Creative ideas needed to help stem student housing shortage

Lands allocated for development by the TRU Community Trust could help lessen student housing stress — but they’re being used for luxury living instead.
An architectural illustration showing an aerial view of a luxury community development on TRU campus, with four buildings surrounded by trees, parking and common space.
An architectural sketch shows plans for a Thompson Rivers University (TRU) luxury community development called The Reach Neighbourhood. The Reach / Facebook.

The city’s student housing shortage has become so dire that a number of Thompson Rivers University (TRU) students chose not to attend school this semester, TRU President Brett Fairbairn told local news outlets last week.

In the midst of a Canada-wide affordable housing shortage, TRU students have scrambled to find accommodations here in Kamloops (Tk’emlúps) while navigating a market unfriendly to those in search of affordability. 

The university currently provides nearly 1,500 beds for students and just announced the development of a four-storey, 80-unit dorm that will house 148 more. But on-campus housing and wait lists fill up quickly, forcing students to look elsewhere for accommodations ahead of each semester. 

Fairbairn was unavailable to speak with The Wren in time for publication but previously told Kamloops This Week (KTW) too many students struggle to find safe, clean and affordable shelter. 

He went on to express concern with the growing number of students who end up in low-cost, high-density living situations that don’t foster a good learning environment.

“We know that students are often price-sensitive when it comes to housing and, as a result, they sometimes ignore on-campus opportunities in favour of lower-cost, higher-density options in the city’s rental market,” Fairbairn told KTW.

“These low-quality, high-density living situations are cheap, but cheap housing is not always good for students. These situations are sometimes not as safe as they should be. They are often far from campus.”

Fairbairn shared that TRU plans to continue providing student housing in proximity to campus at an affordable price. 

Still, housing developments on or near TRU campus offer accommodations at market or above-market value, deterring a large portion of students from applying.

Rental properties near campus often unaffordable for students

Newer housing developments on or in proximity to TRU campus are part of The Reach Neighbourhood, a community development plan imagined by and put forward in 2016 by the TRU Community Trust (TRUCT). However, these developments aren’t necessarily intended for students.

TRUCT was created in 2011 to manage developments on TRU property and transform university land assets into “a source of dedicated funding to support TRU students and academic activities.”

Plans for TRUCT’s The Reach Neighbourhood mirror mixed-use developments at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University and represent the first-ever pre-planned university community in British Columbia’s interior. 

In a 2016 press release, former TRU President and Vice-Chancellor Alan Shaver explained the development is “the first step in the realization of the university village concept which envisions a vibrant campus neighbourhood where people live, work, learn and play.”

A map of TRU campus showing both new developments of The Reach, as well as lands slated for future development. Lands marked for future development take up nearly as much space as TRU's academic campus does.
A map of TRU campus shows both new developments of The Reach, as well as lands slated for future development. The Reach website.

“[The Reach Neighbourhood] will enhance the TRU experience and be of significant benefit to the broader Kamloops community … [and] is expected to create income to support students and research.”

Through partnerships with developers like Kelson Group and Cape Group, four new buildings have been built within The Reach Neighborhood since 2016. 

Marketed as luxury condos “boasting stunning city or campus views,” Legacy Square, Creston House, Rockliffe Point and Liberty Point are all within steps of TRU’s campus core. 

While these new buildings represent some of the most convenient living arrangements available to the university community outside of on-campus housing, they are often offered at market or above-market rates, excluding a large portion of students. These new developments were never intended to lessen the burden students face when looking for housing. 

New units in The Reach Neighborhood go for between $1,300 and $2,600 monthly, quite a bit higher than $1,018, the average rent rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Kamloops, according to the most recent numbers from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

Could TRUCT work to better support students?

While new developments included in The Reach Neighborhood increase research funding at TRU and cushion reserves to support bursaries and programs for students, the land could, in theory, be used to help remedy the student housing shortage.

Universities Canada-wide are exploring creative ways to bolster student housing. A few have bought and converted hotels, while others are looking to use existing property in clever ways. In Ontario, Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) has built student housing on top of on-campus academic buildings.

In B.C., the University of British Columbia (UBC) has already implemented Nano Suites, studio-style rooms that “pack a convertible desk/bed, full private bathroom, kitchenette and closet into a small but streamlined space.” 

UBC is also looking to increase the number of beds on campus from 12,000 to 17,300 by 2030 while The University of Toronto hopes to significantly increase the number of beds at its urban campuses from 8,400 in the coming years. 

Portable dormitories sit against a mountainous background. The dorms are grey with touches of teal and orange and have an industrial look about them. These dorms were built in response to the student housing shortage.
TRU’s West Gate Dormitories were built in response to the student housing shortage. 114 self-contained private rooms were made available to students in Jan. 2022. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

It’s clear TRU is working to implement various options to lessen students’ stress, although some housing solutions have been more reactive than proactive. Just last year, the West Gate Dormitories were quickly built to house an influx of students left without housing. 

While the university’s luxury housing project boasts modern amenities and unmatched views, students bunking at the West Gate Dormitories are not offered the same comforts. The modular housing at West Gate is similar to accommodations for work camps, and plans for the units were originally denied by the city for not meeting B.C. building code requirements.

“The City is of the view that using temporary housing that does not meet the legislated (and widely accepted) health and safety requirements would exacerbate rather than cure TRU’s dilemma,” a letter to the university from the city’s chief administrative officer stated in September 2021.

TRUCT holds 90 developable acres of land and three million square feet of new, urban residential living space. Beyond the 148 new units promised by TRU, it remains to be seen whether a portion of that space can be allocated to lessen the student housing shortage or if it’ll be used for unaffordable luxury developments instead.

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