For Obi Onyemaobi, finding housing in Kelowna as an incoming post-secondary student is next to impossible.
Onyemaobi will be starting school at UBC Okanagan (UBCO) in the fall. Originally from the Lower Mainland, he is ideally looking for a one-bedroom apartment for $1500 per month. He started his search earlier this year on Kijiji, Castanet and Facebook Marketplace.
But he still has not found a place, and it’s already nearing the end of August.
“Just a couple of weeks ago, I decided to make posts on Facebook. Next thing you know, I get offers from people with a 550 sq. ft. studio apartment for $2300 a month…. Yes, there are places to rent here, but they are all so gosh darn expensive,” said Onyemaobi.
Many post-secondary students coming to Kelowna are having a difficult time finding affordable housing in the city. On-campus housing at UBC Okanagan and Okanagan College is already full, and waitlists are hundreds of students long. Skaha Place, Okanagan College’s student residence, had to close applications for September because of the long waitlist.
Other student residences such as Veda Kelowna and Artium Student Residence have also been sold out for months. Veda currently has a waitlist, while Artium has already begun advertising for 2022.
“Our waitlist is over 100 long at the moment and I wouldn’t expect it to go down,” said Tara Brouwer-Sutton in an email to Black Press Media. Brouwer-Sutton is a partner at Domus Inc., the company that owns and operates the Veda buildings.
Safety an issue when applying for housing
Students have resorted to posting “in search of” ads on various Facebook groups in hopes to find a rental unit for September. Many have received messages that have asked very personal questions, to the point some students are calling creepy in nature. Jesse Jorgensen, a second-year student at UBCO, said she received a message that asked her to be someone’s concubine.
“This one guy wanted a woman to be his concubine. He put an ad out looking for a girl for ‘the right situation,’ and she does not have to pay rent,” said Jorgensen. “I had someone else send me pictures of a place with a guy passed out in his underwear.”
She was also asked extremely personal questions about her political and religious beliefs.
“I’ve had an interview with a couple that seemed really nice. They sent me some questions after asking if I’m okay with extreme political views, and I was weirded out by that,” said Jorgensen.
Students also facing numerous barriers
Students looking for housing in Kelowna from outside of the city are frustrated by the lack of responses. Derick Breukelman is an incoming student at UBCO’s School of Engineering. He recently flew to Kelowna from Burlington, Ont. to continue his housing search because people were not responding to his inquiries.
“We didn’t really make any progress until we went to Kelowna and saw people in person. It’s kind of a hopeless chore, ” said Breukelman.
Kelowna’s competitive rental market also meant that units are rented out as quickly as they’re posted online. Breukelman said that he was one out of 150 applicants for one unit he looked at. It’s getting to the point where he will look at anything.
Other landlords require applicants to provide credit reports, pay stubs and bank statements which many students may not be comfortable producing. Onyemaobi has low credit due to his age and his family’s history with credit, which disqualifies him from many rentals in the city.
“Landlord and companies ask for information when they shouldn’t… Asking for confirmation of enrollment is fine; asking for pay stubs and bank statements is not,” said Onyemaobi.
Student housing crisis a long-term problem
The lack of affordable student housing in the city may have long-term effects on the city. Post-secondary students will not come to Kelowna if the cost of living keeps rising. Breukelman is doing everything he can to move to Kelowna to be involved with on-campus activities.
Jorgensen, however, has other plans. “I want to find something shorter-term in Kelowna, just in case everything shuts down again (due to COVID-19), but everyone wants someone who can lease long-term,” said Jorgenson. “If I can’t find anything, I will take online courses; it’s not the end of the world.”
The students’ union at UBCO is calling on the university to support students looking for housing. Vice-president external Ahmed Ahmed said the union is aware of high rental prices in the city and is advocating for more resources for students.
“We are working right now with UBC about this. UBC has a bursary for students experiencing the housing crisis. They are also working with stakeholders on this,” said Ahmed. “We will continue to advocate for student needs. It is our job to advocate for students.”
Crisis requires a community-based solution
Community-based solutions are key to solving the student housing crisis, says Kelowna city councillor Loyal Wooldridge.
When asked about specifics, Wooldridge pointed to companion housing as a potential solution. Companion housing is a living arrangement where two or more compatible people share a home for each other’s benefit. Arrangements involve a host responsible for managing the home and one or more guests who rent bedrooms in the home at an affordable price.
Wooldridge said he and his husband recently listed their spare room on Happipad, a local companion housing service, for someone looking for an affordable room to rent.
“It’s a very North American perspective that everyone needs their own space. We need to live a bit differently to tackle the housing crisis, and that involves sharing extra spaces with those in need,” he said.
It is also important to educate the community about the struggles of marginalized people, including students. Landlords might not realize the dire need for affordable student housing in the city and will not prioritize rentals as they do for single-family residences. A community-wide conversation needs to take place to find solutions for the housing crisis in the city.
“Housing affordability is an issue and needs to be brought to the forefront,” said Wooldridge.
But there is no silver bullet solution to the housing crisis, and solutions may take years to come to fruition. Wooldridge said the city is currently partnering with post-secondary institutions to advocate for more student housing to the provincial government. He also encourages landlords to practice more empathy when looking at renters, particularly those who identify as part of a marginalized group.
“Society is too focused on someone’s monetary credit instead of their character. The rental market needs more empathy in general,” he said.