International students navigate housing challenges in Thunder Bay after Canada’s 2-year cap

Thunder Bay officials are advocating for provincial regulatory frameworks to manage short-term rentals. The goal is to balance the market while ensuring affordability.

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Just as the Canadian government announced a two-year cap on the number of foreign students arriving in the country, international students at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay in Ontario are increasingly turning to short-term rentals amid a persistent housing shortage, a challenge that the city, university, and students are striving to address.

Soheil Khatibi, a new arrival from Iran for a master’s in computer science, faced immediate housing challenges upon his arrival.

“When I moved here, I actually faced the reality and it was far harder than what I was expecting,” Khatibi said.

Initially depending on platforms like Kijiji, Rent Panda, and Facebook Marketplace, he was cautious of online scams and chose not to sign a lease unseen. His temporary housing solution came through Thunder Bay’s Iranian community, bridging his accommodation gap until a more permanent solution was available.

Broader issue

The situation reflects a broader issue. Immigration Minister Marc Miller, has announced a two-year cap on international student permits as part of a strategy to mitigate the housing crisis. For 2024, this translates to around 360,000 study permits, a significant reduction from the previous year.

“We are announcing additional measures to protect a system that has become so lucrative that it has opened a path for its abuse. Enough is enough. Through the decisive measures announced today, we are striking the right balance for Canada and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system while setting students up for the success they hope for,” Miller said in a press briefing weeks before the Jan. 22 announcement.

The cap, varying by province and territory, will not affect students pursuing master’s, doctoral degrees, or elementary/secondary education. Current study permit holders and renewals are also exempt.

Housing challenges

This cap, however, raises concerns among students like Mohit Dudeja, a Ph.D. student from Delhi, who has first-hand experience with poor living conditions and rental scams in Thunder Bay. Dudeja has transformed part of his residence into a transitional unit to help fellow students. He advocates for a digital system to authenticate property owners and reduce fraud risk. 

“This is something that I was planning for so long because the winter semester was coming and the fall semester was terrible for a lot of students to find housing, so that’s what I thought that I would at least help one student,” Dudeja said.

Such collaborative efforts between the city, Lakehead University, and Confederation College could provide a more reliable housing network for students.

Lakehead University is acutely aware of these housing challenges. With over 1,900 international students, constituting about 21 percent of its student body, the university has seen record intakes and high demand for off-campus housing. 

James Aldridge, vice-provost international at Lakehead University, explains the importance of international students to the community and institution, notwithstanding the financial benefits. The university is actively working to enhance its housing strategy, including adding more on-campus rooms and conducting surveys to understand students’ housing needs.

“I think last fall was just about tied with our largest new intake ever for international students.

“The additional revenue that international student tuitions bring to universities and colleges across Canada is critical to their livelihood right now and has been for a couple of decades. But what we can’t forget is the incredible value that international students bring to our own communities and to our institutions,” he said.

Financial burden

Tuition fees for international students in Canada are substantial, averaging around $36,100 per year for undergraduates and $21,100 for graduate students, compared to much lower fees for Canadian students. This financial burden is exacerbated by the housing crisis.

Meanwhile, Thunder Bay officials, like Shelby Ch’ng, are advocating for provincial regulatory frameworks to manage short-term rentals. The goal is to balance the market while ensuring affordability. British Columbia’s legislation serves as a model, setting minimum standards for rentals under 90 days. The challenge lies in enforcing these regulations.

Fairbnb Canada Network, a non-profit organization supporting rental regulation, notes an increase in long-term rentals on short-term platforms, posing risks to renters outside the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act. The organization’s executive director, Thorben Wieditz, highlights the vulnerability of international students in the current housing market, calling for multi-level government involvement to ensure adequate, safe student housing.

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