Hundreds of students are scrambling for a place to live this fall after learning last week there's no room for them in Dalhousie University's residences in Halifax for the upcoming school year.
The university usually has about 2,300 residence spaces at its Halifax campus. But due to COVID-19, it has reduced its capacity to 80 per cent, or about 1,800 spaces.
The school's residence office sent an email on Thursday to students who did not get a spot, explaining that priority was given to first-year students entering Dal directly from high school and students who are currently living in residence.
Leeanne Richardson is among the students who got the bad news.
"I'll be quite honest. I had an emotional meltdown because I had all my schooling plans and my classes and everything, and then I had no housing," she said. "So it kind of hit me that if I don't have housing, I can't go to school."
'It's quite competitive out there'
Richardson lives in Bridgewater, N.S., but doesn't have a car to travel back and forth to Halifax, so she was counting on a residence space. She's been poring over Kijiji, Facebook Marketplace and other sites to try to find a room to rent.
"They are getting slimmer, though, as the days goes on, because I'm pretty sure I'm in the boat with a lot of people in a similar situation," she said. "It's quite competitive out there."
Richardson, who finished a four-year degree in psychology and plans to take a few more classes this fall before applying to graduate school, said she feels "a little bit hurt and very frustrated" that the school is not offering much support.
Dalhousie University did not make anyone available for an interview.
Spokesperson Janet Bryson wrote in an email that demand among first-year students who have just graduated from high school is high this year, and the school reduced its residence capacity in order to provide a space for quarantining residence students and to accommodate additional single rooms.
'Off-campus options are available,' university says
The email from Dal to students says that "despite low vacancy rates in Halifax, off-campus options are available." It provides links to the school's off-campus housing website and invites people to contact Dal's off-campus adviser for help.
Halifax's rental vacancy rates are among the lowest in the country, and average rental rates have been on the rise.
Darlene Ramsay said as soon as her son got the letter, he started scouring online listings of apartments, but found nothing within his price range. A bachelor apartment of 250 square feet, for instance, was listed at $1,200 per month, Ramsay said, and many places have additional utility costs.
University residences cost between about $8,500 and $10,000 for both school terms, or between about $1,050 and $1,250 per month.
Ramsay said her son, who is 22 and entering his first year, does not want to be named because he's worried that speaking out could jeopardize his placement at the university.
She said the family has considered trying to find a hotel room in their price range that would allow long-term stays, and they've even thought about converting a van for him to live in.
"If my son can't find accommodation, he can't go to university. And, you know, that just seems unfair."
Making his situation more complicated is the fact that the family does not live in Nova Scotia, so they can't view apartments in person to judge suitability.
Notice came too late
Ramsay said if her son had received more notice, he could have applied to another university that did have spots available in residence. But since the university only gave notice in mid-June, it's too late to shift gears.
Ramsay noted that other universities in Canada are requiring students who live in residence to be fully vaccinated, and questioned whether Dal could increase its residence availability if it, too, took this step.
The Dalhousie spokesperson said vaccinations are encouraged but not required.
Kristina Coi's son is starting his second year in sciences at Dal this fall. He was living in residence during the fall term of 2020, but he ended up deciding to learn remotely from his family's home in Ontario after the December break because his flights to Halifax kept getting cancelled.
Coi said Dalhousie assured him he would not be penalized for not returning to residence for the winter term. But she feels he is now being penalized after he received the email that told him there was no room.
"It was a contradiction to what they told us … when we made the decision to leave, because otherwise he would not have withdrawn."
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