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Where’s Ontario’s student housing plan?

December 23rd, 2023 · No Comments

Students are particularly vulnerable to weak rental laws

By Jessica Bell

Justin is a graduate student studying pancreatic cancer at the University of Toronto. He’s one of thousands of students who live in our downtown neighbourhoods. When his building was bought by corporate landlord, Harrington Housing, he became a victim of neglect and harassment designed to drive him out of his rent-controlled home.

“I’ve had to live through unlivable conditions,” Justin told me. “I’ve had to walk down the stairs in the dark for months because they refused to fix the lights in the hallway. I’ve had to go to bed cold when they failed to maintain the boilers. I’ve seen my neighbors try for weeks to get a working fridge. My neighbors have been locked out of the building because the landlord changed the locks and didn’t give some tenants new keys.”

When tenants give up and move out, Harrington rents out individual bedrooms in each apartment for astronomical prices. A “deluxe” 115-square-foot bedroom in a basement apartment costs $310 a week. That’s not deluxe; it’s exploitation. 

In September, I hosted a student housing forum at the University of Toronto, as part of our work to provide input into the Ford government’s quiet consultation process to address the student housing crunch. At the forum, students spoke of being illegally evicted by landlords, sleeping two to a bedroom, and the astonishingly high price of rent. While some students live on campus for their first year, most students live in private-market housing.

Welcoming and keeping young people is good for our province. If we want students to come and stay, then housing must be safer, more stable, and more affordable. Here’s how we can do it.

Ontario needs to enforce its rental laws. Currently, renters like Justin have nowhere to turn if their landlord is breaking the rules. Police don’t intervene. Provincial and city bylaw officers rarely step in, and it can take two years for the Landlord and Tenant Board to hear a tenant’s case. Even when a tenant wins, the fines are small, and many landlords don’t pay them. 

Ontario needs to pass stronger rental laws, starting with strong rent control on all homes, including vacancy control so there’s a cap on rent hikes between tenancies. Rent control is the single most effective way to stabilize rent for 1.7 million Ontarians and curb illegal evictions. Student housing is exempt from rent control, as are homes first occupied after 2018.

Ontario should restrict short-term rentals to people’s primary residences in most areas. There are thousands of short-term rentals in investment properties being listed for 28 days or more on platforms like AirBnB. These homes are often not for tourists, but residents who can’t find a permanent home. By renting out bedrooms on a short-term basis, Harrington Housing is one of many companies taking advantage of big legal loopholes.

Ontario needs to address its housing supply shortage and spur the construction of 1.5 million homes. The government’s housing affordability taskforce offers some sensible recommendations on how to proceed, including recruiting people to a construction career, and zoning reform to speed up the construction of apartments near colleges and universities.

Ontario cannot rely on the private sector alone to meet our housing needs because new private-market housing is expensive. In Toronto, a 490-square-foot apartment at the new Waverley building at College and Spadina costs $2900 to rent. Justin can’t afford that; not many can.

To build the kinds of homes Ontarians need, governments should get back into the job of financing and building non-market and affordable housing, including housing on public land. Canada did this well after World War II and should do so again.

Making housing, including student housing, affordable, requires a comprehensive approach. 

Justin has decided to stay and fight to keep his apartment, and he’s also getting politically involved, like many others. Their involvement in the political process is necessary. The affordability of our city is at stake.

Jessica Bell is MPP for University-Rosedale and the Housing Critic for the Official Opposition at Queen’s Park.


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