Residences and housing at Canadian Universities: what’s new and hot

Innovative inclusive offerings have student residence struggling to meet demand.


Concordia University feted its new student housing residents last year with a breakfast at midnight, games of bubble soccer, excursions to IKEA and an electronic music parade. Concordia’s residence life manager Lauren Farley is a serious believer in fun—especially since many of her new dorm-dwellers arrived on campus knowing nobody.


Ryerson University has taken inclusiveness to a new level by making disclosure of gender identity optional when it comes to housing assignments. Fifty per cent of last year’s applicants said they’re cool with all-gender housing. Applicants who feel more comfortable cohabiting with those who identify as the same gender have that option.


And the University of British Columbia is introducing self-contained micro-suites (with rent set just under $700 a month) in response to Vancouver’s affordable housing crisis. At 140 sq. feet, they’re tiny, but students say the price is right.


This is what on-campus housing looks like now, as residence managers strive to meet the needs of a new generation of students. But these innovations have one downside—Canadian universities do not have nearly enough room to satisfy growing demand. More and more students now seem to appreciate the benefits of living and studying on campus.


In the past, students moved off campus after one or two years in residence. More of these upper-year students now want to stay, says Andrew Parr, UBC’s managing director of student housing. His waiting list topped 6,000 in 2017. Vancouver’s tight rental market is one factor, but not the only one, he says. Even first-year students who could live at home with their parents in the Greater Vancouver Area often take advantage of UBC’s guarantee of residence for first-years rather than commute.


“There’s evidence that suggests pretty clearly that living on campus enhances your academic experience,” Parr says. “It really opens up tons of opportunities that commuter students don’t have if they are spending two hours a day on a bus or in a car”—opportunities to interact more closely with faculty advisers and professors, to get more involved with student clubs, to participate in sports and to become more immersed, generally, in campus life. Or to research at the library until midnight without worrying about how to get home and back for that 8 a.m. class.


MORE: Horror stories from off-campus housing

A recent joint research study by the University of Toronto, OCAD University, York University and Ryerson found that long daily commutes for students “were leading to lower campus engagement and, in some cases, limiting students’ class choices” at their universities.


A follow-up study commissioned by the presidents of the four universities will explore the options for creating more affordable housing on, or close to, campus.


Concordia assigns its 900 beds on a mostly first-come, first-served basis. “Applications open in March, we fill up quickly, and we have a pretty long waiting list,” says Farley, who returned to Concordia to pursue graduate studies and serve as resident life manager after a stint as manager of crew activities for Disney Cruise Line.


Those who aren’t assigned a bed can turn to a year-round, student-run service that posts apartment rental ads and alerts students to any prior complaints that have might have been lodged against certain landlords in the area. Unlike Toronto and Vancouver, Montreal has a good supply of affordable housing close to its universities.


Still, the on-campus residence experience is far more enriching for students, says Farley, who endeavours to make orientation week as welcoming and fun as possible before students begin serious studies in September. Residence advisers—upper-year students who live on every dorm floor—are available 24/7 to support students with any academic or other concerns that might arise. But they are also there to help foster a sense of community for the new residents.


And while no one was compelled to play bubble soccer (perhaps running around with your upper body encased in a giant inflatable ball isn’t everyone’s idea of fun), new residents were strongly encouraged to explore the wealth of opportunities available through student-run clubs. (At Concordia, there are clubs for chefs, entrepreneurs, game developers and those interested in artificial intelligence, along with a moot court club, a debating society and a chess club. There’s something for snowboarders and skateboarders, actors and playwrights, dragon boaters, hip-hop artists, cyclists and students who want to volunteer for worthy causes in the broader Montreal community.)


In Toronto, York and U of T have enough housing to guarantee residence beds to all first-year students who apply on time and make a deposit, regardless of where they live (students should check individual university websites for exact deadlines and costs, because they vary). But Ryerson can only offer space to out-of-towners, and there was a wait-list of 900-plus at the beginning of last summer. “It’s never been that high,” says Ian Crookshank, Ryerson’s director of housing and residence life.


Under the university’s new all-gender housing policy, applicants for housing no longer have to declare they fit into any one category—male, female, transgender male, transgender female or non-binary—unless they choose to do so.

“This is the first year we have removed gender as a function of how we assign rooms,” Crookshank says.

“If it matters, you tell us it matters and we will accommodate that. If a student would like us to use gender identity to assign them a space in a single-gendered environment, they would have to indicate that, and they would have to indicate what their gender identity is,” he says.


The fact that 50 per cent of students applying for housing this year selected the all-gender option “was eye-opening,” according to Crookshank. “What we heard from students is it’s great, it’s inclusive . . . and it’s not really a big deal,” he explains. “But it is a really big step from a residence [management] perspective.”


Well-intentioned efforts to be inclusive in the past had the unintended effect of emphasizing the gender-identity differences of young students who just wanted to go to school, be themselves and learn.


“We used to force students to check a box . . . and, in many cases, the housing office would then phone and say, ‘We are just trying to get a sense of what you would like. You have identified as a trans student, so we need to know what type of person you would like to live with,’ ” Crookshank says.


This often meant that students who had identified as transgendered or non-binary would then be relegated to a separate residence floor designated as “gender inclusive space,” rather than be included in the general mix of students.


The majority of residence rooms at Ryerson—95 per cent—are designed for single occupancy, but more than half of those occupants share bathrooms with two or more others. They wait their turns to use the shower and toilet stalls, which have privacy locks. So, in practical terms, an all-gender bathroom interaction might involve brushing one’s teeth alongside someone with a different gender identity, Crookshank says.


When UBC’s micro-units—referred to as nano suites—come on stream in 2019, residents will be able to shower, floss and brush in the privacy of their own very small bathrooms.


Parr says 70 of these suites will be included in a new 651-bed residence being built on campus. They have double beds that fold up into the wall when not in use, desks that fold down, a small private bathroom, closet and kitchenette area.

More than 20,000 students toured a prototype that was set up in the Student Union Building in 2016, Parr says, and 83 per cent of students surveyed indicated they would live in a nano suite for the quoted cost of just under $700 a month. That’s considerably less than the more than $1,000 a month rent for a standard self-contained studio apartment on campus.


Graduating high school students should research the housing options before they commit to a specific university, residence advisers say. Is there a first-year residence guarantee? If not, does the university or student union provide guidance on off-campus options? Most do.


Even if first-year residence is guaranteed, what happens in second year? At Queen’s University in Kingston, for instance, most students move out of residence after their freshman year—either by choice or because their rooms are needed by the incoming first-year class.


Political studies student Erin Moore lived in a shared residence room during her first year at Queen’s, but moved into a four-bedroom townhouse off campus in second year with three friends. “I think for first year, residence is great. It’s a lot of fun.”


But it can be noisy, making it difficult to concentrate “and it’s nice not having to line up with 10 other girls for the shower.”


The townhouse, part of a development built specifically for the student market and managed by Kingston-based Varsity Properties, has a shared common living room and kitchen, private bedrooms, a rooftop patio with a gas barbeque and bi-weekly housekeeping service.


Moore’s share of the rent works out to $750 a month plus utilities, which she says compared favourably with the $1,730 monthly cost of a double residence room and mandatory meal plan at Queen’s. “Residence was really expensive. I much prefer to buy my own food. All the local grocery stores have student discounts and I love to cook,” Moore says.


However, quality housing close to campus is in high demand. “It’s very competitive,” says Moore, whose townhouse is a 10-minute walk from campus. “I would definitely advise students planning to move off campus to start looking as early as possible. I know a lot of people start looking as early as October in their first year [for properties to move into the following year].”


Similarly, students who want to live on campus beyond first year should also apply early—applications are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. “For many people, continuing in residence does work. If you’re an athlete or you have a crazy schedule and you don’t have time to cook, it makes a lot of sense,” Moore says.


At UBC, sociology major Paige Lougheed recalls feeling lost and nervous when she first set foot in residence five years ago. She grew to love it, never left, and now guides the new crop of students in her role as residence coordinator.


Among her roles is helping first-year students overcome the shock of their first set of marks, which is common for those accustomed to being at the top of their high school class. “It’s a different method of grading and evaluation than what a lot of students who come to UBC are used to.” A dip in marks is not unusual, Lougheed says, “but some of them really struggle with that.”


Peer tutors—typically senior students who excel in their fields of study—visit the residences on a weekly basis to conduct group tutoring sessions in first-year math, chemistry, biology, physics, political science and economics. Residents can also book free one-on-one sessions by appointment.


There are professors in residence available to offer advice on course selection, or simply hang out for a discussion after a film night. “They are there to kind of break down the barrier between faculty and students . . . because sometimes students aren’t comfortable going to office hours for professors,” Lougheed says.


At Concordia, Farley and her team of residence advisers keep the fun factor going with regular social events throughout the year. They help new students make the connections to join intramural sports teams or direct them to one of the executive chef’s demonstrations at the self-cooking stations in the dining hall. Students can borrow the equipment and ingredients to make anything they want. Broccoli stir-fry? Not so much. “They seem to like making smoothies,” Farley says.


The residence advisers also serve as sounding boards as their younger peers learn to navigate the challenges of university. If they see a need, the RAs will conduct information sessions on study tips, how to budget, how to party responsibly and safe sex.


“That peer-to-peer support is really crucial. If they feel that they have someone to talk to who is not going to judge them, their success is higher in terms of their academic success but also their personal success.

“Res is not just for parents to feel their kid is in a safe place, but for them [the students] to start university and start it off right because it is a lot for them to take on,” Farley says.



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