Students in need of housing say support needs to come faster

Claire Pontefract said there should be more support and protections for students seeking housing off-campus.  (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Claire Pontefract said there should be more support and protections for students seeking housing off-campus. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

When Claire Pontefract found out she couldn't stay in her apartment for the upcoming school year, hunting for a place to live consumed her days.

The second-year Dalhousie University student said she spent hours a day scanning websites like Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace, searching for a safe, stable, and affordable home for herself and her roommates.

"I would be in class and I wouldn't be able to focus because I just started getting really anxious about like, 'Oh my God, we still haven't found housing'," Pontefract said. "So I'd be sitting in class ... scrolling on Kijiji and missing all the information that the [professors] were giving me."

Pontefract and her roommates were on a fixed-term lease, and when their landlord told them they wouldn't be allowed to renew it, they asked for an explanation and received none. Then, they saw a unit in their building listed online for a much higher price.

She worried she wouldn't be able to find a new place she could afford, and it started to affect every aspect of her life.

Housing crisis affects thousands of students

Pontefract and her roommates are among tens of thousands of university and college students living in the province and looking for housing.

The advocacy group Students Nova Scotia says this is one of the biggest issues facing students, and support isn't coming fast enough.

"Students are really struggling when it comes to housing," said Lydia Houck, the organization's executive director.

David Laughlin/CBC
David Laughlin/CBC

In 2017, Students Nova Scotia began pushing the provincial government to work on a student housing strategy. In 2021, the province announced plans to create one.

Houck said student housing isn't a new issue, but the situation in the province is getting worse.

"Over the course of the pandemic ... we've seen historic vacancy levels, we've seen historic prices and more and more folks coming to the province," Houck said. "There's been a real recognition that this issue isn't just one that's impacting students, it's one that's impacting our province. If we can't bring students here, if we can't keep them here, it's not just an isolated sort of situation."

Houck said her organization often hears from students who can't find housing or who are having issues with residential tenancy rights and processes. They also hear from graduates who want to stay in the province, but can't afford housing.

Province says housing strategy coming this spring

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the provincial Department of Advanced Education told CBC News this is an "incredibly challenging time" for students, and all Nova Scotians, to find housing.

"The Department of Advanced Education will soon release a provincewide student housing strategy that will further help address student housing needs," said Monica MacLean, adding the plan will be released this spring.

Following a recent cabinet meeting, Minister of Advanced Education Brian Wong would not share any details about the student housing strategy, but told reporters "everything is on the table".

"The strategy is really looking at short-, mid- and long-term goals," Wong said. "There are some things that we can do almost immediately that will have impact. There are things that are may take a few years."

He said his department is "accepting ideas from everyone right now", including post-secondary institutions, non-profit organizations and private investors.

What has been done

The department pointed to recent investments in student housing, including multiple on-campus housing projects at three Nova Scotia Community College campuses in Stellarton and Dartmouth, Cape Breton University's partnership in the Tartan Downs project in Sydney, and Atlantic School of Theology's on-campus housing in Halifax.

Houck said though the issue of housing access is widespread, there are specific challenges in places like Cape Breton and Halifax.

"We've got a lot more folks vying for very limited resources in Halifax and the prices are higher," she said. "But for example, when we look at Sydney and CBU, we're seeing massive influxes of international students who are looking for housing. There isn't much of it. And also, because they're coming from outside of the country, they're often signing leases without ever having seen the units."

Eric Woolliscroft/CBC
Eric Woolliscroft/CBC

CBC asked five Halifax universities what they are doing to support student housing and whether they are working on creating more, either on- or off-campus.

A spokesperson for Saint Mary's University said the university's residences are full, and they are speaking with the province about a possible partnership in developing new student housing.

Dalhousie University said on-campus residences are focused on first-year students, and they offer resources and supports to students looking for off-campus housing.

"We are interested in pursuing conversations with government to identify whether there are novel opportunities for developing new student housing," said spokesperson Janet Bryson.

Both universities said talks with the province are too preliminary to provide any details.

The University of Kings College said it just finished renovations to its residences but has no immediate plans to build more residence space.

Mount Saint Vincent University said it still has limited capacity left in residences, but also has no plans to build new housing.

What still needs to change

Students Nova Scotia released a housing report in 2022 with 22 recommendations to the province, post-secondary institutions and cities and towns.

"Those recommendations included things like trying to create more student-specific affordable housing," Houck said. "But also things around tenancy education ... and how we can ensure that the most vulnerable students are getting the level of support that they need when it comes to housing."

Houck said Students Nova Scotia has been involved in talks about the student housing strategy, and they hope for "meaningful change" when it is released in the spring.