Housing crunch hits London’s international students

In trying to find a place to rent before her classes start next week, international student Sydelle Fernandes got a crash course in London’s tough rental market. 

Fernandes is from India and is set to begin her first year of studies in animation at Fanshawe College. 

Already, she’s twice had to bail out of basement rental suites after living in them for a few days, which was long enough to realize they weren’t anywhere she’d want to call home for the next eight months. 

“Finding a place, it’s a lot of stress,’ she said. 

She’s dealt with false ads and scammers who ask for “administration fees” by e-transfer before agreeing to a showing.

Eventually, Fernandes was able to find a bedroom to rent for $400 a month in a spacious apartment shared with three other students. It’s far from perfect though because it’s in the Kipp’s Lane area, about a 10-minute bus ride from campus.

Fernandes and other international students find themselves on the front lines between two opposing forces in communities across Canada with significant student populations. On the one hand, there’s a strong desire for foreign students to come here and learn. However, they often arrive to find a rental market defined by falling vacancies and rising rental rates. 

Mike Moffat is an assistant professor at Western University’s Ivey Business School. He also specializes in housing policy and has been advising the federal government on the housing file. 

Moffat said international student enrolment has almost tripled in the last seven years, with some schools boosting their international student population by as many as 5,000 over that period. 

“It’s created conditions where you have thousands and thousands of extra young people in the community, but oftentimes those institutions are building very little or no housing whatsoever,” he said. “So it’s been a challenge for those students to find somewhere to live but it’s also created a lot of demand in those communities.”

In London, Western University had a little more than 4,700 international students in the 2021-22 academic year. At Fanshawe College, the international student population is over 6,000 students. It was 3,500 back in 2014. 

Moffat said last summer, rents jumped by an average of 20 per cent over the previous year. The increase has been less this year but international students who already pay higher tuition rates still struggle to find accommodation they can afford. 

Moffat said the rising demand for student housing is creating a market where it becomes attractive for investors to convert single-family homes into student residences and not just in near-campus neighbourhoods like Old North and Huron Heights. 

Pressure on housing

“The geographic spread of that is rising,” said Moffat. “You’re now seeing homes in neighbourhoods like Fairmont (in East London) … many of those homes are starting to get converted into student rentals. That really wasn’t a phenomenon five years ago.” 

Moffat said learning institutions could help the situation by adding more on-campus housing. Fanshawe, which has only about 1,700 on-campus housing beds, is looking to potentially build residences as part of an ongoing review of how their campus space is used. 

Earlier this month, Western University announced plans to add new on-campus residences which together will house 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students.  

Until those residences are ready, students will struggle to find spaces.

International students Lillee Suwee, left and, Marisa Kaewprasert say they faced a tough search for housing upon arriving in London from Thailand.
International students Lillee Suwee, left and, Marisa Kaewprasert say they faced a tough search for housing upon arriving in London from Thailand. (Andrew Lupton/CBC )

Marisa Kaewprasert is a first-year international student from Thailand studying supply chain operations at Fanshawe College. Her housing search was complicated by the fact she came to London with her husband and son, so she needed more than a room in a house. 

“It’s very difficult to find a place to rent here for a family and very expensive,” she said. “And the cost of living here is also expensive.”

Fanshawe has more than 6,000 international students.
Fanshawe has more than 6,000 international students. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Adding to that expense was the need to book an Airbnb for almost two months so she had a place to stay while she looked at apartments. 

After an exhaustive search, Kaewprasert was able to find a two-bedroom apartment but at $2,000 a month, it’s eating up a lot of the family’s monthly budget.  

Kesiena Dedekuma, an international student at Fanshawe College from Nigeria, had to spend above her budget to rent a room in a shared apartment but said it was the best she could find.
Kesiena Dedekuma, an international student at Fanshawe College from Nigeria, had to spend above her budget to rent a room in a shared apartment but said it was the best she could find. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

First-year student Kesiena Dedekuma is from Nigeria and studying supply chain management at Fanshawe. 

After a long and difficult search, she was able to find a room in an apartment where she would share a kitchen and bathroom with two other girls but that would cost $700 a month, a price she said is above her original budget. 

“I decided to take something rather than being homeless and on the streets,” she said. “It’s safer that way until I find a better option. It will work, for now, it has to.” 

Emily Porier is the vice-president of external affairs for the Western University Student Council. She worries the discussions about putting caps on international enrollment could have the effect of unfairly shifting blame to international students. 

“This is a really complex issue,” said Porier. “These caps really do worry us in making it seem that international students are the problem when really it’s a much more complex landscape.”

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