Part 1 – Intro
We asked students how the city’s housing crisis is affecting them.
In interviews and nearly 150 survey responses this fall, we heard stories of desperation, worry and a feeling that home ownership is slipping out of reach for many young people before they’ve started their adult lives
Meanwhile, dorms have wait lists and Calgary rents are increasing at some of the fastest rates in the country.
It’s forcing many students into sub-optimal housing which hurts their studies, stability, safety and health.
With the province growing quickly, students have found themselves hit with a one two punch of rising tuition and rents.
Almost 90 per cent of young adults 18-34 believe housing should be a top priority for government. And yet, things are worse than ever.
Our project looks at the largely unseen effects of poor student housing, how we got here and what could get us out of this. Our public forum will bring together community members and explore solutions.
But a problem decades in the making won’t be fixed overnight.
For now, students are learning that finding a place to live can be as tough as anything they face in the classrooom.
Calgary student housing: An Action-Journey
In the spring of 2023, for the eighth time in less than two years, Joseph Nguyen found himself looking for somewhere to live.
A fifth-year-student at Mount Royal University, Nguyen had been told to move out by his landlord because of changes in the landlord’s family situation. Turning to Facebook marketplace, Nguyen sent dozens of messages to people who’d posted about rooms to rent.
Most were ignored. So when someone wrote to say that they had a place that they could show him in 30 minutes, Nguyen swung into action.
“I was like I gotta cancel my meetings. I gotta cancel my plans. And I have to go,” he said. He asked his sister to drive him to Radisson Heights, in the southeast, where a woman showed him a room available for $700 a month. It was one of four rooms that had been set up in a basement, each with a separate door. The available room did not have a working lock. The renters shared one fridge and a single bathroom. Nguyen saw mouse droppings in the kitchen and black mold on the walls. “Unliveable” is how Nguyen described it.
MRU Journalism and Digital Media students have teamed-up this fall with journalist-in-residence Christina Frangou to tell stories of Calgary’s housing crisis and its effect on students .
We followed the four-step Action-Journey model pioneered at the Green Line in Toronto.
You can learn more about the project here
The landlord told him that another person was coming to see the room. “Do you want it? Yes or no?” the landlord asked. Nguyen paused a second before he said yes. “I was so desperate. It was either this place or homelessness.”
Nguyen is among more than 68,500 post-secondary students in Calgary who are being hit with a one-two punch of record-high tuition fees and lack of affordable housing.
For this generation of students, paying for the bills associated with post-secondary education has become a challenge equal to anything they will face in a classroom. They worry about grades and degrees, yes; but also about finding housing, getting jobs, making friends and paying for transit, parking, food and books.
This comes at an emotional cost. The distress levels go beyond the old stereotype of the starving student—post-secondary students now worry that they will never be comfortable financially. Their mental health is suffering. Among young people aged 18 to 24 in Calgary, 59 per cent feel stressed, up from 38 per cent in 2020 in the Calgary Foundation’s Quality of Life survey.
In interviews and nearly 150 responses to an anonymous survey put together by an advanced reporting journalism class at Mount Royal University, students said that they face immense financial pressure, brought on by the high costs of, well, everything. But housing is at the top of the list.
They make constant trade-offs in order to maintain their studies while staying in the city. Many live with their parents, even if it means long commutes to and from campus. Some stay in situations they consider dangerous—with doors that don’t lock or landlords who break the law by doing things like asking for a year of rent up front.
Others are burning through their savings, spending more per month on housing than they’d budgeted for. The city’s rental prices are soaring upwards, with no limit on how much a landlord can increase rent in Alberta (only how often). Budgets that students drew up a year ago are now out of date. Rents in Calgary increased by an average of approximately 40 per cent, or $596, between 2020 and 2023—faster than any other major city in Canada. In October, the average one-bedroom rental in the city reached $1,730. That’s two times what the Canadian government requires international students to have per month for all their expenses in order to pursue their education in Canada.
So, students are finding ways to make do. They live multiples to a room. They skip meals. They take on jobs—sometimes full-time jobs or even dangerous jobs—in order to bring in income. They are picking up what some have called an entire “hidden curriculum” about how to survive in a hostile housing market.
This is not what post-secondary students expected their university and college years to be like.
Before the 2023-2024 academic year began, Nguyen, who is the president of the Students’ Association of MRU, joined the Calgary Student Alliance, a group of advocates from post-secondary institutions across the city. They reached out to students to gather stories about housing with a plan to take their case to city council in September at a public meeting on housing policy.
Most students they talked to wanted to remain anonymous. They didn’t want their poverty on display. International students feared a backlash about speaking out. They are sometimes made scapegoats for the city’s housing crisis, subject to attacks on social media. Students worried that speaking out could put them at physical risk, or affect their housing, studies or relationships.
One student said that they’d been kicked out of their house by their parents and were living in their car.
Another said they’d showed up to view a place to rent and found 10 other people. A bidding war ensued. “People were like, I’ll do 750. I’ll do 800. I’ll do 850,” said Nguyen. “And then, the student had to leave because it couldn’t match their budget, unfortunately.”
Mateusz Salmassi, vice-president external of the Students’ Union at the University of Calgary, heard similar stories. They’re sleeping in their cars, couch-surfing and even contemplating sleeping in the university library at night because they have nowhere else to go, he said. They are paying $650 a month to share a room with a stranger in an overcrowded house, the same price Salmassi paid in 2019 for a single room. He knows of 20 students living in a house with one kitchen and two washrooms. “It’s all-round a crisis,” he said.
Students who are on the brink of homelessness, or in homelessness, struggle to get by in class, he pointed out.
“We’ve heard of students passing out in their labs because they skip meals,” he said. “Every student we see who is dealing with the housing crisis—and there are so many— just seems so exhausted.”
To Salmassi, the age-old notion of university as a time of discovery has been eclipsed by a sense that students are hanging on by a thread. “I almost think that the idea that university should be an extension of adolescence—an experience of discovering yourself and having fun—is becoming a bit dated when so many people are barely making ends meet,” he said.
This is a crisis decades in the making. Its roots go back long before the current batch of post-secondary students was born.
In the years after the Second World War, the federal government set out on a program of publicly funding housing in Canadian cities. The resultant homes were often in the style of 1.5-story boxes—Strawberry Homes—designed for single families, with green lawns and driveways for cars. The country’s major cities sprawled outwards, foregoing the density and multi-family dwellings that form the heart of old European centres like Vienna or London.
Purpose-built rental housing popped up for people unable or unwilling to become homeowners. This was mostly apartment buildings, townhomes and houses built just for renters, never intended for ownership. But rental housing has always been small compared to the number of single-family dwellings going up across Canada. This was to be a country of homeowners; renters were an afterthought.
In the early 1970s, the tiny program of government-support for purpose-built rental housing began to lose steam — first through an end to favourable tax treatment, and then, a halt to subsidies in 1984. Ten years later, the federal government got out of the social housing game entirely when the Chretien government canceled long-term investments in this sector.
The responsibility fell to the provinces, who downloaded much of the role to the municipalities. But cities have meagre resources compared to higher levels of government. Many of the municipal dollars that could be used to put roofs over heads went to shelters of last resort. The pool of purpose-built rental housing—the kinds of places that post-secondary students often rely upon—languished, becoming older and neglected.
This is true in all of Canada’s major cities, but nowhere is it more pronounced than Calgary. Today, Calgary boasts the highest rate of homeownership and single-family housing among the country’s four largest cities. The flip side is that it is also home to the lowest supply of purpose-built rentals, subsidized housing and cooperative housing. If you look at housing options as a continuum, with emergency shelters on one end and single-family homes on the other, Calgary is rich on the upper-end of the scale. But the city has a hollow middle, with too few affordable rental properties. What exists was built, often with government support, before the mid-1980s. The number of low-cost rental units in the city has dropped significantly over the last 30 years, down more than 3,000 units, even though the city’s population grew by more than half a million over that time.
In 2018, the city simplified the process to approve secondary suites in homes, a move partly designed to add more long-term rental space. But this has not given a measurable boost to the long-term rental market, said Byron Miller, a professor in the department of geography at the U of C. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many have been turned into short-term rentals like Airbnbs. “And what this means is those units are not available to help meet long term housing,” he said.
Miller, who studies social movements and urban spaces, said that efforts to address the housing shortage in Calgary have focused on increasing supply and building more houses and condos. But that approach has not solved the long-term housing needs, particularly for lower income populations. This strategy deals only with the supply side of the equation, not the demand—and people who want housing for investment purposes are driving a significant part of the demand. In the first part of 2023, investors accounted for 30 per cent of all residential real estate purchases in Canada, according to data from the Bank of Canada. That is up from 28 per cent in the first quarter of last year, and 22 per cent from the same period in 2020.
As a rule, markets do not respond to people in need; they respond to the people who have the money to buy what they want. They are leaving out the one in five Calgarians who are currently unable to afford housing. The number of houses and condos in Calgary is rising, but the people most in need of housing cannot afford to live in most of them.
Many cities around the world get around this problem by offering non-market housing. These are houses or apartments that are owned or run by a government or non-profit organization and made available to low- or middle-income households at less than market rates. Throughout the United Kingdom, educational charities offer housing for post-graduate students. And in Singapore, more than half of all homes are non-market housing—good-quality, desirable homes open to people with even a middle-class income.
Calgary, in contrast, has only about 3.6 per cent of housing available as non-market housing. That’s a little more than half of what you’ll find in other major Canadian cities, where the average is closer to 6 per cent. It’s not even one-tenth of the level in a place like Vienna, which is often held up as a model of resilient social housing.
What it means is that post-secondary students in Calgary are left fighting for places in a relatively small slice of the housing market—and an increasingly expensive one. Today, for a household to adequately afford average market rent in Calgary, they need an annual before-tax income of close to $84,000, far beyond the range of most students. A single person working full-time on minimum wage does not even come close, earning about $31,200 a year working 40-hour weeks.
Miller sees the effect of the housing crisis reflected in his classes. His students are struggling to afford rent and food. “Students are really being squeezed,” he says. “Things have gotten to be quite, quite bad.”
When the Calgary Journal reached out to students across the city for this story, many said that they did not want to speak on the record. But a handful did. They wanted people to know what their lives are like. They said they are unable to afford basic necessities in the face of spiking food prices, a housing shortage and several years of steep tuition hikes.
Between 2018 and 2023, the UCP government cut the operating support for post-secondary institutions in Alberta by nearly $500 million. Over the same period, tuition rates for domestic students rose by 29 to 74 per cent, depending on the program. And when the provincial government announced affordability supports last year to help people deal with the rising cost of living in Alberta, young people and single people were left out. They received nothing.
Over the past 10 years, Calgary’s full-time student population has been growing. So have post-secondary residence spots, but they have not quite kept pace.
- Bow Valley College: Full-time student body increased by 86 per cent to 6,856. The college has no on-site housing.
- U of C: Added 799 new beds, while its full-time student population grew by 5,549 students. Its wait list is now at 741 students, more than double what it was in 2013.
- MRU: Has maintained 950 residence spots since opening a new residence in October 2003. Since then, its full-time student body has grown by 24 per cent, reaching 11,265 this fall.
- SAIT: Currently has 1,100 beds, one for every 15 students. Enrolment increased by 30 per cent since 2012, although housing has remained unchanged since at least 2018.
Students said they are living in unsafe conditions. Or they found housing far from campus and commute for hours by bus to get to school. They rush out after classes, trying to get home or to work. They feel like they are still trying to build social networks after two years spent learning online during the pandemic.
They are tired of hearing that this is how it has always been for students.
“This is not just people who aren’t trying hard enough, or not doing the right thing, or are too busy spending their money on Starbucks and stuff like that,” says Eden Baxter, a 22-year-old student studying sociology at MRU. “It’s so much more than that.”
She used to rent an apartment downtown. When the fridge broke, her landlord waited more than a month to replace it. Then, he raised the rent by 30 per cent. She couldn’t afford to stay there anymore. Her parents stepped in to help her, she says.
She sees her classmates turning to full-time work in order to cover their expenses. “People are having to work more than they’ve had to in the past, just to be able to afford anything,” she says.
A volunteer at Women’s Center of Calgary, Baxter says she sees young women, sometimes with children, who are trying to figure out where they can afford to live. Over a single shift, she’ll meet several women who can’t find a safe place to sleep.
Hazen Ellwood, who uses the pronouns they/them, graduated from high school in June, 2020, after spending the last months of Grade 12 in front of a computer screen during the early waves of COVID. They decided to postpone university until the world felt a little more certain and they could attend classes in person. For two years, Ellwood studied cabinet-making. And in the fall of 2023, they enrolled at the U of C, paying for their studies by working as a cabinet maker 30 hours a week. They still live at home with their parents, but struggle to cover the costs of food, transportation, tuition and books. Life is “very much a constant fear and calculation in day-to-day activities,” they said.
Masters and PhD students, too, say they are labouring to make ends meet. Many graduate students move to Calgary for their studies, and sometimes come with a family. They can’t find appropriate housing that they can cover with their university salaries, said James Steele, who is doing his PhD in mathematics and is VP academic of the Graduate Students’ Association at the U of C. Often, they can’t find affordable child care either, he added.
“Every child care facility that I’m aware of that’s around [the university campus] has a waitlist that’s years long. If you got into your PhD, let’s say, in July and you have to relocate in August, you don’t really have an opportunity for affordable childcare.”
Steele’s heard of grad students who arrived in Canada with their family, after leaving good jobs in their home countries. But they could not find a place to live once they arrived. “They were burning through their savings in Airbnbs, and then these families—and there’s a few of them—unfortunately, just realize that they couldn’t live here and had to then relocate back to their home country.”
He said these stories don’t register as data points in local housing statistics. These students did not even have the opportunity to start their studies, even though they’d turned their lives upside down to get to Calgary. “They got here and just couldn’t find housing. That’s the worst of it that I’ve seen.”
Sasha Tsenkova, a professor in the school of architecture, planning and landscape at the University of Calgary, specializes in sustainable cities, housing policy and urban development. She’s studied cities around the world, and carried out projects for the World Bank, Council of Europe and the United Nations.
She is concerned about what she sees happening to students. Tsenkova sometimes polls her classes, which are mostly filled with grad students, and asks them about their housing. Of those who rent, she asks how many spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing costs. “It’s a surprisingly high number,” she says. “Some of what I call key essential workers in our universities—the postdocs—their income is quite limited. And they end up spending more than 50 per cent of their income on rent.”
Students in Calgary have been overlooked and under-valued when it comes to housing policy. Most post-secondary students want to live near campus. But those communities are often among the city’s most expensive neighbourhoods.
Tsenkova points to the University District as an example of urban development built without consideration for students. The 200-acre urban community, just west of the University of Calgary, was developed by the University of Calgary Properties Group Ltd., a group created in 2010 with the goal of generating financial returns for the university. The University District consists of green parks, pathways, townhouses and retail sectors. It has won awards for design. But none of the housing within the community is tailored to students or low-income households. “It’s for people that can actually afford to buy or rent from people that have already bought a unit. And that is a different rental market,” said Tsenkova.
Even on university campuses, student housing has not kept pace with increasing numbers. Over the last decade, the post-secondary student population grew nearly 27 per cent, to reach 68,597 this year. But the residency spots have not increased to match.
To Tsenkova, the housing shortage, and stress caused by it, is robbing students of the opportunity to thrive in university. And that will have long-term effects for everyone, she added.
“Essentially, you are depriving young people—and this is the intellectual capital of Canada—from the opportunity to focus on their education,” she said. “And that is essentially a loss to the individual, the family but also society at large.”
By the summer of 2023, the housing crunch for students was in full swing, and most hadn’t arrived yet to start the fall semester. The city had a vacancy rate of 2.7 per cent—half of what it’d been two years earlier. At the U of C, MRU and SAIT, students were waitlisted for residence; for the latter two, it was the first time in their history.
Isabel Fandiño, a student support advisor for international students at the University of Calgary, feared what would happen to incoming international students. Most were still in their home countries. From a distance, they were trying to compete for the few remaining spots if they were even aware of the housing crunch. Many had no idea what was in store for them. “It’s almost like we’re setting students up for failure,” she said.
To get ahead of the squeeze, Fandiño organized an online webinar for incoming students. She asked students to write in with their challenges. The list was long: landlords would not show properties virtually. They wanted to charge for viewings. They were not interested in renting to male students of colour.
Mostly, students couldn’t find places within their budget. Many put aside around $600 for housing every month, a calculation that is based on the $10,000 for expenses that the Canadian government requires international students to show proof of before their student permit is issued. There are few places in the city available at $600 per month, and they are often far from campus or in a shared room. Unable to find long-term housing, students can end up in expensive short-term rentals. When they do get housing, landlords take advantage of students, said Fandiño.
“I’ve had three students in the past two weeks come into my office saying, the landlord is not giving me back my deposit now that I moved out into my permanent housing.”
Critics have laid much blame for the housing crisis on international students in newspaper op-eds and social media. They say too many students are coming to the country, given the lack of housing. In the last year, more than 900,000 international students received permits to study in Canada. A total of 16, 343 permits were approved for international students destined for Calgary between January and September 2023, according to data provided to the Calgary Journal from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
Fandiño and other student advocates are angered by arguments that international students are at fault for the broader housing issue. International students have applied to Canadian universities and been invited to come, she pointed out. They’re paying three and four times the tuition of Canadian students, making them an invaluable source of revenue for cash-strapped universities. But communities and post-secondary institutions that have not stepped up to welcome them with adequate housing.
“International students are doing everything by the book. They are showing the money that they were asked to show that they have. They are coming in at the date that they were asked. They are following the things that they were told they needed to follow,” said Fandiño. “And they are believing what they were promised— that they would come here, and they would have [a good] experience.”
This failure by governments and institutions leaves students at risk — to their finances, to their physical safety, their mental health, she said. They’re even at risk in their academic studies — the very reason why students take the chance to move here.
Over the last 12 months, municipal and federal governments have taken steps to improve student housing. In September, city council approved a new housing strategy which will increase affordable housing by up to 3,000 homes a year. The federal government has gotten back into the social housing game, with more support for non-market housing. They’ve also announced plans to eliminate the federal GST on construction of new rental housing. The University of Calgary has said that it is looking at opening a new residence in future.
But none of these changes will help post-secondary students now.
The starving student has been part of how students are viewed for nearly 200 years when newspapers in England first used the phrase. It never should have been acceptable. But now, it is used to ignore the needs of a huge portion of the population who are in trouble—nearly 70,000 people in Calgary alone. “I worry that we call this resilience,” said Meaghon Reid, the executive director of Vibrant Communities Calgary.
What it really is is a loss of opportunity, Reid said. Students can’t focus when they’re under-housed and over-stretched. “That to me, is a real shame.”
Joseph Nguyen moved out of the basement room after two months. He’d lived in too many unsafe places and been reno-victed too many times. He wanted to buy his own place for a long time—something that could be an investment and a home. He worked full-time for two years, invested his money aggressively and stocked his savings away.
This fall, he decided he was finished being a renter. He put five per cent down on a house and he rents out the extra bedrooms to other students to cover his mortgage.
It’s the first time in years that he knows he’s not at risk of homelessness.
See what you missed!
Our Nov. 27 event brought together experts, advocates, students and journalists to talk about our city’s housing crisis. Our journalist-in-residence, Christina Frangou hosted an expert panel, featuring:
- Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott
- Dr. Sasha Tsenkova – U of C professor
- Jospeh Nguyen – SAMRU president
- Isabel Fandiño – U of C International Student Services
Photos: David Kim
Part 4: Solutions
- Christina Frangou is the Journal’s first journalist-in-residence. Based in Calgary, her award-winning work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, The Walrus, Maclean’s and the Calgary Herald. ↩︎