This op-ed was published in the Globe and Mail on September 4, 2023.
By Philip Landon, interim president and CEO of Univerisities Canada
Thousands of students are arriving on university campuses across the country in the next couple of weeks, some living on their own for the first time, some travelling from countries far and wide and others commuting from home. It is a time of excitement but also of apprehension as Canada is facing an affordable housing crunch.
Universities across Canada have long provided affordable housing for their communities. They’ve also been innovative in managing growing demand, from getting shovels in the ground quickly for new builds, to repurposing existing buildings, to developing innovative configurations for changing population needs. We see examples underway today.
We see examples already under way today: Construction has begun for the University of Windsor’s new residence in a public-private partnership with a real estate and development company. McMaster University is opening a new residence in Hamilton, Ont., dedicated to housing graduate students and their families, while another new residence building is set to include space for students and older adults to socialize and learn together, in partnership with the university’s Institute for Research on Aging. The University of PEI will open a new student residence this fall in a space that was first used for the Canada Winter Games. A new residence at the University of Victoria has met the requirement for LEED V4 Gold and Passive House status, “the most rigorous global building standards for sustainability and energy efficiency,” says the university. It also incorporates Indigenous design elements and teachings.
But more needs to be done. Solving the housing crisis requires collaboration among all levels of government. It requires the federal government to meet its commitments to reduce homelessness, construct new homes and provide Canadians with access to affordable housing that meets their needs. And, it requires the federal government to support community partners, like universities, who can deliver the housing Canada needs.
Here’s where the federal government can start: expand student housing through low-cost financing, broaden eligibility for housing programs through the National Housing Strategy and open the door to a more collaborative approach for affordable housing projects.
One way governments can incentivize the creation of new housing is by offering loans with favourable terms and interest rates for targeted building projects. The National Housing Strategy’s Rental Construction Financing Initiative does just that, encouraging the construction of sustainable rental apartment projects through low-cost loans.
But retirement residences and student housing don’t qualify. With both an aging population and more students attending post-secondary institutions, we must incentivize the construction of purpose-built rentals that meet Canada’s changing needs. A low-cost loan fund specifically for universities would help to expand student housing and bring down demand for rentals in surrounding communities.
To meet the housing strategy’s target of 160,000 new affordable homes by 2028, Canada must invest in projects and ideas that will move us forward faster. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Housing Accelerator Fund and the Rapid Housing Initiative are working, but we are still far from our goals. More can be done to leverage the unique strengths of universities and other community partners. Universities are well-positioned to help the government quickly deliver for Canadians, with access to land and simplified approval processes.
People around the world see Canada as a destination for opportunity, inclusion and freedom. Our world-class education system attracts students from across the globe to Canadian universities. Our commitment to ambitious immigration goals must be accompanied by an ambitious housing plan.
Higher education serves us well by strengthening our communities and our national economy. In the face of a national housing crisis, universities should be part of the solution.
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