Canada is currently facing a housing crisis that has prompted the federal government to consider imposing a limit on the number of international students the country will accept. This decision comes in response to concerns that the influx of international students is exacerbating the housing shortage—a decision that major Canadian universities are reportedly opposed to. The Medium spoke to Professor Alan Walks from the University of Toronto Mississauga Department of Geography, Geomatics and Environment to get a better view of the situation.
The need for housing has grown substantially, surpassing the supply currently available. This surge in home prices and escalating rents has created a growing challenge for Canadians seeking affordable housing. “The key issue is affordability, and that is true for renters and for homeowners. The crisis has been building since the early 2000s,” says Professor Walks.
He explains that during the 1990s, the federal government—led by Mulroney and Chrétien—shifted away from directly constructing affordable rental housing. Instead, they employed incentives to encourage the private sector to supply rental housing through the condominium market. Consequently, in the mid-1990s, the provincial government of Ontario, under the leadership of Mike Harris, opted to discontinue financial support for the development of new affordable social rental housing.
“The blame falls on upper levels of government,” says Professor Walks, explaining that the government was indifferent about whether or not sufficient amounts of rental units were being built to meet the growing population. “The search for something to blame has been going on and one of the scapegoats in the story has been international students, [which] I find […] somewhat ironic,” he adds. Many landlords are exploiting international students, who are newcomers to the country and may not be well-versed in Canadian laws, by asking them for very high damage deposits. This has made it very difficult for students to find adequate rental housing in the city.
Universities oppose such a cap. Professor Walks notes, “Pre-pandemic, the Ford government declared a tuition decline of 10 per cent for domestic students. They also announced that they would not be making up the difference for universities and colleges.” As a result, universities and colleges saw this as a chance to increase the number of international students to make up for the shortfalls in tuition. Therefore, universities are now in a situation where they are seeking revenue from international students to fund their programs.
Addressing the housing crisis requires a multifaceted approach. The best way forward is to tackle both the excess demand and lack of supply by building more affordable rental housing. “The University of Toronto has been borrowing money over the years and building new classrooms and other kinds of infrastructure, but not residences,” says Professor Walks. Universities should consider investing in building new residences to help students, especially international students, navigate the housing crisis.
Canada’s housing crisis is a complex issue with no simple solutions. Professor Walks believes that “if universities got back into the business of building residences and if the federal and provincial governments got back into the business of funding and incentivizing purpose-built rentals, that would do a lot to address all the issues that are being raised with relation to international students.” International students undoubtedly contribute to housing demand, but they also bring substantial economic and cultural benefits. Striking the right balance is essential to address this pressing issue while maintaining Canada’s reputation as a welcoming and diverse nation.