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If you are or have been a post-secondary education student in Peterborough or Toronto, odds are you’ve had a rough go of housing. With the standard city vacancy rate worldwide between 6 and 7 percent, Toronto and Peterborough are in deep water with only 1.5 percent vacancy in both cities. This means that vulnerable renters like students are being taken advantage of by predatory landlords and put in dangerous, dissatisfactory housing situations, often with little to no tenant rights. Many of us have lived in overcrowded rooming houses, sometimes going without on-site laundry, living spaces, or even kitchens. Rent is competitive and often comparative room size has nothing to do with the amount that slumlord-landlords are charging us. Many of us live in rooming houses for months before we find out that we are being overcharged. So, with student housing in the midst of a crisis, who is going to stand up for us?
Enter the 13th Annual Trent Community Movements Conference, which ran from Friday, January 31 to Saturday, February 1 this year. The event took place at Sadleir House on George Street (which, funnily enough, is positioned amongst popular low-income student housing). The event turned the spotlight on how students are suffering in both Peterborough and Toronto to locate and maintain adequate housing. The roundtable discussion that ran from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturday featured keynote speakers such as Luisa Sotomayor (York University), Derya Tarhan (Student Dwell Toronto), Allison Evans (York University), and representatives from York Village Housing Association (YVHA), and gave an in-depth analysis of what exactly is happening to post-secondary students in Toronto.
Derya began by discussing how SDT conducted focus groups, consisting of 115 students from four Toronto universities, and what they had to say about the housing crisis. According to Derya, adequate housing offers greater chance of academic success, a better social life, and both positive mental and physical wellbeing. However, many students were found to be using lines of credit to pay their rent, and many had dealt with landlords who refused to fix issues within the home, and in general took advantage of students. One student stated that “students want to be students,” but with campus housing costs rising every year and catering only to the wealthy with luxurious bedrooms and actual privacy, students are forced to search farther from their school for a place to live. Due to this, some students face commute times longer than 45 minutes each way, leading to less time for sleep, eating, studying, and social functions.
But how did campus housing become so expensive in the first place? It is largely thanks to Mike Harris and others like him. The former Conservative Ontario Premier slashed government funding to universities and forced them to take on a business-like role, treating students like customers of education. Campus residence became privatized and therefore more expensive, and prices for international students soared. As more money was needed to operate universities and housing, more students were encouraged to attend school, creating bed shortages. Luisa Sotomayor of YU spoke of this, and stated that as of the 2017-2018 academic year at York University, there were only 3,512 available beds on campus, but the student population had grown to 53,371 students. This means that only 6.5 percent of the student body could have access to an on-campus bed… if only they could afford it.
Sotomayor continued, emphasizing how Toronto is not only the 12th most expensive housing market in the world, but how most rooming houses in the city are illegal, situated in the “ghost jurisdiction”. While Toronto has city sections dedicated to legal rooming residences, thousands of students find themselves trapped in the infamous York Village: over 800 houses that were designed for single-family use, but have been converted to rooming houses that stuff as many as 10-17 students per house. Andrew Van Norden, the CEO of YVHA, has been subject to such conditions himself, prompting the creation of the organization. Norden shared with the audience that he lived in seven different rooms between five houses in just a single year, with as many as 16 students in each house. Even with the high tenant numbers, rent is still $800 to $1500 per month. Some rooming houses have been completely converted into “rooms” – taking out recreation areas and kitchens, while also not permitting any cooking to happen on site.
How does Peterborough differ from the big city though? Many audience members present at the talk identified themselves as International Development students, so an interest is definitely being taken in our own community, as it needs to be. For those familiar with slum-like student housing in Peterborough, rooming houses in places such as Water/Parkhill, George/Parkhill, Dublin, Bethune, and Sherbrooke are places where landlords shantytown sheriffs, whose main business is the exploitation of others, have put up shop.
I myself have personal experience living close to the corner of Water and Parkhill, in a house of seven people all under the age of 22. Not only did three of the house members use the house as a 24/7 illegal substance store, but during my first week living there I slipped down ancient basement steps only to stand up in a pool of water where a live wire was sitting. I was electrocuted (clearly not lethally so), but convinced myself to persist in staying. I only stayed in that house for two more months before leaving, upon which my landlord screamed in my face for “abandoning my room”. She called me a criminal, a liar, and told me that I would die alone. That I could handle, but then she refused to return the illegal “key deposit” that I had paid.
My short story is not the only one out there, and I have heard much worse from others in the area. However, when we share such stories we realize that we are being taken advantage of, and we know that something needs to be done. There is no amount of helpful tips to keep new renters out of awful situations, but documenting and photographing your living conditions is a good start. Make sure you get a lease if possible, and let your landlord know if you will not comply with anything. In my experience, some landlords will allow you to alter your contract if they realize that you know your rights. They are criminals in disguise of business owners, and to them we are comically large bags of money.
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