Innovative mixed-use projects that bridge gaps between universities and municipalities may be preferred over purpose-built student housing (PBSH), according to SHURE panel.

All Ideas on Table to Solve Canada’s Housing Crisis for Students, including Building Mixed-Use and Seniors Housing on Campus

May 15, 2023

SHURE Initiative

With occupancy rates hovering close to 100% in many Canadian university submarkets, it is vital for universities and government executives to work more closely together on many challenges, including public transportation and new housing on campus. However, the type of new housing should not be limited to purpose-built student housing (PBSH), and instead incorporate a mixed-use component and cater to other demographic groups. This approach may fast-track projects with government officials. This was the conclusion of a panel held at SHURE Vancouver on April 20 that featured executives from Forum Asset Management, Capilano University, Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) and York University Development Corporation.

Canada’s student population, while growing for the last decade, witnessed a surge following political discord and anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. in the recent years. In North Vancouver, there is less than 1% vacancy, according to Ashraf Amlani, Chair – Board of Governors at Capilano University.

“This region has seen housing affordability get worse and our university has certainly been impacted by that,” said Amlani, who credited the provincial government with helping to fund new on-campus housing.

“We’re working closely with developers in our community to build housing in partnership with them. So, it’s our land shared with their development. 50% of those units will be earmarked for Capilano University students, which is really fantastic,” exalted Amlani.

Indeed, while many university systems are building new housing, not all of it is for students. All of the panelists suggested transportation is vital to improving the housing shortfall and improving the quality of life for students.

Chris Wong, Chief Development Officer at York University Development Corporation suggested his university is viewed in a different lense in suburban locations.

“Subway service is so convenient and giving us a huge opportunity to pursue new development at York University’s Keele campus,” said Wong.

The existing Toronto Transit Commission (TCC) subway line was extended by 6 new stations in December 2017, two of which are on the university’s land. Wong said this extension boosted land values on the Keele campus. TCC is funded by federal, provincial and municipal governments. York University was engaged in lobbying for the extension of the subway line.

Despite a slow recovery in subway ridership post-pandemic, York is expecting more university students to return to public transportation. “Much of the development opportunity at the Keele campus is not building parking lots. We are rich in parking supply,” according to Wong. “Still, we are anticipating the extension of the subway line will result in fewer single occupant car trips to campus. COVID threw a wrench is this expectation, but subway ridership is ticking back up.”

Wong noted that York’s development plans are often welcomed with open arms outside of Toronto proper. “York is often forgotten in the big city, but it is viewed very differently in suburban locations. Their attitude is markedly different because they [suburban governments] recognize the benefit of having  a post-secondary institution in their community, and what it can mean for reputation, job wise, support for industry and so forth.”

Mike Moss, President of Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), contributed to the session and noted that universities need to be open to new ideas. “Campuses need to be a bit more open to integration with the local community, for student housing and service to the community.”

According to Moss, the mixed-use solution on-campus is very powerful, and potentially a building strategy that could be more utilized in Canada. Moss cited an example of a California academic institution building senior housing in tandem with student housing.

“They’re building retirement communities and student housing together. So, they’re building affordable housing on campus property for the retirement community, along with affordable housing for the student population.”

Aly Damji, Managing Partner – Real Estate of Forum Asset Management, a private developer based in Toronto, suggested there is the challenge of NIMBYism (not in my backyard) when it comes to building new student housing.

“I can share some frustration as a private sector developer trying to build student housing in a jurisdiction like, Toronto. NIMBYs oftentimes resist student housing because they say there will be too many parties. Across Canada we are now sub 2% vacancy rates and the idea that student housing can alleviate housing stock for the average person is real.”

On that note, Amlani of Capilano University said there are challenges to getting municipalities on board with building more student housing.

“In order to get the projects passed in public hearing, you have to talk about that other stuff like the concerns around kids partying and increased traffic. You can’t have a conversation about adding 300 beds without talking about how that’s going to impact the broader community.”