Student housing crisis

By Emily Senger

When a health inspector deemed Cole Novak’s rental house unfit for human habitation and the landlord refused to clean up the toxic mold growing in his bathroom, he knew it was time to find a new place. But the 20-year-old and his SAIT-student roommate didn’t expect their search to take a month of sleeping on a friend’s basement floor and living out of a suitcase.

Calgary’s booming housing market has made finding student housing next to impossible, and Novak’s story is one echoed by many young renters as they scramble to find affordable housing in time for the school year.

According to Kevin Clark, president of the Calgary Real Estate Board, the number of residential units sold per day is down slightly from a spring high of 124, but numbers are still much higher than usual, making the housing market tight for those looking to buy as well as to rent.

“We had no choice,” said Novak of his decision to take a less-than-ideal rental on 24th Ave. N.W., just down the street from the University of Calgary. “We had been looking for a place for about three months by then. We looked at about 20 places. [Landlords] just looked at us and wouldn’t rent it, we were young, and guys.”

Novak’s list of complaints about what he refers to as the “rental from hell” is lengthy: faulty electrical wiring, a broken backdoor which resulted in a break-in, dirty carpets, windows that wouldn’t open, no water pressure, a Christmas tree left in the front bushes and late-night harassing phone calls from the landlord.

The black mold in the bathroom was the last straw, said Novak, when he and his roommates decided to take matters into their own hands and call a health inspector in hopes of spurring their landlord into action. Unfortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful.

“He just painted over [the mold], and then the contractors poured paint down the tub drain,” said Novak. “We were only there for one more week after that, and by then the paint was already coming off.”

U of C Students’ Union president Emily Wyatt confirmed Novak’s story is one that has become all-too-familiar in the months leading up to September, as students struggle to find places to call home.

The SU does its best to help students find a place to rent, providing an off-campus housing website listing properties in the university area, said Wyatt. While website hits are way up, postings haven’t kept pace.

“We usually have 363 listings around this time, but now it’s just over 100,” said Wyatt near the end of August. “There’s been three times the hits to the website, so we have less housing but three times the number of students looking.”

Wyatt also noted the majority of the postings say “female only” or “mature students preferred” leaving young male renters out of luck.

For students who can’t find housing off-campus, on-campus options aren’t looking much better, according to Residence Services director Joel Lynn.

“We have no spaces open,” said Lynn. “Both single student and family residences are full.”

While there are always a few cancellations, the residence waiting list has anywhere from 100 to 300 names on it, depending on the building.

“I’m confident that we’ll have very few spaces,” said Lynn. “At this point I’d advise people to look at their off-campus housing options.”

There are no breaks in sight for students in residence either. Lynn added that fee increases are likely for residence students in the 2007/08 academic year, due to increased costs in labour and upgrades.

Currently, residence rooms start at $583.75 a month for double occupancy in a traditional residence plus the required meal plan, and go up to $687.50 per month for a studio apartment in the newest residence building, Cascade Hall.

Despite soaring rent prices and a lack of space, students shouldn’t blame landlords for all of their woes, said Clark.

“Landlords put their money into real estate hoping they can get a return,” said Clark. “It’s naive to think of landlords as philanthropists. It is difficult for tenants, but it’s a supply problem.”

Wyatt added it’s frustrating to see Calgary’s booming economy benefiting the wealthy and leaving students behind.

“It’s so difficult out there right now,” said Wyatt. “It’s getting late to find student housing, but those moving to Calgary for, say jobs in oil and gas, can afford to pay more than a student.”

There is some good news for students though. The amount of media coverage student housing has received in the last few weeks means more landlords are posting on the SU off-campus housing website.

“We received tons of emails from people who want to rent to students,” said Wyatt. “The external community has been really supportive. Students need to keep looking. Throw your name on the residence waiting list and don’t settle for something you don’t feel comfortable with.”

There is good news for Novak, too. After a month of living out of a suitcase, he and his roommate were in the right place at the right time and found a house–and a reliable landlord to rent from–in Brentwood.

“We had to settle for a higher rent,” said Novak. “But, with our jobs we can afford it. We’ll just have to watch our money.”

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