Undergrad students in Waterloo face housing cost, quality issues — some living in cars or parks: survey

An online survey by the Waterloo Undergraduate Students’ Association has found housing affordability quality are big problems among undergrads. Some of the nearly 1,600 respondents provided "really shocking answers."

Of nearly 1,600 responded to online survey, big proportion spent over half of income on rent

A sign saying "apartment for rent" in red letters.
A recent survey from the Waterloo Undergraduate Students' Association found many student respondents spent more than a third of their monthly budget on housing. (CBC)

A new report from the Waterloo Undergraduate Students' Association (WUSA) suggests many students struggle to find affordable and quality places to live, with some saying they even experienced homelessness. 

The student association sent an online survey to 35,844 undergraduates and heard back from 1,593 between December 2020 and January 2021, with 1,251 responding fully.

Of the about 1,200 who responded to a question about housing costs in the Ontario city, 70 per cent said they spent more than a third of their monthly budget on housing. More than half said over 50 per cent of their monthly budget went to housing.
Amelia Cammy, WUSA's student research and policy assistant, says 'spending oodles of money every single month just for housing' is bound to hurt their long-term financial health. (Submitted by Amelia Cammy)

"We had quite a few responses [from students] talk about how they had been homeless and living out of their car or living in Waterloo Park because they couldn't afford housing," said Amelia Cammy, 21, WUSA's student research and policy assistant. 

"Lots of just kind of really shocking answers, honestly."

Cammy, a fourth-year health studies student, said many students are drawn to the University of Waterloo by the co-op program and the potential to save money during university. But paying more than they can afford for rent during university is affecting their ability to do that, she said. 

"It really, I think, will hurt students' long-term financial management by spending oodles of money every single month just for housing and not being able to save as much as they should." 

Between October 2015 and October 2020, the average rental cost of a private apartment in the City of Waterloo increased from $1,030 to $1,370, according to data provided to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

Water, ventilation cited as issues

Problems with maintenance also emerged in the research, said Cammy. Some common problems included poor water quality, a lack of heating or ventilation systems, and pests and cracks in windows and doors.

One survey respondent said windows at two different rentals were not up to fire code. Another student said they spent three months living in a unit with mould and water damage while their landlord held off making repairs.

"These examples demonstrate not only inconveniences for these student tenants that have the potential to impact their daily life, but also issues that threaten the health and safety of these individuals," the report said.

Kristen Thompson, a lawyer with Waterloo Region Community Legal Services, said student renters should know their rights before signing a lease. If possible, she recommended they: 

  • Get legal advice prior to signing anything. 
  • Inspect a unit closely during a viewing. 
  • Get references from previous tenants. 
Amelia Cammy says she's concerned that by paying more than they can afford for rent during university, students' long-term financial futures will be affected. (WUSA report)

The WUSA survey was conducted after a campus-wide conversation about student housing in the fall of 2019. An anonymous person posted a report online criticizing maintenance practices at the student-focused rental company Accommod8u. The report prompted students to come forward with their own stories. Student delegations also approached Waterloo city council in a call for action. 

    Going forward, Cammy said WUSA plans to host more information sessions so student can learn their rights and what programs — such as the Ontario Trillium Benefit — are available to help them.

    She would also like to see changes at the government level, such as an inclusionary zoning program, to make housing more affordable in Waterloo.

    "Leases and tenant rights and students being able to advocate for themselves is very important, but that's not going to mean anything if students, bottom line, can't afford a place to live."

    Listen to an interview with Amelia Cammy on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition: