Government housing strategies must include options for students

A quality undergraduate education includes affordable student housing options in proximity to campus, the presidents of four universities in the Greater Toronto Area told a research conference this week.

 "There is nothing more fundamental to students' success than having access to affordable housing," University of Toronto President Meric Gertler told the audience.

The forum was convened to share preliminary results from the StudentDwell TO project, a research collaboration between faculty and students at the University of Toronto, York University, OCAD U, and Ryerson University. As with the StudentMove TO initiative, the four universities have joined forces in order to better understand their shared housing challenges and influence policy decisions. 

As leaders of higher education institutions in this city … We [share] a common set of challenges that arise from where we are … and the fact that Toronto is a global city, a fascinating, dynamic, diverse place with many advantages, but also many challenges,” President Gertler said. At U of T, for example, half of students are receiving financial aid. 

StudentMove TO tracked the travel patterns of students in the GTA, revealing that inadequate public transportation options are impacting students’ choices of courses, and their ability to balance study, extracurriculars and work. The research has been shared with local and regional transportation authorities such as Metrolinx, President Gertler said. 

“The results are informing daily decisions about how you design transportation in ways that improve students’ travel experience,” the University of Toronto President said.

The research comes at a time that multiple levels of government are looking for innovative solutions to provide affordable housing options. This week, the Ontario government released its new Housing Supply Action Plan, the results of its province-wide housing consultations. The plan includes a recognition that students need housing close to campus and that new housing options should include densification such as laneway housing, a priority for the University of Toronto. The federal government is also tackling the need for affordable housing through its National Housing Strategy plan.

It’s important that policy-makers understand the multiple impacts of unmet housing need on students’ lives, researchers said. Focus groups have revealed that unaffordable housing close to campus means students are living further away and curtailing social engagement, or taking on expensive and unstable housing, increasing their stress.

The research team - which includes Mauricio Quirós Pachecho, assistant professor at the John H. Daniels School of Architecture, Marcelo Vieta, assistant professor at OISE, and PhD student Ashish Pillai - expects to release recommendations later this year.

 Several early themes emerged from the conversations at the forum:

  • Toronto and its quality of life is a major factor in attracting and retaining faculty, staff and students, President Gertler said. Addressing the need for affordable student housing is essential to maintaining a livable city, where students and new graduates can thrive in a variety of professions, including creative jobs, a point supported by Sara Diamond, the president of OCAD U.
  • Creative and innovative housing forums and partnerships such as the Spadina and Sussex Residence, which mixes housing for undergraduates, graduates and faculty; laneway housing, and new forms of secure housing ownership are needed to increase the supply of housing in proximity to campuses. Town-gown relations are improved when universities and neighbourhoods work together to advance affordable housing for university students, staff and faculty.
  • While students at all four universities share similar problems finding affordable and safe options close to their schools, each university participating in the research initiative has specific concerns. Students at OCAD U, for example, may need larger spaces to live and work, and proximity to a campus that is open 24/7. Students at UTSC and UTM need on-campus housing to reduce long travel times to school.