Demand greatly outpacing supply of Queen's grad student housing

Grad students at Queen's say it's been made clear to the university that the need for more affordable housing is as great as ever. 

The school manages two larger housing complexes for grad students at west campus, and while demand fluctuates from year to year, available units for the upcoming school year were claimed alarmingly quickly. 

Grad student workers represented by PSAC Local 901 recently came to an agreement with Queen's, securing a number of workplace improvements. 

However, PSAC 901 President Astrid Hobill said at the time they were unable to strengthen the access to affordable housing for members, and says just two short months later that is already proving to be a concern. 

This year John Orr Tower and Ann Clachlan Complex, the two affordable housing units mostly filled with graduate students and their families, saw over 300 applications submitted for just 60 available units in under 30 minutes.

Hobill said Queen's claimed available spots would be granted based on a needs based system, but in watching the process unfold says the process appears to once again be first come first served, disadvantaging some of the grad student workers at the university who need the support most. 

Jacob Morrow, a grad student in the English department and PSAC 901's co-chief steward, is one of the 60 grad students who was lucky enough to land one of the available spaces. 

He says, however, if he had listened to the suggestions of Queen's Community Housing staff rather than his own anxious mind he likely would have lost his spot. 

Morrow recently took over a lease in John Orr Tower, leaving a non-ideal apartment located fairly far from campus, and intended to renew for the upcoming school year.

He said in doing so, he consulted with Queen's Community Housing to ensure he wasn't taking on an unnecessary risk of such a short term rental, and was told historically anyone who applied on the first day were accepted and that he should be too. 

Morrow decided to send in his application as soon as they were being accepted, and said in less than an hour the housing app was down with a message declaring all available spots, and the waitlist for both complexes, were full.

Upon receiving a "generic email" that he was on the waitlist, Morrow said he confirmed with Community Housing that he was successful in securing a spot.

Morrow says he was told that Queen's received over 300 applications within 15 minutes of applications being open, and says he expects if they'd remained open all day they might have seen total applications surpass 1000.

He says the sheer number of applications shows just how precarious a situation most grad students are in, and that the university has not worked to provide enough affordable options. 

"It just points to the inadequacy of the university's housing system," Morrow said.

"The need is clearly there and it's clearly a desperate need."

The apartments available, he says, provide much better living options than what is readily available in Kingston's rental market, which now boasts rental prices that grow increasingly comparable to larger cities like Toronto.

Morrow says by moving from his previous Kingston rental to John Orr Tower he saves about $300 per month while living in a comparably sized, more conveniently located space that also has more privacy.

He says those who weren't lucky in the application process are constantly battling the added stress of browsing the rental market looking for something better in a city where affordable units often prove to be borderline unlivable. 

Morrow says Queen's has a "moral responsibility" to help shape Kingston as an affordable city, and he'd like to see them start by making it more of a priority to provide affordable living options for grad students.

"The university is constantly purchasing properties and retrofitting properties for various reasons," Morrow said.

"But it seems there's not a priority for providing the necessities of living to graduate students who are workers, who are employees, who are community members."

Morrow says the system as it's set up privileges those grad students who have support systems to fall back on, with many workers' take home pay after tuition and market rental rate equating to "pennies".

He says it would be mutually beneficial for the University and its grad student workers to have affordable, livable accomodations available.

In a statement, Queen's said the availability of units in these two complexes varies year to year, and while they understand the difficulty faced by graduate students that the struggle for affordable housing it is not unique to the University or the City of Kingston.

"The availability and affordability of housing is a pressing issue for communities across Canada, including Kingston. We understand the challenges that a number of graduate students and their families have had in securing housing," the statement from Queen's reads. 

"The University has an Off-Campus Living Advisor to advise and assist students who are looking at housing options in the city, and we encourage students to contact the office for support."

Morrow said that is another area he'd like to see Queen's enhance to provide more support to students, saying students new to Kingston are often vulnerable while navigating the rental market and find next to no help through the community housing portal.

"You're kind of on your own even with the systems that are provided by Queen's," Morrow said.

The university also pointed out a new 334 bed residence that is being built on Albert Street to be ready for September, but that space will have little to no bearing on the situation of grad students. 

Story by Owen Fullerton, YGK News, for the Local Journalism Initiative