University students in Toronto face greater challenges due to unaffordable housing, long commutes

University students in Toronto find housing options on their campuses, or nearby, to be limited and expensive, leaving them vulnerable to predatory landlords or feeling isolated by long commutes, preliminary findings of a joint project by the city’s four universities indicate.

The presidents of Ryerson University, OCAD University, the University of Toronto and York University launched StudentDwellTO in 2017 to examine the housing challenges their 180,000 students were facing, and to gather data that will be used to navigate a path forward.

The StudentDwellTO research team held 26 student focus groups across Toronto on six university campuses: Ryerson University, OCAD University, York University’s Keele Campus and the University of Toronto’s St. George, Mississauga and Scarborough campuses. Preliminary findings were discussed May 2 during at a panel held at York University. Representatives from all four universities were present.

“It is increasingly clear that complex social, political and economic challenges are best addressed when governments, community organizations, universities and citizens all work together,” said Rhonda L. Lenton, president and vice-chancellor of York University. “I am excited that York is collaborating closely with all of the GTA universities to better understand the housing needs of our students. StudentDwellTO’s research will help us better serve our community and enrich the conversation around affordable and sustainable housing in Toronto and beyond.”

Left to right: Steven Liss, vice-president research and innovation, Ryerson University; Sara Diamond, president and vice-chancellor, OCAD University; Meric Gertler, president, University of Toronto; and Rhonda L. Lenton, president and vice-chancellor, York University. At the podium: Luisa Sotormayor, assistant professor, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, who is the York lead on the StudentDwellTO initiative

Key preliminary findings from the student focus groups show that students feel there is limited space available in residence beyond their first year in university, and that residence and mandatory meal plans are not worth what they cost. When students turn away from the limited options on campus, they face one of the costliest housing markets in North America. The available shared housing options are overcrowded, often discriminate against students by asking for several months of rent upfront and offer illegal leases in many cases, they said.

The primary cause of students’ dissatisfaction was rent, with students in the focus groups paying an average of $924 per month.

It is already clear some students chose their universities based on where their parents live, rather than their desired programs, and some with long commutes skip classes or tutorials to avoid long transit times. Students also expressed concern about having less time for extracurricular activities, contributing to feelings of isolation.

Low-income students suffer disproportionately from all of the negative repercussions of unaffordable housing, according to the research. There are also differences in the experiences at the various campuses. For example, students at downtown campuses face high housing costs and shortages, whereas York students say predatory landlords in housing near the University puts them into precarious situations.

Overall, students are asking for the following:

  • more affordable on-campus options and better maintenance of buildings;
  • new affordable housing options that include kitchen access and more common/study areas;
  • support and guidance with finding off-campus housing and dealing with landlords; and
  • more places for downtime and studying.

Researchers from the four universities continue to gather data about where and how students live, their commutes, and the impact on their academic achievement and other experiences. The data will be analyzed more fully in the coming months, which will give universities and policy-makers more detailed information to guide future planning decisions.