Barj S. Dhahan: Soaring housing costs are causing widespread suffering

Opinion: Federal, provincial governments must collaborate on immigration, foreign-student policies and building homes

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Canada’s housing affordability crisis has been 30 years in the making.

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While Prime Minister Trudeau pretends that the high cost of housing is not a federal problem, Ottawa’s immigration, international student and housing policies are key contributors to the dramatic rise in rents and the average price of housing in the past few years.

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Provincial and municipal governments have added to the crisis through their neglect to plan for the arrival of high numbers of immigrants and international students, especially in the Metro Vancouver and Toronto regions.

Immediate action is needed along with long-term collaborative national and provincial housing, immigration and international student policies.

Starting in the 1970s, the federal support for purpose-built rental housing declined dramatically. In 1970, 25 per cent of all housing construction was federally assisted affordable rental housing.

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By the mid-1990s and onward, only about three per cent of annual housing construction was federally assisted affordable housing. The construction of new affordable rental units became largely non-existent.

Since 2010, overall annual housing construction completions have averaged about 225,000 units while the number of immigrants, refugees, temporary foreign workers and international students rapidly increased. The housing supply failed to match the growing demand.

In 2011 Premier Clark announced the B.C. International Student Strategy with the goal of doubling the number of foreign students by 2016.

Prime Minister Harper’s 2014 comprehensive international education strategy was designed to attract more international students.

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In 2018, Ontario updated its International Post Secondary Education Strategy, inviting foreign students “to apply to its 23 publicly assisted universities, 24 colleges and more than 500 registered private career colleges and institutions.”

Since the mid-2000s, provincial governments were reducing or freezing funding to post-secondary institutions and encouraging them to recruit more foreign students.

Both B.C. and Ontario in recent years have capped tuition fees for domestic students, with no caps on fees for international students.

Thus, a massive inflow of foreign students has occurred.

In 2022, over 550,000 foreign students arrived in Canada.

Today, there are more than 800,000, with 411,000 in Ontario, 164,000 in B.C., 93,000 in Quebec and 43,000 in Alberta.

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Publicly funded post-secondary institutions and the growing number of private career institutes in B.C. and Ontario seized upon the opportunity to recruit an ever-growing number of international students, charging them four to six times the average tuition fees paid by domestic students.

The University of B.C. has 19,909 international students accounting for 27 per cent of the total student population.

However, they account for about 60 per cent of the total tuition fees earned by UBC this year.

None of the major B.C. and Ontario publicly funded universities and colleges have adequate on-campus housing to accommodate their foreign students. UBC, SFU and UVic have only a total of 17,200 on-campus housing spaces but collectively have 30,149 international students.

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The University of Toronto has 27,000 foreign students with only 8,124 student-housing spaces.

Many foreign students are now struggling to find affordable accommodations.

In 2022, immigrant arrivals jumped to 492,000 from 226,309 in 2021. In the first quarter of this year, 145,417 immigrants landed in Canada and the population increased by 292,232 people.

Simply put, Canada isn’t able to provide affordable housing to more than one million immigrants, foreign students and temporary workers arriving every year. Everyone is suffering due to fast-rising housing costs.

Ottawa can immediately reduce the number of immigrants to 300,000 annually and put a pause on issuing further study visas for foreign students.

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Provincial governments can stop approving new private career training colleges that are recruiting large numbers of foreign students for short-term courses at high fees.

In the long-term, federal and provincial governments need to align housing policies with the number of immigrants and international students coming to Canada.

Public universities and colleges should be required to provide on-campus housing for their international students.

And all governments must begin to fund construction of new purpose-built affordable housing.

Barj S. Dhahan is executive director of the Canada-India Education Society.

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