Part 2 of a series.
Victoria Carroll of Bell Island couldn’t be more excited to start her first year of studying to be an ultrasound technician.
But whether she will be able to attend the College of the North Atlantic depends on an issue beyond her control — namely, an apartment shortage in the St. John’s metro area.
“It’s very frustrating. It’s something that is always in the back of my head,” Carroll told The Telegram while on a break from working with Tourism Bell Island.
After graduating from high school in 2019, she moved into an apartment in St. John’s while studying at Memorial University.
At that time, there was a variety of options.
“Basement apartments, apartment buildings … there was a lot more available when we started looking in 2019, 2020. But now, there’s just not a lot,” she said.
Like many students did when restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to transition to online learning, Carroll moved back in with her parents. But now that in-person classes are starting in September, commuting on the ferry every day from Bell Island isn’t viable.
“My sister had a viewing today and … we’re hoping that by the end of the day we’ll get the phone call saying that we have the apartment because, if not, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.
Demand for residences
Bruce Belbin says he has never received so many applications in a year since becoming director of student residences and ancillary operations with Memorial University five years ago.
This September, residences will be fully operational again, putting approximately 1,750 beds back into use.
But those beds are already full.
While they don’t keep an official record of phone calls and requests, they’ve heard from many people struggling to find accommodations.
“Students, parents and family members are contacting us individually and saying, ‘We can’t find a place to live,’” Belbin said. “You’ve got a massive return of people to St. John’s.”
Last year, when most of the residences were evacuated, a group of 250 international students stayed on campus. That enabled Memorial to develop protocols and put them into practice.
“We’ve had no incidents. We’ve had literally hundreds of students living here since Day 1 and there’s been nothing. And that’s a testament to the process,” Belbin said. “There’s a bunch of factors for (the rise in demand), of course, but I think mainly people recognize … that we understand the security and safety of the residence is really good, so they’re comfortable. That’s the feedback we’re getting.”
Not only St. John’s
About 30 per cent of Killam Apartments’ rental units go to post-secondary students, director of property management Dan Sampson said.
“COVID was not kind to rentals overall, but particularly the student market,” he said.
Killam Apartments has 1,100 units in Newfoundland, most of them in St. John’s. With the return to in-person learning, their leasing representatives are busy fielding emails, phone calls and walk-in inquiries.
“It would be fair to say they’re working a bit of overtime there, yes,” Sampson said.
And that’s not only in the St. John’s market, but in other university towns, such as Halifax and Fredericton.
“We’re seeing it in all the markets in Atlantic Canada where we have student properties, they are briskly leasing up,” he said. “In some of those markets we’re anticipating being completely full in the student market come Sept. 1.”
Supply and delay
Typically, Sophia Solomon’s job as the community settlement/integration counsellor with the Association for New Canadians wouldn’t be so involved.
“(Usually), I provide links to different sites and places that people can look for housing, especially international students who are coming to the province for the first time,” she said.
But those students now need a quarantine plan set in place before they arrive, giving them less time to search for apartments upon arrival.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made some people weary of dealing with those arriving from out of the country, Solomon said.
“I have to step in a little bit and be that in-between (for) students and speaking with people locally here,” she said. “I’ve had to do house viewings, make sure everything’s good and answer the questions for the landlord as well as for the students to make sure they can rent the place out.”
But the short supply and higher prices are delaying people from moving.
“They tell me that they’re looking for a (room) for $400, $500 … and that’s really not the case anymore,” Solomon said. “They’re looking for fully furnished with heat and utilities included. … They’re not able to find something that’s in their budget, so it’s really making them very anxious and stressed.”
Solomon is originally from India, but studied in Dubai for two years before moving to St. John’s in 2014. Even then, it was a difficult transition, but nothing like she’s seeing today, she said.
“Especially with Newfoundland, we’re trying to aim at bringing in more newcomers, I feel like there’s not enough space at the moment,” she said.
She hopes people in the market will recognize the demand and invest in affordable housing.
“Especially for international students and newcomers, because there definitely is a need for that in order to integrate and support and help newcomers make St. John’s their home,” she said.
Part 3 of this series will focus on the housing market in the St. John’s metro area and what factors contributed to its current state.