Desperate for housing: International students struggle amid shortage of affordable options in Halifax

·5 min read

As students prepare for university to start next week, many are still looking for a place to live in a city burdened by soaring rents and the lack of affordable vacancies.

The situation is especially challenging for international students who are visiting Halifax for the first time.

International students searching for accommodations have flooded Facebook groups over the past few weeks, but there were very few ads for roommates. A student asking for a one-bedroom apartment close to Dalhousie University with a $900-1200 budget was told that nothing would be available for “that cheap.”

The vacancy rate in Halifax is one of the lowest in the country despite an increase from one to 1.9 per cent in 2020, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Decrease in international migration due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to online learning at universities were major contributors to the increase.

New housing in the south end of the Halifax peninsula hasn’t helped the low vacancy rate. The Crown corporation’s report said apartment buildings built in the area in the last two years had a vacancy rate of 2.7 per cent and an average rent of $1,954.

There were 12,000 international students in Nova Scotia in 2019. Dalhousie University alone welcomes about 4,000 students each year.

Now that students are back and immigrants with confirmations of permanent residence are able to travel, the vacancy rate in Halifax is likely to have gone down.

Yuduan Pu has been in Canada for six years, but he said he’s never seen the housing situation this bad.

After spending the last five years in Victoria, B.C., he is now in Halifax to start his master’s in development economics at Dalhousie University.

Pu’s search for a place to live started in July after his application for residence was rejected. Dalhousie informed students it reduced its residence capacity to 80 per cent with priority to first-year students due to COVID-19.

“Based on my experience in Victoria, I have to send maybe like 40 or 50 emails to, you know, get a house, right? But the last time I (saw), I sent over at least 150 emails or … messages, and I still heard nothing. And I was just desperate,” he said.

Being miles away in China made the search even more difficult. Some of the apartments Pu applied for required a Canadian reference since he was out of the country.

Although he had many friends in Victoria, Pu said he wasn’t comfortable asking them for the favour.

“These are things that you ask your parents to do, right? … That's just not something that you ask friends.

“Even though I have perfect credit history … just because I was not in Halifax, they just somehow think I'm not … trustworthy.”

Pu said he couldn’t sleep for a month as his attempts continued to fail. He finally thought of searching through a website meant for Chinese newcomers to connect — before immigrating to Canada — with potential landlords or families offering room.

He’s now living with a family he found through the website, but it’s a temporary fix, he said.

Things were looking up Thursday morning after Pu viewed what seemed like a good place. But when he called two minutes later to sign the lease, he was told someone else got the apartment.

Housing issues for international students are nothing new. Arthi Amlipur, who earned her master’s in technology entrepreneurship and innovation from Saint Mary's University early this year, faced challenges in August 2019 and in February 2021.

After receiving notice to vacate her apartment in February due to water damage to the building, she spent two months hunting for a new place.

“I searched everywhere in the Facebook, and I called up my friends, but I didn't find any suitable house, sometimes I didn't find any vacancy either,” she told The Chronicle Herald.

Amlipur called every residential building advertising for vacancies on street signs. She said she was asked to pay an advance upfront to have her applications considered and waited up to 20 days to get her money back when the application was rejected.

According to Dalhousie Legal Aid’s tenants rights guide, asking for a rental application fee is illegal.

Landlords also requested Canadian references and financial documents to prove Amlipur can pay the rent. Both were difficult to provide as an international student who’s only been in Halifax for a year.

After attending an EduNova workshop on housing, Amlipur said she understood more about her rights as a tenant. She hoped more resources would be available to help international students find vacancies and navigate the housing system.

The average rent in Halifax increased by 4.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020 despite the easing of pressure on the rental market, according to the CMHC report.

Amlipur said high rents are a big barrier for international students as they pay differential fees on top of their tuition. International students are also only allowed to work up to 20 hours a week during regular school terms.

While Amplipur was able to find a reasonable apartment within two months, Pu hasn't been lucky so far.

He is in fact seeing an increase in rent now compared to July. He said he recently came across what he described as an old storage space repurposed for an apartment. The small space with little amenities was up for rent at $1,000, not including two-months rent and a deposit.

He added that the problem is magnified for students who don’t know where to look for housing, especially those who don’t have access to Facebook as the case for students in China.

“If I imagined I’m 19 years old right now and spent my first year in China doing online courses and I’ve never been to Canada. … Wow, that's, that's just scary. I’d have no idea where to start.”

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Nebal Snan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald

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