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Students seek a good fit in Vancouver's rental market: No bugs or rats, please

Returning students try to stretch their dollars in Vancouver’s pricey rental market.
METRO VANCOUVER -- Hannah Blazer’s checklist is pretty straightforward. “No bugs, rats, mould, disrepair, crumbling ceilings.”
For the 24-year-old who starts classes at Langara College next week, cleanliness and safety are the biggest dealbreakers. But her budget, $500 to $600, puts her perilously close to living in a pit.
“You really can’t find anything cheaper that isn’t a ****hole,” she says.
In the last few weeks she’s seen at least 20 places. “That’s just the people that get back to you and the place is still available.”
Blazer is just one of the nearly 300,000 post-secondary students who will be hitting the books this fall in the Lower Mainland. For those that haven’t snagged a spot in residence or, like Blazer, choose to live off-campus, the quest for affordable housing in Metro Vancouver can be daunting.
CMHC’s Rental Market Report, released last fall, showed that although vacancy rates were up marginally (from 1.4 per cent in 2011 to 1.7 per cent in 2012), rents had risen in most Vancouver markets, jumping 2.3 per cent for an average two-bedroom apartment. One bedrooms went for, on average, $1,067 in the Vancouver City area, $947 in Richmond, $723 in Surrey, $888 in Burnaby, $947 in North Vancouver and $1,248 in West Vancouver.
But a quick look of rental ads shows that if you’re hoping to find something at one of those “average” rents, you’ll probably end up in a basement.
Brian Jackson, general manager of the city of Vancouver’s planning and development department, said this month that the city is considering allowing condo and townhouse owners a way to create small revenue suites by adding a door off a hallway to a self-contained room, bathroom and kitchenette.
Housing expert Michael Geller, who consulted on the mayor’s affordable housing task force, recommended Vancouver amend bylaws, as Burnaby has, to allow “lock-off suites.” Geller said the suites, also known as “basement suites in the sky” could give strapped homeowners a mortgage helper and give students more options.
Geller had the inspiration for the lock-off suite option when he was president of the SFU Community Trust. “Students were living in basement suites. I though why can’t we create the equivalent in an apartment?”
The suites are generally a few hundred square feet and rent for up to $700, said Geller.
For now, Geller is urging Vancouver homeowners to open their doors to help students.
“There are literally tens of thousands of empty bedrooms in Vancouver. We need to encourage people that have empty rooms to think about the fact that they can generate extra income and help a student with accommodation. Just post on Craigslist what kind of person you are looking for.”
Geller also suggested students may have to consider living a little further from their educational institution. “If you go to UBC, you might have to live at Fraser Street. Look at bus routes and see where is the end of the line so you can get on, get a seat and work while you are on your way to UBC, VCC or SFU.”
Blazer has given up all hope of finding a solo apartment, of keeping her cat, and is tweeting her sometimes heartbreaking (“No pets”), sometimes hilarious and just as often disconcerting finds: (“Room shared with Vegan male for female ... double bed. Rent reduction for veg diet or exchange in services.”)
Blazer said she’s learned “the awkward shuffle” that goes along with the viewing, applying and interviewing for a roommate position.
When she recently found a place she liked, the prospective roommate kept her hanging.
By the time she “randomly called” to let Blazer know she could have the room, Blazer had moved on.
“It’s like musical chairs. If you hesitate you end up without a seat.”
Ideally she hopes to find a place with a bunch of other students.
There are good and not-so-good aspects to her quest. On the upside, she has got to know the city; on the downside, she has fallen in love with Kitsilano. The beach, the views, the leafy neighbourhood feel.
Even if it’s more expensive than she had hoped for and farther away from Langara than she wanted to be, Kits is the dream, she says.
Laura Turner, a third year arts student at UBC grabbed that Kitsilano dream, and with two roommates is divvying up a rent of $2,340 for the top floor of a bungalow.
For Turner, leaving on-campus residence after three years is a natural next step on the ladder to independence. Like many students, who go first from home to residence, she’s leaving the nest in stages.

For Lynda Chapple, a New West single mother of teenagers, finding a student on Craigslist for her semi-private basement suite is as much a part of the September ritual as getting her kids back to school.

“I always put the ad in for students. I don’t want someone here as a permanent resident. I’ve heard stories that if it doesn’t work out it can be very hard to get rid of someone.”

Because the 700-square-foot suite is really part of her home — it doesn’t have a full kitchen and a laundry room separated only by a curtain makes it more of a shared house situation — she screens her tenants very carefully.

“You have to make sure you get the right person and that it works for your life as well as theirs.”

That’s not always easy.

Chapple, who gets many of her renters from students at the nearby Justice Institute, recently made a deal with a prospective tenant, but the woman left Chapple hanging, failing to respond to phone calls or emails.

“She showed no regard for the arrangement we had made, and no responsibility.”

Chapple waited a few days, then reposted her ad.

With vacancy rates at 2.2 per cent in New West, there is no shortage of applicants.

Even with a low vacancy rate, there is plenty to choose from across the Lower Mainland if you’re not too picky.

If, like Blazer, you want a place you are going to love — or at least like — you may be forced to go out of your chosen neighbourhood or seek less-conventional alternatives.

Randy Carlaw, 33, had plenty of interest when he recently posted an ad for a 1974 Sprite Caravan, a classic trailer with a working toilet, running water and 200 square feet of living space for the rock bottom price of $350 a month.

“I put myself through school and lived in some dumpy apartment. This is your own space, and it’s so cute,” said Carlaw, who hopes to eventually turn the trailer into a 50s-style diner food cart, pumping out sliders and milkshakes at summer music festivals.

Carlaw figured that until he was ready to kit the cart out, he would find a student.

What he got instead was a retiree who plans to park the trailer on a lot and live in it to save some money — something that illustrates, perhaps, that it’s not just students feeling the squeeze in the Lower Mainland’s pricey rental market.

Andrew Parr, director of student housing and hospitality at UBC said 27 per cent of full-time students live on campus in residence and there are at least 2,500 on the waiting list.

“There is an incredibly high demand for more housing and UBC is taking that very seriously.”

UBC is opening 434 beds this fall to the 9,500 already available. UBC keeps its residences rents at below market prices, and the university is pursuing new residence construction, said Parr. “We plan to continue with continuous growth towards meeting the demands,” said Parr.

Students that are looking off-campus often have to go further than they’d like from their places of study.

Craigslist, Kijiji and campus accommodation listings are well-trod ground for apartment hunters, but Blazer said she’s had more luck mining her network of friends, family and friends of friends.

Not everyone advertises: often the best places can be found by choosing a neighbourhood and walking it block by block.

There are obvious differences in rents among different neighbourhoods of the city of Vancouver (you’ll get more space, and possibly even be above ground if you choose to spend your $1,000 in Marpole or Renfrew instead of Kits or Point Grey), and CMHC data show bachelor apartments range from lows of $600 in New West, Surrey and Burnaby, to well over $1000 in downtown Vancouver.

What data doesn’t show is what any of the apartments look like, but a quick perusal of Craigslist and Kijiji does.

Even when the obvious no’s — like the vegan guy who wants to rent out the other half of his double bed — are eliminated, the pickings are slim if you’re on a budget.

But Blazer is keeping a positive outlook.

“If I can be somewhere that’s safe, clean and comfortable, that’s the main thing. Everything else is negotiable.”


Laura Turner, a third year arts student, in the vegetable garden of the small house that she can afford by sharing with several housemates in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood.

Lynda Chapple is one of hundreds of Lower Mainlanders opening up their homes to students this time of year. This is the suite she’ll be renting in her home in New Westminster

Randy Carlaw’s 1974 Sprite Caravan which he listed for $350 a month on Craigslist as a place to live in Surrey.