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  • Daniel Boutilier

Helping Out or Taking Advantage? Students face rising costs as January intake set to arrive

Are students being supported or taken advantage of? As with most things, the answer falls somewhere in the middle.

September’s influx of new international students brought with it a housing crisis, unique in Cape Breton’s recent memory. With an estimated 500-600 students already beginning to arrive for CBU’s January intake, the question of whether or not the school and local community are prepared depends largely on who you ask; we sat down with CBU’s first Off-Campus Housing Coordinator to get her take.

Kelsey Johnston is originally from Fredericton but graduated from CBU in 2010 with her BACS degree; at the time her last name was Hodgson and she was a starring player on CBU’s basketball team. In early-to-mid September Doug Connors reached out to her and asked if she was interested in the position of Off-Campus Housing Coordinator. The job of connecting students with local landlords and property owners, which had been triaged to the Student’s Union, would now be taken under Connors’ purview as Residence Manager. She was asked about the position on Friday and started the following Monday, testament to the immediacy of September’s housing issues.

When she first visited the Student’s Union to begin taking over the role, Johnston says what was waiting for her was “a folder, and it was jacked full of just voicemails left everywhere – her [Dawn MacDougall’s] phone, front desk, various people within the Student Union, Student Services, Business School – they were from everywhere.” At this time she began operating off of a shared spreadsheet with the Student’s Union, allowing them to share information until word got out to both students and property owners that she would be coordinating future efforts to connect the two.

Asked to describe her position for our readers, Johnston told us that “I’m the contact with the community, for the most part – I mean some people are still coming to the Student Union and they’ll redirect to me … so the community, whoever is looking to rent or if its property managers or whatever, they come to me and I kind of make a listing for them. It’s similar – I say it’s a glorified Kijiji because it’s only for our students.”

“… they [, the landlords,] can e-mail me photos, contact information … every listing has its rundown of is it furnished, is it on the bus route, because those are big things, the cost of it. Then I connect it to Google Maps so they can see where it is in relation to CBU, or is by this bus route or that bus route; which is nice because the students that are here now have a little more understanding of that than the ones that can see it now from India.”

Currently, less than 20% of listings have photos

The listings are advertised on CBU’s new Off-Campus Housing page, which went live toward the end of October; despite this, many of the listings are dated to September – 38 of the 144 listings that we reviewed at the Caper Times. Johnston says the majority of the listings on the website are still available, and agreed with a ballpark estimate of about 75 percent, but said this number would vary from week to week.

“I just touched base with them [the landlords] under three weeks ago … I started [calling people back] at the end of November”

“The ones that I know of that are full get taken down right away, and so I’m going to have to probably start that on Monday, just before Christmas, because I know there’s a lot of students coming – call those people back, go back to the top of the list and call back again … it takes me a couple days to talk to everyone.”

Caper Times conducted a review of 144 listings posted to CBU’s Off-Campus Housing page. We found that 18% of listings did not have a house number attached to the address, and an additional 8% did not identify the street, meaning that about one fourth of listings posted to the page have an incomplete address.

This made it difficult to assess the availability of buses to and from the University, for even while most of these listings claimed to be on the bus route, we have no way to determine the accuracy of these claims. For example, one of these listings was for King’s Road in Sydney; depending on where the address falls on the 15+ kilometre road, the potential tenant could have a bus stop at their doorstop, nowhere near them, or anywhere in between. Of course not all the partial addresses we reviewed were quite so extreme, but even an incomplete listing on the comparatively small Victoria Road could mean a walk of one kilometre or more.

One could argue that we’re being a little critical, and that most of these landlord and property owners would not intentionally mislead students. Even if that were true, in our review we found a number of mistakes and omissions. For example, a listing for 2272 King’s Road (Howie Center area) was originally listed as being on a bus route. It has since been corrected after we pointed out the mistake. Another listing brought up during our interview with Johnston was 127 Mahon Rd. in Lingan, which is still listed as being on a bus route. According to Google Maps, the nearest bus stop to this address is 45 minutes and 3.6 kilometres away – even if you walk faster than Google gives you credit for that’s a big ask, especially if you’re experiencing a Canadian Winter for the first time.

When asked about the potential for a mistake to happen, Johnston told us “I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything [that’s a mistake], even a little typo … I don’t want to false advertise anything” and that her process is to “write everything down in a book, then I go to a spreadsheet, and then it goes to the webpage – so I try to edit it three times.”

Johnston did admit that there was an opportunity for a mistake to occur and that there is nobody responsible for proofing or verifying the details of the listings she creates before or after they’re posted. “There is technically no plan in place” in the event that a student rents a room or apartment based on inaccurate information from the housing page.

We also know from our investigations that not all bus routes are created equal. Just because the listing you’re looking at says it’s on a bus route doesn’t mean that bus route will get you to school for your 0830 classes. Additionally, the trip could take you anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour and a half – and that’s if everything runs on time, the buses aren’t full, and you can make your transfers. So when students are combing through the listings , they should be aware that right now saying an address is on the bus route is a pretty vague statement, and not necessarily an indication of convenience, or even feasibility.

When asked about the meaning of ‘on a bus route’, Kelsey tells us “I mean technically it’s on the bus route, or if it’s like a five minute walk from it, it’s just I don’t literally know every bus that goes at what time.” While she’s never used the transit system in Cape Breton, she commiserates with the long transit time from communities such as North Sydney.

“If was looking at the Indian bus route or whatever [transit] they have there, I wouldn’t have a clue … However … there’s bus stops the whole way, that’s why I’ve put ‘on the bus route’ because I know it’s their main [mode] of transportation, if you’re willing or wanting to live off-campus I mean you’ve got to either make it work or hope it works with your schedule I guess.”

At the same time, Kelsey has helped relocate a couple students who had rented a place off of the bus route and were paying for cabs to and from school, even though she does not technically have an obligation to provide this service. “I put the onus on them … because I simply probably couldn’t do that for the next five hundred … but of course I’m going to help.”

One area which is difficult to quantify is price, and this is because many of the listings are for bedrooms which allow single or double occupancy, as well as listings which offer negotiable rent dependent on the number of prospective tenants. For example, one 6 bedroom house is being let out for $500 per bedroom – $3000 total – but it allows for double occupancy of each room at no additional charge – meaning that 12 students could potentially live there for $250/month. The prices vary quite a bit from listing to listing, but generally a single furnished room in a shared house is being listed at around $500 with utilities included. Anecdotal evidence suggests these prices have been trending upwards since the summer, with property owners taking advantage of the increased demand.

One student told the Caper Times that he had previously shared a room with a friend for $300/month, and this included exclusive use of a bathroom, living area, and kitchen; the same room is currently listed at $500/month and includes not exclusive but rather shared access to those areas previously mentioned, the upstairs having been converted into a rental property as well.

Previously $300/month/bed, now $500

When asked about high prices, Johnston told us that “Some of them [the landlords] are like ‘Oh I rented to students I always got $900/month’ and I’m on the phone thinking – OK… – and what I am to say? You should have a lower rent? It’s not my place to say and it’s not my home but…”

Those students who are looking for a lower monthly rent will usually have to sacrifice a certain amount of space and privacy.

“There are lots of people [offering shared rooms] because I think they’re realizing, and I know myself that a lot of the Indian students would rather share … because they’re probably used to living with quite a few people at home. It does cut on costs too. Some landlords are realizing well ‘OK, if they want three [people] in there, great, it’s going to be X amount for two or X amount for three, and we don’t mind three being there but it’s going to be – the rent wouldn’t be times three it’ll be like times two and a half – they do raise it a bit and I’ve kind of tried to … I’ll ask could the room maybe fit two small beds and they’ll be like ‘Oh I didn’t think of that’ so it kind of gets them thinking”.

With a projected 500-600 students set to arrive between mid-December and early January, many are left to wonder if there will be a second-semester housing crunch.

Winter has arrived in earnest only weeks before the students. (Canadian Immigrant – Humour by Hemeterio)

Johnston indicates that the feeling is, while there may be an increased demand with the January intake, with the measures that have been put in place between the beginning of the fall semester and now, it will not amount to a repeat of September. To her, this is largely due to the cooperation of the local community, networking between current and prospective international students, and the University. She also notes that there have been conversations about the sustainability of this growth going forward.

At the moment Johnston tells us that “We’re at almost 300 beds in the community currently available.” Johnston also pointed out that there are many additional listings in the community apart from those on the CBU Off-Campus Housing page.

So far Johnston tells us that she hasn’t received any report of issues from either landlords or tenants.

In addition to the incorrect or potentially misleading information we have discussed previously in this article, the Caper Time’s review noted some further areas for concern. One listing for a 3-bedroom apartment to be let out for $1,500/month asks for a damage deposit of $1,000 – in Nova Scotia landlords are required to ask for no more than one half of one month’s rent. Many listings indicate that specific tenants are preferred, such as female or Chinese; one listing goes so far as to specify a female, South Indian student. Because these are rooms being rented in a shared space, what would perhaps be considered discrimination in other circumstances is at least not contrary to law. Still, Caper Times found four listings for apartments which included preferences for a specific demographic of student explicitly stated on the listing. Johnston herself had to ask about the appropriateness of including those preferences, “Can I say they only want Chinese and female students? … It almost sounds discriminatory”, but was given the go-ahead to do so. Human Rights Officer Scott Thomas was made aware of these practices but was not available for comment at this time.

From When you sign the lease, the landlord can ask for a security deposit. The deposit can be up to half of 1 month’s rent. The landlord needs to put the security deposit in a trust account. The deposit will earn interest at rates set by the Residential Tenancies Regulations.

Finally we examined 13 different listings which were described as being either “on a/the bus route” or “directly on the bus route” but which were further than 5 minutes and 500 meters away from any bus stop which would take students to CBU. We excluded 5 of these 13 properties which Google Maps identified as being 15 minutes or more away from said bus stops (in order not to skew the results), and determined that the average distance from these properties to a bus travelling to CBU was 10 minutes and 762 meters.

There are many arguments for the school not becoming involved in housing students off-campus, just as there are a number of reasons for them to get involved and help. At the same time, when students see information on the CBU website versus a site like Kijiji, there is a certain amount of trust afforded automatically – there is the expectation that CBU has vetted these properties and their owners to some extent and that the information is near enough to being true. Of course if you scroll to the bottom of CBU’s webpages you will find a small hyperlink labelled ‘Legal’, where the following is laid out:

Disclaimer- This website is a public resource for general information that is intended to be correct and up-to-date. Although care has been taken in preparing the information contained in this website, the Cape Breton University does not and cannot guarantee the accuracy thereof. Anyone using the information obtained from and through this website is doing so at his/her own risk, thereby releasing the Cape Breton University from accepting any and all responsibilities and/or liabilities for any person or persons who may suffer loss or damage by its use. Only official documents published by the Cape Breton University are authoritative.

But some that if CBU intends to involve themselves in the housing issue at all they need to hold themselves to a higher standard than is currently on display – in order that we may err on the side of helping if we should err at all.

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