Vacancies are rising in major urban centres across Canada due to several factors, including lower immigration, short-term rental conversions, an increase in multi-residential construction, and COVID-induced caution about moving and buying a home. But the lack of students to fill rental units near universities and colleges is another reason for concern.
In Ottawa, a recent study conducted by Carleton University’s Centre of Urban Research and Education (CURE) predicted that an increase in vacancy rate in the city’s rental market would likely be caused by a decrease in student population and tourism. The survey, which continues through the month of October, anticipates Ottawa’s vacancy rate could push as high as 10 per cent as the pandemic surges on.
In Montreal, Canada’s most active rental market, major negative impacts have yet to be seen. But with fall upon us, and many students opting to stay in their respective cities rather than return to campus, rental units once filled by the academic cohort will need to find an alternate tenant pool.
Maxim Cordeau-Andrews, customer relations and marketing manager for Akelius Montreal Ltd., says there are a “huge number” of mostly younger, undergraduate students who are not returning to classes this fall, leaving many units empty. But on the flipside, he says there is an influx of students pursuing long-term, post-graduate or continuing studies involving research or lab work which could help lessen the blow.
“Luckily for us, the universities in Montreal are in desirable neighbourhoods,” Cordeau-Andrews points out. “The properties that would have once been filled by students are still attractive to young professionals and recent graduates.”
With student housing situated near all the city’s major campuses—including Shaughnessy Village near Concordia, the Golden Square Mile near McGill, in the near UQAM and in Côte-Des-Neiges/Outremont near Université de Montréal and HEC—Akelius could have been in a difficult position. But according to Cordeau-Andrews, the buildings are well designed and equipped to attract young professionals already in the city or who may have recently graduated.
“We are accommodating their requests to have shorter or more flexible leases than what we would usually do [because of] the uncertainty going on in the world,” he says.
Shorter leases provide student housing safety net
The strategy of offering shorter-term leases is a solution Akelius and other student housing providers believe will help them get through the next wave of COVID, or until universities decide it’s safe for undergraduate students to return to class.
All across Montreal, universities have had to greatly adjust their plans for the fall 2020 semester. McGill University, Concordia University, and Université de Montréal have almost entirely moved to online learning for an indefinite period of time.
At McGill, almost all classes have been moved online, encouraging students to continue on their academic journey from home. With the exception of masters and PhD students, who are able to study in person in small class sizes to complete lab sessions, the majority of McGill students will not be stepping foot on campus this fall.
At Université de Montréal, clinics and laboratories will be held in person, with all other courses being offered online.
Concordia has moved its fall 2020 classes online, with a few in person activities being offered in the Faculty of Arts and Science, the Faculty of Fine Arts, and at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science. While some classes and activities are being offered in-person at Concordia, they will also be available online for those who do not wish to be on campus.
At McGill, a number of residences including Douglas Hall, Gardner, Molson and McConnell Hall have been closed. The university has guaranteed all first-year undergraduate students admitted for the 2020/2021 academic year will have a spot in residence, even if travel restrictions or other related issues don’t allow them to be in Montreal in the fall.
To ensure safety protocols are followed, all open residences at McGill will implement both the Quebec government’s and the local health authority’s health and safety guidelines. In terms of current measures, the university has converted all double rooms to single occupancy, removing the option for students to have roommates.
For student Lily Zhang, a residence assistant in New Residence Hall at McGill University, COVID-19 has greatly changed the regular operations of student housing.
“This year, only hotel residences are open, and there are strict guidelines about how many people can be in common spaces,” she says. “There’s also social distancing being enforced in dining halls through limited seating. Students have their own rooms and bathrooms, meaning no one has a roommate this year—however, rent is still the same cost.”
Meanwhile, Concordia has chosen a different course of action by making all of its on-campus student housing temporarily unavailable. Officials have been working to support students in finding off-campus housing by partnering with rental sites.
Many landlords are offering deals to make renting seem more attractive — from free parking, to one month’s rent free, to deferred payments, to discounted rental rates.