COVID, housing crisis, affects Halifax's international students

·4 min read
The far-reaching effects of Halifax's housing crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have created obstacles for international students looking to study in the province. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC - image credit)
The far-reaching effects of Halifax's housing crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have created obstacles for international students looking to study in the province. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC - image credit)

The far-reaching effects of Halifax's housing crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have created obstacles for international students looking to study in the province, forcing them to scramble to find suitable accommodations.

While the housing market in Atlantic Canada's biggest city continues to heat up, international students are finding little in the way of selection.

Umme Mim Mohsin, a master's student at Dalhousie University, described some of the difficulties she faced in trying to get housing when she moved to Nova Scotia from Bangladesh in 2021. Mohsin said that apart from the challenge of trying to apply for apartments while not in the country, there weren't many places to choose from.

Fortunately, she added, she had help from community members in Bangladesh during her search, eventually securing a loft space in a house to rent.

"It is not a room, but that's what I had to take because at the time and now, still, there is a housing crisis in Nova Scotia," she said. "I just took it because I knew I had to come here and I would have to stay somewhere at least."

A report released earlier this year by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation found that the vacancy rate in Halifax is one per cent, one of the lowest in the country, as the city and the province deals with an increasing population, tightening the housing rental market.

That was the case for Taehong Kim, a graphic design student at Nova Scotia Community College who moved to Nova Scotia from South Korea in 2021.

"I came here in the middle of the COVID situation so my case? I think it's not normal," he said. "It was kind of a journey to find a place without any network as an international student."

Though he also eventually got a place to stay, he's now struggling amid other hopeful renters to find a new apartment.

"I tried to look for another house to move out from here, but almost every apartment that I reached out to, there has been no availability and there's so many people on the waiting list," Kim said. "It's really hard to find another option and move out."

International high school students are also bearing the brunt of a hot housing market.

Mike Rosson, acting executive director of the Nova Scotia International Student Program, said the program is finding it difficult to place some of its students for the first time in 25 years of operation.

"Everything from families using their extra room now as a home office, or children or family members moving home, … to a lot of people selling or downsizing their home, there's a lot of issues at play," he said.

The program has about 1,100 students enrolled for this coming school year, he added, and about 100 of them have yet to be placed with a host family.

The program is now using social media to raise awareness about the hosting opportunities. "We're still recruiting and trying to get the word out there that we need more stays … to hopefully create some interest in hosting those last hundred students we need to place."

At NSCC, Chauncey Kennedy, manager of housing and student life, said the school's international students at both the urban and rural campuses are facing similar hurdles as people flock to the province.

"The pandemic has had a variety of different impacts, one obviously being housing inventory," Kennedy said, adding that it was "increasingly difficult" for international students to find housing.

"A lot of people have decided to move to more rural Nova Scotia from other provinces, other places," Kennedy said.

"We've seen homes which typically housed multiple students becoming single-family homes. It's a wonderful opportunity for many people, but we've seen some of that impact on our students."

That is why NSCC is suggesting that international students coming this fall begin their search sooner rather than later, he added.

Mount Saint Vincent University spokesperson Gillian Batten said in an email that while the school hasn't been hearing from international students about the issue, it is aware of "the low availability of off campus housing."

"We're concerned about the particular challenges our international students face in this competitive and expensive rental market — for example, a lack of local references and the inability to run a credit check without North American credit," Batten wrote. "Fortunately, we still have room for students in residence at MSVU for the upcoming academic year."

To combat the difficulties, Mohsin said she held a webinar earlier this year to help other international students that may be in the same situation.

"That's why make this is an advocacy piece for me because I suffered through this, so I don't want the students to suffer through this as well," she said.

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