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April 10, 2024

Welcoming campus, inclusive community: Building housing infrastructure for international students

Setting the context: Are international students responsible for the current housing crisis in Canada?
On January 22, 2024, the federal government announced a two-year cap on international student permits. This action aims to target certain “bad actors” among institutions, who have been exploiting international students through high tuition fees,1 fake educational degrees, and poor operations.1 However, another major concern this measure aims to address is the impact of a surge of international students on the housing market, which has triggered heightened public concerns and policy debates, while drawing considerable attention in international media.2 The rationale is that the housing shortage across Canada was exacerbated by the unprecedented record-high admission of over one million international students in 2023, which drove up housing costs and worsened the already limited housing supply.3
However, there are no simple solutions to the “misalignment between population growth and housing supply”; rather, how we frame the problem — whether “as a matter of too much immigration or too little housing, or some combination of the two” — matters a lot.4 Instead of unfairly scapegoating international students for the current housing crisis, we should examine why Canada relies on them and their contribution to the country’s economy and higher education.
International students are culturally and economically important to Canadian society, contributing to the country’s economic prosperity, knowledge networks, and global competitiveness. In 2019, Canada ranked third globally in attracting international students, with 642,000 students contributing $22 billion annually to the country’s economy and supporting over 170,000 jobs.5 A five-year national International Education Strategy for period 2019-2024 was developed to attract more international students to Canada,6 who are also considered ideal immigrants as they obtain “a Canadian degree, high human capital, good language skills, connections to the communities.”7
Despite border restrictions and travel bans during the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2022, international student approvals in Ontario hit a record high with over 226,000 permits issued. College was the fastest growing study level accounting for over 63 per cent of the intake.8
In summary, the entire growth in post-secondary student enrolment is attributed to international students, while in contrast, domestic student enrolment has remained flat. Imposing a cap on international students, warned the Desjardins economic and financial outlook report, will not only jeopardize the financial stability of already underfunded higher education institutions (HEIs), but also deepen the ongoing recession.9
There is no clear evidence establishing a causal relationship between international students and Canada’s housing affordability crisis, the latter being a complex issue influenced by multiple factors and actors. Sociologist Anna Triandafyllidou offers a thought-provoking counterargument that, “International students are saving both the average home-owning (and mortgage-paying) Canadian household as well as the Canadian banking system.”10 This is primarily because these students, often as exploited tenants, rent basement units and spare rooms at high prices, which in turn helps Canadian landlords and homeowners manage their mortgage payments and maintain financial stability.
Although this perspective is not intended to resolve the housing crisis, nor does it tackle the exploitation of international students in the housing market, it points to fundamental and critical questions: Why does housing for international students matter? How can we support international students who contribute to our society in myriad ways, with dignity, fairness, and inclusivity?
The imperative of building equitable and inclusive housing infrastructure for international students
Prior to the pandemic, issues related to international students and inclusive global education had already become imperative. Despite policymakers’ optimistic assumptions outlined in the International Education Strategy,11 HEIs have been truly struggling to integrate international students, many of whom still suffer from adjustment difficulties and disconnectedness to host communities, leaving them in more vulnerable situations than domestic students to face challenges of housing, social isolation, financial instability, mental health, career uncertainty, and potential exclusion from the host society.12
These issues are not standalone; rather, they encompass the complex social, cultural, health, financial, and academic needs of international students, which have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.13,14 For example, in a Photovoice research project involving international students, I explored their perceptions, perspectives, and lived experiences regarding integration and inclusivity, particularly during the peak of the pandemic.

The findings demonstrated that to support and enhance inclusive international student experiences, it is essential to adopt a comprehensive and holistic approach that addresses their needs across five key areas: daily necessities, social adjustment, career trajectory, health and wellbeing, and academic life.15 Among these considerations, housing emerges as a pivotal factor profoundly influencing the students’ overall well-being, academic performance, and their capacity to adapt and integrate into the Canadian society (see Figure 1).


Unfortunately, as has been widely reported across the country,16,17 many international students have become “a growing segment of the population that is extremely vulnerable to housing discrimination, rent gouging, rights abuses and sexual harassment,” making them susceptible to further exploitation.18
Additionally, sub-standard, illegal, and overcrowded housing not only threatens the safety of students but also intensifies public anxiety within local communities and potentially creates tensions with municipalities, which are responsible for creating a safe and supportive environment.19
It has become imperative to capture these stories of struggle and to understand how various stakeholders (e.g., governments, HEIs, housing providers, developers, community agencies, host society, etc.) can work together and build welcoming and inclusive housing infrastructure to support international students’ success in Canada and enhance community cohesion, well-being, and long-term sustainability. Particularly, as many HEIs have embarked on the implementation of their internationalization strategies and played an important role in facilitating the settlement and integration of international students, they should proactively gain insights into the existing gaps on building inclusive housing infrastructure and identify appropriate resources and services to enhance both the experiences of international students and community cohesion.
HEIs, governments, developers, and host societies: Roles in addressing the housing crisis and enhancing community inclusivity
In fall 2023, I supervised an undergraduate studio course at the School of Urban and Regional Planning, Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), to tackle housing issues for international students. In partnership with City Building TMU and the Toronto Metropolitan Centre for Immigration and Settlement, the project team included 11 fourth-year undergraduate students (see the acknowledgement below), three of whom are international students, we conducted evidence-based research through literature reviews, policy analysis, case studies, and semi-structured interviews with key informants.
Five stakeholders, representing the for-profit and not-for-profit housing development sectors, student housing providers, and HEI administrative staff, offered their insights into the current challenges and barriers in developing inclusive housing infrastructure and services for both domestic and international students. They emphasized the imperative needs for policy change and public-private partnerships.
Additionally, 24 international students from 14 countries enrolled at 10 public and private HEIs in Southern Ontario were interviewed to share their housing experiences, encompassing both positive aspects (e.g., personal connections, family support, and proximity to HEIs) that support academic performance and well-being and barriers to accessing housing and its adverse impacts, such as exploitation by landlords, lack of legal support, limited housing aid, and substandard housing conditions. Interviewed students also expressed a strong desire to build a sense of belonging and home through their housing experiences in Canada.
The research offers short-term and longer-term recommendations — for example, increased community and institutional support, intergenerational shared housing, legal and planning policy changes, and incentivizing student housing developments. Specifically, it highlights the need to engage international students and amplify their voices in the ongoing discussion about their housing needs and experiences to better inform future policies and programs.
HEIs are ideally positioned not only to offer international students direct housing aid and holistic settlement services but also, more importantly and urgently, to lead student housing development. As urged by institutional leaders across the country, one of the key policy actions for HEIs is to provide “better support for international students,” and “universities must work with municipal governments to prioritize the building of appropriate and sufficient student housing and to demand robust active and public transportation networks to allow all students to move through the city without a car.”20
For all three levels of governments, establishing an intergovernmental student housing task force will be beneficial. This task force can consolidate resources and funding, facilitate collaborations with HEIs, streamline and improve the appeal process against rent gouging, incentivize purpose-built rentals for student housing, and revamp restrictive municipal zoning codes that prevent designated student housing developments.21
According to private-sector organizations, student housing is increasingly recognized as an investment opportunity that appeals to developers.22 However, despite their willingness to provide student housing and develop partnerships with HEIs, developers are often discouraged by the lengthy application processes and the prevalent passivity and bureaucracy in municipalities. Therefore, developing public-private partnerships between governments, HEIs, and developers appears to be an effective approach to build a supportive infrastructure for student housing, taking into consideration inclusive housing policies, building design, residence management, proximity to HEIs, transit and mobility options, as well as both on- and off-campus student services.
Exploring shared housing options offers an alternative solution for affordable housing. For example, a senior-student shared housing model has been piloted, such as the HomeShare program in the City of Toronto, the SpacesShared program at both Georgian College and Humber College, just to name a few.23,24,25 Pairing students seeking affordable rents with seniors who have spare rooms can help alleviate financial pressures both parties face. Additionally, creating a welcoming and inclusive environment will benefit not only international students as they navigate their new surroundings but also local community members. This approach helps to enhance community cohesion and contribute to long-term sustainability.
Conclusion: A multi-scalar approach to building inclusive housing infrastructure for international students
The housing crisis in Canada long predates the recent massive influx of international students. Capping international students will not fundamentally solve the housing affordability problems; instead, it unfairly scapegoats international students who have already been exploited in the housing market, further marginalizing this vulnerable group, who make significant contributions to the country’s economy, higher education, and society at large.
This paper calls for a multi-scalar approach to building inclusive housing infrastructure for international students. As illustrated in Figure 1, housing is a central consideration when it comes to the diverse needs and lived experiences of international students, as it directly links to students’ daily needs, social adjustment, academic performance, health and well-being, and career trajectory. It requires a comprehensive understanding of its complexity at various levels: the personal (micro), community (meso), and policy (macro).
Multiple stakeholders, including international students, HEIs, governments, housing developers and providers, and local communities, play distinct roles and intersect at different levels. To tackle the current housing crises and ensure fairness and justice for international students, it is imperative to establish an intergovernmental student housing task force, develop public-private partnerships, and engage international students and local communities in seeking affordable housing solutions. Through deliberate and meaningful efforts to host and support international students, we can further foster a sense of belonging and cohesion in our communities, making our society more welcoming and inclusive.
Client: Cherise Burda, Executive Director, City Building TMU
Mentor: Dr. Marshia Akbar, Research Area Lead on Labour Migration, CERC in Migration & Integration, TMU
Student researchers (in alphabetical order): Nolan Atterbury, Sonelle Crawford, Joshua Cugini, Zikang Fan, Jack Krywulak, Bashir Maidama, Nun Nil, Chris Petrou, Angelina Richards, Asha Selvakumar, Bumika Srikanthalingam
Figure 1: A multi-scalar approach to building inclusive housing infrastructure for international students. Designed and conceptualized by Zhixi Cecilia Zhuang; Illustrated by Bumika Srikanthalingam.
1 Wherry, A. (2024a). Federal government announces 2-year cap on student permits. CBC News, January 22, 2024.
2 Monga, V. (2023). Canada, in Policy Shift, Weighs Capping Student Visas; Boom in international students worsens housing crunch, say government ministers. Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2023.
3 Woolf, M. (2024). Number of international students now exceeds one million, official figures show. The Globe and Mail, January 19, 2024.
4 Wherry, A. (2024b). There are no simple answers to the immigration and housing question. CBC News, January 13, 2024.
5 El-Assal, Kareem (2020). “642,000 international students: Canada now ranks 3rd globally in foreign student attraction”, CIC News, February 20, 2020.
6 Government of Canada (2019). Building on Success: International Education Strategy (2019-2024).
7 Shields, J. & Alrob, Z. A. (2020). COVID-19, Migration and the Canadian Immigration System: Dimensions, Impact and Resilience. Research Report.
8 ApplyBoard (2023). Canadian Provincial Study Permit Trends – International Student Approvals in Ontario Reach Unprecedented High in 2022. May 5, 2023.
9 Kane, L. D. (2024). Canada can’t afford to block temporary residents, Desjardins says. Bloomberg News. January 10, 2024.
10 Triandafyllidou, A. (2023). Strengthening Canadian communities through international student housing. Canadian Urban Institute, At the crossroads: Maximizing possibilities, p. 66-68.
11 Government of Canada (2019).
12 Calder, M. J., Richter, S., Mao, Y., Burns, K. K., Mogale, R. S., & Danko, M. (2016). International Students Attending Canadian Universities: Their Experiences with Housing, Finances, and Other Issues. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 46(2), 92–110.
13 Zakharchuk, N. & Xiao, J. (2023). Investigating the Social and Academic Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on International Students at a Canadian University. Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education, 15(2): 166-192. DOI: 10.32674/jcihe.v15i2.4738.
14, Zhuang, Z. C. (2023). Campus Inclusivity: Exploring the Lived Experiences of International Students During the COVID Pandemic.
15 Zhuang (2023).
16 Balintec, V. (2023a) International students say they want to study in Canada, but staying is a problem if they can't find housing. CBC News, August 22, 2023.
17 Balintec, V. (2023b) We’re welcoming record numbers of international students. Here’s how they got caught up in the housing crisis. CBC News, August 28, 2023.
18 Das Gupta, T. D. & Su, Y. (2023). Canada’s costly housing market leaves international students open to exploitation. May 2, 2023.
19 Stone, L. (2024). Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown calls for more restrictive international student  visa policy. The Globe and Mail, January 20, 2024.
20 Yan, A., Smit, A., Brown, J. & Chapple, K. (2023). Up to the task: How universities can support cities. Canadian Urban Institute, At the crossroads: Maximizing possibilities, p. 24-28.
21 Hall, L. (2023). Navigating restrictions on student housing. Novae Res Urbis, Toronto, December 8, 2023, pages 1-10.
22 Hall (2023).
23 City of Toronto (2023). Seniors housing services.
24 Georgian College (2023). Georgian and SpacesShared offering unique affordable housing option for students.
25 Bhugra, S. (2023). Toronto seniors, international students become roommates to fight housing crisis. CBC News, September 12, 2023.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Zhixi Cecilia Zhuang

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