There is a huge gap between student housing supply and demand in the greater Toronto area. In the absence of adequate residences, many students result to living in dubious, downright dangerous or illegal conditions; or they pay a very high price—whether it is on the private market or for a university residence. HOUSE (Housing Ontario University Students Equitably) intends to change things by setting up affordable non-profit housing projects for students, first in Toronto and then in various Ontario cities.
By Andréanne Chevalier
Students are a forgotten demographic when it comes to housing initiatives, says HOUSE co-founder and co-chair Bria Hamilton. “As students, we don’t really receive a lot of help in terms of housing because lots of programs are geared towards larger groups. It seems like a transitionary period of time.”
Some student-specific accommodations can be expensive, such as those offered in private projects* or university residences. At York University, for example, the minimum cost per month (for an eight-month lease) for a dormitory-style room for one person in residence, including the mandatory meal plan, is $1,439 per month.
These high bills, combined with tuition, have a significant impact on young adults. “University’s expensive. Housing is expensive. So that’s where students end up having to sacrifice their own well being,” says Bria.
Many must choose between paying high prices for student housing or living in private market housing, where conditions can be precarious. Bria states that many Toronto students find themselves living in illegal rooming houses, and substandard or overcrowded housing. In recent years, reports have detailed these deplorable living conditions.
A few years after cofounding the Affordable Housing Committee at York University, Bria and Michael Jodah cofounded HOUSE in 2019. The organization, inspired by other student housing initiatives outside Ontario, wants to offer affordable student housing by and for students in the province.
The first HOUSE project is aimed for students at York University, located about 40 minutes by public transit from downtown Toronto. A portion of the funds required to develop a first project—with the goal of building 800 to 1200 housing units—was collected through a student levy charged to graduate students. HOUSE hopes to extend the contribution levied to undergraduate students in the future.
The Community Housing Transformation Centre provided the organization with $168,250 through the Sector Transformation Fund. The Centre’s funding will be used primarily to hire staff to establish partnerships, conduct needs analysis, briefing notes and feasibility studies, and to engage the community.
“We’ve been advocating and working with the university the past few years to try to get an agreement on land,” says HOUSE cofounder and CEO Michael Jodah. “And it looks like that might finally happen this year. They seem very interested.” HOUSE hopes to start construction within two years of signing an agreement securing the land.
For Michael, it is important that the project is community focused. “Students are so lonely and isolated when they’re living away from their parents. The culture we live in now, people are so used to just going on Netflix or playing video games. So, you have to have the structures in place to build community.”
The HOUSE director has a vision of community gardens, a communal kitchen, and shared meals. Tenant participation will be strongly encouraged. “It’s not just about building affordable housing, but also building a different way of living.”
Collaboration with a Quebec group
HOUSE’s work was done with the support of UTILE (Unité de travail pour l’implantation de logement étudiant), a Quebec non-profit organization also dedicated to the construction and promotion of student housing. In 2020, UTILE received a $300,000 grant from the Centre.
The two agencies with similar approaches meet periodically. UTILE, founded in 2012, shares its experience and advice with HOUSE, including steps to follow for projects and best ways to approach universities and governments.
“We have two objectives [by collaborating with HOUSE],” says UTILE cofounder and CEO Laurent Levesque. “The first thing is to speed up the process. We would like it to take fewer years to get to the building part than it took us [when we started]. And in the medium or long term, our ultimate dream is to see a network of groups like that, and to have an association across Canada.”
The executive director of HOUSE agrees. “So having [a] network, I think really strengthens the overall movement and will make it easier for other groups in the future,” says Michael. “[This may help] get to the construction stage faster and ensure better quality housing for students.”
Laurent Levesque is pleased to see student housing projects like those put forward by UTILE gain traction. “I think it shows a clear need for student housing, of course, but also young people’s willingness to tackle these problems. This is encouraging.”
*For example, the developer Quad at York offers several types of student housing. The cheapest option is available starting at $880 per month for shared accommodation, without closed bedrooms, kitchen table space or lounge space, in a building with common areas.