A forum at Vancouver Island University this week focused on Nanaimo’s housing situation and the impact it is having on members of the community, including university students. File photo

A forum at Vancouver Island University this week focused on Nanaimo’s housing situation and the impact it is having on members of the community, including university students. File photo

Nanaimo’s affordable housing crunch squeezes university students

Vancouver Island University’s challenges with student housing were discussed at a forum this week

Nanaimo’s housing crisis isn’t just impacting the homeless, but a range of people from various socioeconomic backgrounds, including university students.

That was one of the messages made by John Horn, the city’s social planner, Kelly Muir, interim manager of student residences at Vancouver Island University and Lesley Clarke, executive director for Nanaimo Women’s Centre, at a forum at VIU on Tuesday night.

Hosted by the a Vancouver Island University Student Union and held at the Malaspina Theatre, the hour-long forum saw Horn, Muir and Clarke talk at length about Nanaimo’s housing situation and the impact it is having on the community.

Horn, who touched on a number of areas regarding housing, told the crowd that while Nanaimo’s housing crisis may seem recent, it’s actually been in the making for years. He said city staff noticed an “explosion” of homeless people in the community about 10 years ago, but now the housing crisis has begun impacting people with modest incomes, students and others.

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Meanwhile, Muir said the lack of affordable accommodation in Nanaimo is being felt by students at Vancouver Island University. She said this past summer was particularly challenging for the university, which guarantees first-year students on-campus housing provided that they apply before a deadline.

“Generally, we’ve still been able to accommodate some of our returning students in and around those new students that applied [for on-campus housing]. This year is the first year that at Aug. 1, only 26 days from our move-in date for orientation in residence, that I had only, maybe, five spaces for returning students,” she said. “For me, that really demonstrates a need in our community.”

A number of returning students as well as some international and out-of-province students who were first-year students missed the deadline according to Muir, who said the students called her office and were distressed because they faced the possibility of not having anywhere to live prior to school starting. She said she reached out to hotels to see if she could reach agreements with them in an effort to temporarily house some students in the event that the university couldn’t honour its first-year guarantee of housing and was surprised to learn that there was no space.

“None of the hotels actually had spaces,” Muir said. “That was due to the fact that there were already students who had gone into long-term rental agreements with hotels in our community so that they had a place to live to come and study at VIU.”

Muir said the university wants to add more student housing and the provincial government has finally allowed post-secondary institutions to access funding for housing for the first time in years. She said if more students can be accommodated on-campus, it will help free up the rental market and VIU will likely build more residences on campus as a result of the government’s decision.

“I know that we will have the opportunity in the next three years to break ground, most likely, on building [student housing], but I am really concerned about what happens throughout the next intake year,” Muir said.

With the rental market so tight, Clarke told the crowd that those who have had lived in a bad environment or escaped a situation of violence and may not have the greatest “tenancy record” are competing for housing with students and others who have better a tenancy record. She said there are youths in care who are not being given the support they need to hold onto housing, seniors who are in elder-abuse situations who have no alternative housing solution and entire families living in motels because they can’t afford anything else.

“Housing isn’t an issue that belongs to any one group of people, it belongs to all of us in order to create a healthy community,” she said.

During the forum, audience members had an opportunity to ask questions.

In response to a question about the future of residents at Discontent City, Horn told the crowd that the city has proposed “a number” of alternative options that he cannot publicly disclose, adding that the options have been presented to B.C. Housing, the federal government and city councillors. He said officials are going to have to make some very tough decisions.

“None of them, by the way, are going to be easy choices and none of them are going to be controversy-free and all them, guaranteed, will create enormous friction,” Horn said.

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