offered them baked goods. 

Farmer and Hamilton will graduate in April and have both applied to graduate schools elsewhere. They are motivated to leave by the rental market in Victoria and by the fact that they can get a much more spacious and affordable place in other comparable Canadian cities like Montreal or Calgary. Hamilton estimates she could rent a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Montreal for the price she is paying for a room in a three-bedroom basement suite in Gordon Head. 

Although Willick does plan to stay in Victoria, and found a great place to rent with his partner, he doesn’t necessarily see himself staying in Victoria for the rest of his life. One of his goals is to own property, which he doesn’t think is realistic in Victoria. 

Peter is still weighing his post-grad options and will move wherever his career takes him. But if he stays in Victoria, he says he views the housing market as an “unavoidable burden” to living in this city. 

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