Students still can’t find rooms—in October

The fights, the tears, and the desperation in Toronto

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I’m standing in a shoebox -sized room with six other students, fighting over who gets to live in it.

The landlord stands back and watches. He is caught off guard by the number of people who turned up for the viewing and can’t decide who to give the keys to. So, he asks us to figure it out amongst ourselves.

Negotiations haven’t been going very smoothly.

“I’ll sign the contract,” says a female Brazilian exchange student.

“Ok,” the landlord answers.
“No,” screams another girl. “That’s not fair. I want to sign too.”
“I’m willing to pay more,” says Mike, a scraggly hipster I’ve seen at previous viewings.

It goes on like this for about half an hour. Eventually, we agree to throw our names in a hat. Perrine Musset, a French exchange student, winds up victorious. She cries out like she just won the lottery. Others curse under their breaths – one looks like he wants to murder someone.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to be so emotional,” Musset says, fighting back tears. “It’s just been really hard finding a place.”

Tell me about it. It’s mid-October and I am still a homeless student. I’ve been searching obsessively for a place to live near Ryerson since August. Countless nights have been spent trawling Craigslist ads for vacancies and sending desperate emails to landlords.

Whenever I’m lucky enough to get invited to a viewing, I show up only to find myself in a rental rat race with dozens of other hopeless vagrants. The sad truth is there are too many students and not enough rooms in the downtown rental market. British economist Thomas Malthus was right—overpopulation is a bitch.

“I’m at the end of my rope here,” says Mike, who goes to the University of Toronto and has also been hunting since August. “Whenever I find a place I like, there are 10 other people who have already expressed interest in it. Back to Scarborough for me, I guess. See you at the next viewing.”

Mike and I are fortunate enough to have parents in the suburbs to freeload off of. Aside from the crappy commute and feelings of regression to childhood, it’s not the worst deal. For others, the consequences of failing to find a room are much grimmer.

“I feared I was going to end up in the street,” says Musset, who came to Toronto in August from France to attend the Schulich School of Business. She had initially found a room when she arrived, but roommate conflicts forced her to find new accommodations.

“I’ve been running all across the city. When an advertisement was posted on Craigslist, I had to run for a chance to get the place. Otherwise, someone else would take it. Sometimes I lost the chance to see a place because I was five minutes too far from it.”

I’m down, but not out. So I try my luck looking for a place in residence. The people at Student Housing Services look at me like I’m high.

“We have been experiencing a slowly increasing demand for the last several years,” manager Chad Nuttall later tells me in an email. Currently, he says, the wait-list for a room on campus is 115 people long.

Campus Common, an off-campus student housing facility at Church and Gerrard Streets, is also packed to the gills.

“I’ve only been working here for two days and I’ve gotten about 30 calls for rentals,” says receptionist Susan Burns. “Right now we’re full.”

A few days later, I’m at a viewing for a room in the Annex. Landlord Paul Sautter is floored by the number of people lining up to see his dingy little hole in the wall.

“I’ve received well over 100 emails,” he says. “This level of demand for October is just crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

I thought severe overcrowding and resource depletion was reserved for our dystopian future. But Soylent Green has got nothing on this. So what’s going on?

“Rental vacancy rates in Toronto are at the lowest they’ve been in a decade,” says Shaun Hildebrand, senior marketing analyst for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. “Last fall, the average vacancy rate was 1.4 per cent. They’ve declined a little further than that.”

That would explain things. But why is this happening?

“The answer is three-fold,” explains Geordie Dent, executive director of Toronto’s Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations. “First, home ownership these days is really expensive, so you don’t have a lot of people leaving the rental market. Secondly, rental housing is not being built. Only eight per cent of the housing built over the past five years has been rental. Thirdly, Toronto is a large hub for both people coming from outside the country, from within Ontario or outside the province.”

The current rental market is akin to cramming a bunch of clowns into a car: too many people are entering, too few are exiting and there’s not a whole lot of space to begin with.

Ahcitz Azcona moved to Toronto from Mexico at the beginning of August. The 26-year-old had high hopes of living in the Big Smoke and working in the film industry, but his new life has been put on hold. Unable to find an apartment, he’s been forced to take a shared dorm room at Global Village Backpackers — a hostel located at King and Spadina that charges him $820 a month.

“I keep saying I’ll stay for a month, but then I still don’t find anything and the same thing happens all over again,” he says, standing in the hostel’s grubby, graffiti-laden kitchen. “I’ve moved (to Toronto) and I want to have a life here.”

Azcona responds to about 60 online ads a day and has been going to viewings several times a week since August. Landlords often try to bamboozle him, he says.

“There are many that want you to pay a deposit of four months up front,” he kvetches. “Or they want $700 for a tiny room you can’t even live in. And they make you sign a lease for more than a year to live there.”

Landlords trying to take advantage of the rental market are not uncommon. Dent explains that rising rents are the least of a renter’s worries.

“What we’re also seeing is illegal provisions that landlords ask for,” he says. “They’ll demand larger rent deposits up front or make you agree to things in your lease that you normally wouldn’t be ready to agree to.”

Ultimately, the biggest problem young renters face is that they’re young renters.

“They’re just not used to the rental market,” Dent says. “They’re used to mom and dad. They’re not used to the fact that when they hand over money, there’s hundreds of pages of law that can protect them from abuse.”

I call Hildebrand and ask him to level with me. Is there any hope for me in this godforsaken wasteland of crooked proprietors, exorbitant rents and sardine-can viewings?

He suggests, hesitantly, that there may be better opportunities toward of the end 2013 when house prices are expected to go down.

“While the (vacancy rate) may nudge a bit higher, I still see rental demand remaining strong for several years.”

Well, that’s uplifting. A vacant apartment in Toronto will remain about as common as a cold day in Dakar. Looks like the next few years of my life will play out like a bad parody of Matthew McConaughey in Failure to Launch.

Dent offers some tips for the rat race: When scouting for a place, go prepared with all your information, references and last month’s deposit.

“But most importantly,” he says, “don’t give money for a place you’re not 100 per cent certain you want to take. Make sure it’s the right place for you.”

At this point, even a musty closet in a moth-infested boiler room is the right place for me.

This story originally appeared in The Ryersonian.