But who’s to blame?

Illustration | Jill Lee

When it comes to the housing market, it seems just about everyone has something to say. And for the most part, we all agree that the state of housing in Toronto is nothing short of dismal.

As usual, Baby Boomers have been pretty quick to pin this issue on Millennials, with the most recent development in this discourse being that Millennials are single-handedly destroying the housing market by eating too much avocado toast.

Millennials—and the rest of us in the cohort that comes after them—retaliated by highlighting the disproportionate increase in property pricing, rental costs, and tuition fees facing our generation. Given the current economic climate, the majority of us can’t afford to save money, let alone even think about purchasing a house. It’s for this same reason that most of us who don’t live at home choose to rent and, even then, renting isn’t something that most of us can afford to do comfortably.

“Ideally, students in Toronto should be able to afford to live a reasonable distance from their schools. But that’s nearly impossible because rent is astronomically high for mediocre apartments in the downtown core,” says Olivia Tharme, a third-year undergraduate student at Ryerson University. “I constantly encounter students who are paying upwards of $800 monthly to rent a small bedroom. It just doesn’t make sense.”

With such a high demand for student housing in cities with institutions for higher education, we often see pockets that reflect a dense student population. This is a notion globally recognized as “studentification.”

Studentification is a word that accounts for all of the social, economic, and cultural changes that occur when large populations of students reside within particular areas of a city. This typically means an inflation in property rental fees that allow landlords to charge students disproportionate amounts of rent through the lease of individual floors of houses. In some cases, student houses accommodate upwards of 10 tenants, all of whom pay for their own rooms.

The increasing trend of private renting through student housing complexes alters the dynamic of the neighbourhoods in which it takes place. As such, studentification is the direct cause of the displacement of long-time residents and families of an area in favour of the younger and more transient student demographic. In Toronto, we see the effects of this phenomenon in neighbourhoods like the Annex, Baldwin Village, and Kensington Market.

The gentrifying nature of studentification poses a lot of issues for the impacted communities, but it’s difficult to determine just how much we—as students contributing to this problem—are to blame for this. For many of us, renting out overpriced rooms in a house occupied by students like ourselves is the only way we can afford to live near our schools. We are then exploited by the expensive nature of the Toronto housing market, which forces us to pay high rents for subpar accommodations. The fact remains that the cost of living in downtown Toronto, even as a student, exceeds what is reasonable given our financial situations. Students coming from low-income households or lacking in familial support are especially vulnerable.

On affording to live in downtown Toronto, first-year graduate student at Ryerson University, Rhianna Jackson-Kelso, says, “The only way to do it without financial help from relatives is to incur ten of thousands of dollars in debt through student loans. I’ve always compared notes with my student friends and relatives who live in other cities. People demonstrably pay much more for much worse accommodations in Toronto than they do in most other Canadian cities.”

For some students, living downtown for the entirety of their studies just isn’t financially feasible. “Not only is housing in downtown Toronto less affordable than in other cities, it’s even more difficult to find accommodations within your price range from a distance away, or while living outside of the city for the summer,” says Nickolas Shyshkin, third-year student at the University of Toronto. “Under such circumstances, I’ve had to resort to commuting from my parents’ home in Oakville in order to save money, so that I can start searching again at the end of the semester.”

Oftentimes students are forced to choose between settling on accommodations that are out of their price range, or on properties that are within their budget, but are perhaps unsafe and even harmful. Not only can this be detrimental to their academic performance—it also threatens to decrease their general quality of life.

“Last year I became cut off from my family’s financial assistance because of my gender identity,” says Meera Ulysses, a second-year student at UofT. “I had to rush to find housing affordable to me at that time. I ended up only finding a small room far out in North York above a grungy bar. Living above the bar proved unsafe for me, and I was frequently harassed by the patrons—and later, the owners—for being a trans woman. My mail was stolen and on several different occasions, I found weapons and drugs stashed in my mailbox.”

“Because I quickly jumped on the room for being relatively cheap—$500 a month plus utilities and heat—I didn’t worry about not knowing the other two people staying there, save for having a mutual acquaintance with one of them,” continues Ulysses. “It turned out eventually that one of my roommates began to steal cash from my pockets when I left my belongings in common areas, as well as from my partner’s when she stayed over.” The continued offences and general disregard for her well-being perpetrated by her roommates made Ulysses feel extremely uncomfortable in her own home. As a result, she was forced to move out and find new accommodations in what she describes as the “far-beaches-almost-Scarborough” area.

A housing market that benefits those coming from a high-income bracket, while putting virtually everyone else at a blatant disadvantage, is inherently problematic. As students, we are victims of this, sure, but that doesn’t completely absolve us from the gentrifying forces at work. To quote Twitter user @tali_uh, “being ‘college broke’ isn’t the same thing as actually coming from a low-income background.” Although most of us are busting our asses to make ends meet, it’s crucial to recognize that being able to live in downtown Toronto while attending one of our many postsecondary institutions is a privilege that not everyone is able to afford. This doesn’t make the insanely high cost of living okay; it’s just a reality that demands to be acknowledged.

In the meantime, while the future of the housing market is still unclear, the only thing I remain certain about is that there is no way in hell that I or anyone I know will be able to afford a house in the near future—but, I have a feeling that, somehow, we may just be alright.