Society

I couldn’t find affordable student housing, so I settled for a mouldy basement.

“The basement was grimy and smelled like damp wood or a cottage shed in the middle of summer”
Eric Cimic
eric-1

Last summer, I was living at home with my parents in Pickering, Ontario, waiting to start law school in the fall at the University of New Brunswick. To save money, I worked as a supervisor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, overseeing their tennis courts, baseball diamonds and other sports facilities.

I needed to find a place to live in Fredericton, so I went on Kijiji and started apartment hunting. My budget was $600 a month including utilities and internet. I knew that was on the lower end, but I had friends who attended U of T and were paying roughly $700 a month for housing. I figured that with some hunting, I could find a place in my budget out east, where the cost of living is cheaper than in bigger cities like Toronto. I also wanted a room about a five-minute walk from campus, to avoid trudging to class through the harsh New Brunswick winters.

Over the next month, I must have looked at 150 places online and sent out about 50 inquiries. The more affordable places, listed for $550 a month, were resident-style student homes, with a hallway, some rooms and a communal bathroom. The nicer places, which were usually single bedrooms, came up to about $750 a month. Every time I saw something I liked and put in an inquiry, someone else beat me to it; this happened at least 10 times. The market was tight.

Read: The End of Homeownership 

At the end of July, I saw a listing for a room in a basement in College Hill, a neighbourhood about a five-minute walk from campus. The furnished room was listed for $535 a month, which seemed pretty reasonable. There were no pictures on Kijiji, so I asked the landlord to send some over. The place looked like standard college living quarters: white walls, wood panels, tile floors, wooden desks and drawers. With the start of the semester less than a month away, the pressure to find a place was getting to me. I put down a $500 security deposit, sight unseen, and hoped for the best.

Then, in mid-August, just two weeks before the start of the semester, I received an email from the landlord saying he was upping the rent to $600 a month, based on conversations he’d had with other landlords in the area. I could have looked for another place, but school was starting soon and I didn’t want the hassle. I paid the extra rent.

At the end of August, I made the two-day drive to Fredericton with my parents and twin brother, Denis. I brought my clothing, bedding, sports equipment and computer with me. When we arrived, we checked into a Holiday Inn across from the UNB campus, less than a five-minute drive from my new place.

When I went to check out my new room and descended into the basement, I immediately noticed how grimy it was. I also detected a foul smell, like damp wood or a cottage shed in the middle of summer. There were five roommates in total, all sharing one and a half bathrooms; the washroom with a shower had terrible ventilation, and mould forming on the ceiling and walls. There was no living room—we had little more than a kitchen for a common area.

My room was gloomy, with tile floors, stained wallpaper and musty brown cabinets. It was about 130 square feet, big enough for a bed and a desk. Everything looked brown. One of the window blinds was broken. The chair was ripped, with yellow foam spilling out underneath. The boxspring sat atop a metal frame on wheels.

I couldn’t stand the smell in my room, so my parents took me to buy an air purifier and some filters from Canadian Tire, which cost us around $135. When we got back to the basement, I realized the towels I’d brought with me had absorbed the smell. The cabinets and drawers didn’t look clean, so I kept my stuff in boxes.

At this point, I thought about finding a new place, but it would have been nearly impossible with the semester starting soon. I had to be realistic. The rental market in Fredericton was partly to blame. Housing affordability is a big issue here, especially for lower-income residents and students. One friend, for example, found a one-bedroom attachment to a house about a 30-minute walk from campus for $1,200 a month.

Things were rough at the house. Whenever I wanted to study, I camped out at the campus library because the lighting in my room was so dim. The washer and dryer were upstairs, in the landlord’s unit, so we only had access to it when he was home. It cost us $5 a cycle. On several occasions, he went away for week-long vacations with little warning, leaving us in the lurch.

Related: Why Canada might just need a tenant revolution 

My living situation added a lot of stress to my school year. The place always felt dirty, no matter how much we cleaned. I showered less than 10 times total in the apartment during that semester, since it was so mouldy and cramped. Instead, I showered on campus; I’d schedule my whole day around it. I had to make constant trips back and forth from the university to study, especially if I needed to come home to eat, which was terrible in the winter. I don’t think it affected my grades though—I probably spent more time in the library to avoid being at home.

Eric’s new building is cleaner and closer to campus

Thankfully, in February of 2023, I found out about a new apartment through some of my friends in law school. It was a four-storey building on Windsor Street, about a five-minute walk from campus, with four rooms and a bathroom on each floor, occupied only by law students. At $450 a month, it’s really basic, but it’s a big improvement from my old place: newer and cleaner with plenty of natural light. I moved in at the end of the school year in April. Sitting in my room now feels a lot less depressing.

My first-year housing experience left a sour taste in my mouth, and I’m not the only one forced to contend with lousy situations. To make student housing more accessible, the city of Fredericton needs to improve the public transit system. It’s slow, with no Sunday service, which makes it hard to live further away from campus, where rents would be cheaper. A reasonable transit system would relieve a bit of the inflationary pressure on the units near campus.

These days, I’m working as a director of research at the University of New Brunswick Student Union. Some of the issues that I research include financial assistance and food security. I’ve also been looking into housing. If there was a silver lining to my nightmare rental experience, it’s that I now have firsthand experience of the difficulties of renting in Fredericton. Maybe I can help make some changes in the future.

As told to Mathew Silver