Coast Mountain College has requested funding from the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training to build student residences at its Smithers and Prince Rupert campuses.
Each school term a new group of students enter the rental market in these two communities where there are already prominent housing shortages.
Paul Lagace, legal advocate for tenants at the Prince Rupert Unemployed Action Centre, said the housing situation in Prince Rupert is dire.
“We’re at about 1 per cent vacancy rate. It’s not just that nothing is affordable, there’s nothing available.”
In the four and a half years he’s been in Prince Rupert he said rents have increased 50 to 100 per cent.
“You have middle-income professionals where there’s one income in the family that can’t afford the rent. I just can’t imagine how a single young student would be able to go into the rent market.”
Lagace has spoken to students and knows it’s a challenge for them to find housing in Prince Rupert.
“And it’s not getting better,” he said.
The provincial government has a 10-year plan to invest in 8,000 new on-campus student beds by 2028. To date they have funded 6,837 beds.
In Northern B.C. they provided Coast Mountain College with $20.6 million to open a 108-bed residence in Terrace. They also gave the College of Caledonia $5.3 million to build 12 Indigenous-specific beds in Prince George.
“I know a lot of communities in British Columbia are struggling with housing right now, we’re not the only ones. But I’m really impressed with the resourcefulness of everyone here,” said Heather Bastin, executive director of external relations at Coast Mountain College on June 8.
College staff, community members, current and former students help to find solutions for students who need somewhere to live in Smithers and Prince Rupert. They have posted, shared information on social media and asked around for options. Sometimes they have offered their own homes for room and board.
Courtenay Kelliher lives in Smithers and often rents a room in her house to students and new graduates.
Finding somewhere to rent is difficult but it is particularly challenging for college and practicum students because they often need a shorter-term lease, three to six months, she explained.
Students are losing out to renters who are willing to commit to long-term leases.
“There’s a shortage of short-term housing outside of AirBnB, and [it] can be very expensive to rent because most people renting short term are looking for that nightly hotel-type rate to make an income,” Kelliher said.
On top of that, students typically don’t have the income that someone working full-time earns.
Kelliher adds that Coast Mountain College has done a lot of international recruitment over the past few years.
“And I absolutely support that direction but the challenge is that those are people who don’t have existing housing in our community.”
Bastin said that as far as she knows every student who wants to study at the college has found housing at this time.
In January 2022, there were 204 students enrolled at the Prince Rupert campus and 132 in Smithers. These numbers are low due to COVID-19 and other factors such as a strong job market, Bastin said. She expects they will be higher at the start of next term in September.
A dedicated student residence would make it easier for students to find somewhere to live and could make the college more appealing to prospective students.
Bastin said it is difficult to know if the lack of housing is a deterrent to interested students. They don’t ask would-be applicants why they chose not to go to Coast Mountain College.
In October, the college opened a new student housing building in Terrace to replace four aging residences. It is called Wii Gyemsiga Siwilaawksat, which in Sm’algyax means “where learners are content or comfortable.”
If they do get the go-ahead to build new student housing, Bastin said the Prince Rupert and Smithers units will be smaller than Terrace but will use similar Indigenous design principles.
Finding a suitable location for the housing buildings is yet to be determined and is part of the proposal.