Students not the reason for housing woes

Rising cost of housing

A recent trend amongst urban planners and housing critics on social media is to take a deep dive into the theory that the growth of universities is having a negative impact on local housing markets, with particular consideration given to the rise of international students.

The argument goes something like this: universities are admitting more and more international students each year as a means to make more money, and while they are significantly increasing the number of these students - they are not building any new housing to home those residents and, as a result, competition for homes increases which increases rents.

In this vein, I decided to explore a little about the rates at UBC Okanagan through publicly available data.

From 2016 to 2023, overall student enrolment at UBC Okanagan (UBCO) increased to 11,978 students from 8,687, an increase of 38%. At the same time, the number of student housing units increased to 2,150 from 1,676, an increase of 28%. That meant that while UBCO enrolment is outpaced the university’s construction of student residence spots, it did not do so by a significant amount.

Of course, as I said previously, the argument being made by housing critics is mostly related to international students, so let’s focus in on that. From 2017 to 2023 the number of international students enrolled at UBCO increased to 2,613 from 1,676, an increase of 55.9%. Now that’s certainly a dramatic increase.

As the backdrop, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Kelowna was $980 in 2016 and today, in 2023, it is $1,952, an increase of 99%.

By looking at these numbers, I’m sure you could make the argument that housing prices have increased at almost the same pace as international student growth at UBCO, so they must be the cause. But that’s the incredible thing about statistics , you can make them say pretty much whatever you want.

It is highly improbable that the addition of just under 1,000 new international students is the cause of the Okanagan’s housing woes. But that hasn’t stopped this type of discussion from proliferating across online platforms.

In addition, the economic impact of UBCO on the Okanagan is an estimated $1.5 billion and employs 1,688 people in our community.

None of this is to say we shouldn’t be encouraging UBCO to build more student housing. As rents get more expensive, it becomes more challenging to attend university in Kelowna if you don’t have family or friends you can live with while completing your studies.

Further and disappointingly, the new UBCO tower in downtown Kelowna is not student housing. On UBC’s own website it states, “the housing that is included in the project is not a student residence but a facility where units will be rented out to students and others at rental rates that support their construction.”

That means that while they may choose to only rent to students, they’re not subsidized like student housing units and will likely be rented out at market-rent.

You may read this column and think, he wrote an entire column disproving his own thesis.” But it was never my thesis.

It’s something that’s proliferating online and sometimes it’s just as important to show that the theories of others do not hold true here in the Okanagan.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Wilson on Water Street articles

About the Author

Adam Wilson is from Kelowna and has an educational background in urban planning, where he published his research on the politicization of cycling infrastructure in the Journal of Transportation Geography. 

Adam was named as one of Kelowna’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2017 for both his research into cycling infrastructure and a number of political interviews he had done with Macleans, the National Post and CBC News. 

He previously worked as an urban planner in Toronto, where he focused on provincial legislation and municipal approval processes.

Most recently, Adam worked for Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, where he held various positions, including as the minister’s executive director of policy and strategic planning, and the minister’s director of communications. 

Adam now lives in Kelowna with his partner and works in the health care sector, while running his own consultancy that provides strategic advice on local municipal issues.

Email Adam at: [email protected]

His website is adamwilson.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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