Nova Scotia

Some CBU students choose hotel over crowded housing after fatal fire in Sydney

More students are arriving for the new semester as others are still looking for safe, reasonably priced places to live.

New students arriving as others continue to seek safe, affordable places to stay

Siddharth Balachandar is staying at the Travelodge after being displaced by a fatal fire in the duplex he was renting with eight other international students.
Siddharth Balachandar is staying at the Travelodge in Sydney, N.S., after being forced out of the duplex he was renting with seven other international students following a fire that killed their 33-year-old roommate last month. (Josefa Cameron/CBC)

Seven Cape Breton University (CBU) students who lost their rental housing after a fatal fire in Sydney, N.S., in late December are struggling to find a place to stay.

Their friend and roommate, Rajesh Kumar Gollapudi, died in the Dec. 17 fire. He was a 33-year-old business analytics CBU student who leaves behind a wife and daughter in India, according to Siddharth Balachandar, one of the students who lived with him at 222 Park Street. 

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, according to Nova Scotia's Office of the Fire Marshal. 

CBU put the students up at the Travelodge hotel in Sydney for free until Jan. 3. They are now responsible for their own accommodations. 

Some of the students are moving in with friends who live in crowded homes, which could pose more fire safety threats. Balachandar, who also works at the Sydney Call Centre, opted to continue to stay in the Travelodge with a friend, which he says is more costly, but safer. 

Rajesh Kumar Gollapudi, died in a house fire in Sydney in late December. He was a 33-year-old business analytics CBU student and had a wife and daughter in India, according to his friend and roommate, Siddharth Balachandar.
Rajesh Kumar Gollapudi died in a house fire in Sydney in late December. He was a 33-year-old business analytics CBU student and had a wife and daughter in India, according to his friend and roommate, Siddharth Balachandar. (Submitted by Siddharth Balachandar)

"After this incident, we don't want to risk any of [those] sorts of accommodations and we don't want to go to a crowded place again," he said in an interview with CBC.

At 222 Park Street, he said they were each paying around $300-$350 per month, and not everyone had their own room. Now, he and his friend are splitting the hotel room for $1,000 per month. 

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"We don't want to make that mistake again by taking a cheaper place to live, safety is the first thing," he said. 

Balachandar says he's waiting for students who are leaving after the fall semester to move out of their rooms so he can find alternate accommodation. Because he usually works until midnight at the call centre, he needs accommodations in a convenient location. Most bus routes to towns like Glace Bay do not run late hours from Sydney. This is making his search more difficult. 

But they are not the only people looking for housing in Sydney. Balachandar said that the Travelodge is teeming with international students in need of accommodations, especially since more students arrived for the winter semester. 

The seven students were put up for free by Cape Breton University until January 3, 2023. Some students decided to continue to stay at the hotel because of lack of accommodations elsewhere in Sydney.
The Travelodge in Sydney, N.S., is busy with international students arriving for the winter term at Cape Breton University. (Josefa Cameron/CBC)

"You see, this accommodation is filled with CBU students. They are not getting accommodations and we are not getting accommodations … They shouldn't have called so many students here … Basically, there's no jobs left, there are no accommodations left. Like, why are you giving the offer letter?" he asked.

In an open statement to the Cape Breton community released Dec. 22, days after the fire, CBU officials said they are implementing a strategic plan to deal with enrolment. This means they will determine the appropriate number of students for the campus and offer programs based on current demand and will keep reasonable class sizes.

Caps coming on some programs

"This also means changing application intake times and capping high-demand programs. This has already begun, but it will take time to see the changes occur as students move through their programs, many of which are two years in length, and graduate," it said.

An October report from the Association of Atlantic Universities found that this fall, nearly 4,000 international students were enrolled at Cape Breton University out of about 5,900 total students. That was up from about 2,400 international students in 2021, when the school had about 4,200 students. In 2017, the university had fewer than 900 international students out of about 2,600 total students.

International students at Cape Breton University pay between about $18,915 and $19,580 annually for school, approximately twice as much as the $9,810 that Canadian students pay.

University officials said recently there are unused student housing units on campus, with only four students signing up for the 70 dorm rooms available in January.

Damanpreet Singh, president of the Cape Breton University student union, said many students opt out of residence because of the high cost and the inability to cook in a dorm. The most inexpensive residence option costs $2,240 per semester and all dorm students are required to purchase the meal plan, which costs another $2,835.

Higher tuition fees

Because of the major costs international students already pay in tuition and fees, Singh said he understands why some students feel they've been exploited by the university.

"We are paying a lot of fees and we are not getting the proper environment to study here."

A firefighter stands at the entrance to a side-by-side duplex house that caught fire.
Rental duplex on Park Street in Sydney that was damaged by fire on Dec. 17, killing international student Rajesh Kumar Gollapudi and displacing 12 other people. (Josefa Cameron/CBC)

Balachandar is trying to stay positive, but he said his former roommates from 222 Park Street are still reeling after their roommate's death. 

"They don't sleep in the nights. They usually put their lights on at night … One of my friends said that it's haunting him," he said. 

The Red Cross helped the seven students with three nights' accommodation right after the fire and offered, food support, clothing, basic hygiene products and advice, said Allie Murchison-Maguire, Canadian Red Cross communications and government relations advisor for the Atlantic Region. 

Thankful for help

Balachandar said that the help from the community is deeply appreciated. A GoFundMe campaign set up to support the students reached over $5,000 as of Tuesday afternoon. The students haven't received any of the funds yet, they are waiting for the right time to take it out, said Balachandar. 


Josefa Cameron

Associate producer/reporter

Josefa is an associate producer and reporter at CBC Nova Scotia. You can reach her at

With files from The Canadian Press