As the fall semester creeps closer, some Memorial University students are scrambling to find suitable housing — and student union representatives say the problem will only get worse.
Jawad Chowdhury, MUNSU's director of advocacy, said over the past three months he's heard from dozens of students whose education has taken a hit because they're struggling to secure appropriate housing.
"There's been multiple incidents where the entire house have been infested with bugs, fire ants, things like that, and landlords show a complete disregard to such tenant rights," he said in an interview with The St. John's Morning Show.
Chowdhury said the price of rent is rising too, leaving students, many who work part time, struggling to pay rent and other bills — that's if they find a house in the first place.
Seniors, people making low wages and students have been struggling to find housing in recent months, leaving some in desperate situations. The vacancy rate in Newfoundland and Labrador was 3.1 per cent as of October 2021, but at least one housing advocate has said that rate could drop lower — if it hasn't already.
In a statement, a MUN spokesperson said university residences are nearing capacity for the fall semester, with less than 100 beds available. The spokesperson said family accommodations at Burton's Pond and graduate student accommodations at Macpherson College and Signal Hill Campus are full.
The spokesperson noted off-campus student accommodations are difficult to find.
"We are encouraging all students to seek accommodations as soon as possible," he said.
Short-term rental regulations coming
Emily Dyer, MUNSU director of external affairs, communications and research, said short term rentals — like the ones advertised through websites like Airbnb and Vrbo — are contributing to the housing crunch.
She said a map showing hundreds of short-term rental properties in St. John's left her "appalled."
"It was disgusting considering the amount of students who have been coming to us and even people in my life who aren't students, who are lower income people who work in retail and service industry, who are desperately searching for housing," she said.
Dyer wants action from the provincial government on the issue.
In an interview with CBC News, Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation Minister Steve Crocker said the provincial government will be introducing short-term rental regulations within "weeks." The regulations are part of a bill passed in the House of Assembly in fall 2020. The regulations were delayed due to COVID-19, said Crocker.
He said while the regulations are meant to level the playing field for tourism operators, the housing crunch is also a consideration. However, he said the province will not stop landlords from moving properties from the long-term rental market to the short-term rental market.
"It will make sure they are following all necessary guidelines, regulations and bylaws," he said.
Crocker said the province will require all short-term rental owners to register their properties with the provincial government. The provincial short-term rental property registry is already open, but only about 800 properties are currently registered, according to a Tourism Department spokesperson.
According to AirDNA, a website which aggregates data from Airbnb and other sources, about 750 Airbnbs exist in the St. John's metropolitan area alone, with hundreds more in other parts of the province.
The registry will mean municipalities can ensure short-term rental property owners are paying taxes and following municipal regulations. The property owners will have to follow tourism accommodation guidelines, which unregistered property owners are not currently subjected to.
"They may not want to comply with the regulations that are faced by our tourism accommodators because our tourism accomodators have some pretty stringent guidelines," he said. "It may free up some housing."
'People are suffering'
The regulations are not finalized, but Dyer said based on the Tourism Accommodation Act itself, she believes the government could do more. She's suggested limiting the number of properties a person can own, or increasing their taxes.
The provincial government isn't considering placing either of those restrictions on short-term rental property owners.
"We need to make sure that they're in a fair and competitive business opportunity," Crocker said.
Crocker said property owners will be given time to comply with the new regulations. However, even when the rules are in effect, there is no guarantee they help ease the St. John's housing crunch.
Dyer believes based on the number of students who have contacted MUNSU already — more than a month before the first day of the semester — finding housing will become even more difficult this fall.
"People are really struggling. People are suffering."