Parul Yadav saw Canada as a pathway to her future.
The 23-year-old, who arrived in Toronto alone but bright-eyed in late 2021, had pored over post-secondary programs around the world from her home in Delhi, India, carefully selecting a public relations course at Humber College for its hands-on learning opportunities. Toronto, she was told, was a multicultural city — one where newcomers like her would be welcomed.
What she didn’t expect was a housing crisis, one that would become an ever-present stressor as she began her studies.
She struggled, during those first days in a Mississauga hotel, to even book an apartment viewing without local references who could vouch for her. Even studio apartments were too expensive. Feeling desperate as the first day of classes approached, she signed on for several months of renting a den without a door in a shared apartment.
Today, she has a single room in a basement where two other students rent rooms on the same floor, while their landlord lives upstairs. She counts herself lucky, given how many other international students she’s met who’ve fared worse in Toronto’s housing market.
“I know so may international students who are living in miserable, miserable conditions,” Yadav said, describing groups of two or even three students who she’s known to split single rented bedrooms.
It’s a problem she believes the country needs to reckon with — especially as it aims to boost immigration rates. If Canada and its post-secondary schools are attracting promising young learners, especially to campuses in major cities such as Toronto that are facing rental crunches, how can officials ensure the kind of housing opportunities students need to thrive?
The question of whether Toronto has adequate housing for its international students is, of course, a microcosm of an even broader question: Are we prepared to house all the new immigrants that officials see as vital for Canada’s future? A report from Desjardins Securities recently suggested the answer is no — noting that homebuilding will have to increase by at least 50 per cent nationally through 2024, or a difference of about 100,000 more units starting construction in each of the two years, to keep pace with the expected rate of population growth.
Just weeks ago, the country’s population hit 40 million people for the first time. In Toronto, the provincial Ministry of Finance has forecast the population will surpass 3.3 million people by 2031 and 3.6 million by 2041. International migration is the primary driver of net population gains, city hall housing secretariat director Valesa Faria wrote in a statement to the Star — though city reports have also noted Toronto’s rapidly aging population as a key demographic shift in the years to come.
The federal government hopes to bring in 465,000 permanent residents this year, Faria said, rising to 485,000 in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025. International student study permits were also on the rise, she said, adding that the 550,150 permits issued last year represented a 75 per cent jump from five years earlier. These newcomers will bring skills and abilities that Toronto needs to sustain its “economic and social vibrancy,” she wrote. But it’s a reality that demands more housing.
“Toronto looks forward to supporting federal targets, however, it is imperative that these go hand-in-hand with new investments in affordable housing so that newcomers can find safe, secure and affordable homes to live successfully,” she wrote.
While being accepted for study in Canada does not guarantee a pathway to permanent residency, it is a common trajectory taken. The prospect of life in this country is a key lure of Canada’s international education strategy — which has uplifted the economy, created a steady immigration pipeline and offered a boost to the country’s colleges and universities amid declining public funding and domestic enrolment.
While schools have eyed increased enrolment in recent years, Faria sees student housing creation as failing to keep pace. Now, institutions such as Toronto Metropolitan University are putting new residence plans on ice, she said, directing blame on rising construction costs.
Student residences did not qualify for affordable housing funds, Faria added, and were therefore offered at market rent rates — which could be prohibitive for cash-strapped students. (Yadav, too, noted the cost of purpose-built residences often ruled them out as an option for her.)
The challenges of home affordability aren’t limited to international students, as students of all origins, in Toronto and beyond, often scramble to find affordable homes — like so many individuals and families with limited incomes. But city hall staff have noted newcomers at its colleges and universities are often making do with the lousiest living conditions, attributed in a recent city housing plan to “significantly” higher tuition and limits on their ability to work.
For Yadav, the doorless den she leased in late 2021 — after days of fruitlessly scouring Kijiji and messaging landlords — made her feel like she was walking on eggshells, with virtually zero privacy between her and her roommate. She tried to be out of the apartment as much as possible, and it wore on her mental health. “I remember I was always so stressed and always so low on energy that my friends would say, ‘Hey, is anything wrong with you?’” she recalled.
“It really does affect the relationships around you, the way you work, the way you study.”
After five months, she decided to test her luck again, with a budget that topped out at $1,500 per month, though she was hoping to keep closer to $1,000. But in Toronto, even studio units were going for higher rates. In the end, she found her single room in the basement of a house, which came with a $700 price tag and two other tenants sharing the floor. Yadav is grateful to have it — she said her landlord upstairs was kind, and really tried to offer students who’d newly arrived in Canada a “homey family environment.”
Many others she knew weren’t so fortunate.
Faria, the housing secretariat director, said international students, especially, can often be in the dark about their rights as a tenant — citing the findings of an ongoing working group tasked with probing student housing problems. “This presents a safety concern, as international students may be more vulnerable to predatory landlords and poor living conditions.”
One particular housing arrangement that has worried Toronto colleges and universities is the unregulated rooming house sector — an area where major changes are looming.
In December, council voted — after many years of debate — to legalize and license rooming houses citywide as of March 2024. This kind of rental, where tenants lease single bedrooms with shared kitchens and washrooms, often come with lower price tags than any other private market option and have long existed across the city. But they were illegal in Scarborough, East York and North York, and could be unlicensed in the old Metro Toronto and Etobicoke.
The idea of legalization, as staff proposed it, was to ensure rooming houses were safer and more regulated. In reports, staff pointed to devastating outcomes in the unlicensed market, with roughly 10 per cent of Toronto’s residential fire deaths from 2010 to 2020 in rooming houses — a grim count that would include the death of 18-year-old Helen Guo, an international student who’d just finished her first year of business management at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Of the 18 rooming houses where fires caused death or serious injury, 16 were unlicensed. And along with seniors on fixed incomes and low-income households, immigrants and students were seen as the most likely rooming house tenants.
“Students, post-secondary institutions and community members all expressed safety concerns for students living in overcrowded and unsafe living conditions,” the staff report recommending cross-city legalization and licensing read, while also noting that some areas of Toronto located near college and university campuses had seen a particular concentration of student-aimed rooming houses “due to the lack of alternative affordable rental housing options.”
Faria, in her statement, noted that city staff have been asked to develop a post-secondary-specific housing strategy alongside academic institutions. The vision had to go beyond residences, she suggested, noting the city hoped to convince schools to plan new affordable housing for students, staff and faculty on land they own. “It is critical that the post-secondary institutions themselves commit to building new housing as part of their long-term strategic plans in order to attract top students and faculty, and to maintain a global advantage,” she wrote.
Looking back to when she first arrived, Yadav said she wished there was more transparency from schools in their recruitment materials for international students, making sure they knew not only what kind of rental market they would face, but potential traps and pitfalls to look out for when searching for a place to stay. She’d seen people fall for rental scams, having sent money from overseas for a house or room that didn’t exist.
That same openness about the housing reality could apply to officials in Canada’s immigration process, she suggested. “Just be more open and clearer about the crisis that’s going on.”
Yadav is now nearing the end of her two-year program at Humber — a time in which she immersed herself in a student union and found a part-time job with a PR agency that excites her about her future. She hopes to make the jump to a full-time role, and carve out a life for herself in the city. “I’m hoping my salary will be increased enough to sustain myself renting a studio. I’m not even thinking about a one-bedroom right now,” she told the Star one recent afternoon.
She’s seen too many of her fellow international students pack up and leave, not simply because they struggled to find their footing right away, but because — like so many other individuals and families citywide — they felt their long-term housing hopes were simply unattainable in Toronto.
“I know so many people that are moving out of Toronto or Ontario after living here for five, six years because they cannot afford a house. They’re going to Calgary, they’re going to places like Saskatchewan,” Yadav said. “So many people are moving out — even out of Canada and going back home to their countries. Everything comes down to the housing conditions.”
It’s the kind of conclusion she hopes officials take heed of as immigration continues to flow.
“They’re just inviting people in — and they don’t have the right resources to support them.”