In 2003, I did a cross-Canada student-housing needs study for both universities and colleges. The results were extraordinary, and I took them to my client at the time. I told them there was a pan-Canadian business opportunity for them in this industry.
They saw the opportunity and built three student housing projects which we subsequently helped lease up and sell. That was my first exposure to student housing.
I then looked at student housing around the world and recognized that in the industrialized world, Canada lagged in the sector probably more than any other country, yet we were and still are one of the leading countries in attracting foreign students.
We are now 20 years from that initial cross-Canadian study and, surprisingly, the opportunity for student housing still remains in its infancy.
Only one city in Canada, Waterloo, has addressed the student housing problem head-on and has had a significant number of beds built in recent years.
So, student housing was rolling along at a slow pace in Canada (relative to the rest of the world), and then we got hit by the pandemic: universities and colleges shut down, domestic students moved back home, and foreign students went home.
There's no question that was a difficult time for the industry.
But in the aftermath of the pandemic, students have returned in full force, more foreign students arrived in Canada, and the shortage of rental housing again reared its ugly head and exacerbated the shortage of student housing in the country.
This is a problem – or an opportunity – that isn’t going away anytime soon, until the private development community takes action.
Canada vs. the world in private student housing
Interestingly, the global ratio of privately provided (i.e. off-campus housing) to publicly provided student housing (i.e. on-campus housing) is around 33 per cent.
In Canada, that number is only 26 per cent, leaving much room for more private development of student housing across the country.
Global growth in higher-education students is four to five per cent depending on the country, but in Canada that number is 11 per cent.
So, there is a huge opportunity for student housing as we have a fast pace of student growth, especially compared to other industrialized countries.
Since the government is supportive of increasing foreign students to Canada, this is a great strategic investment opportunity.
On a related note, I recently watched an episode of The Fifth Estate (https://gem.cbc.ca/media/the-fifth-estate/s48e03), that highlighted the staggering numbers of Indian foreign students coming to Canada.
This is contributing to the high rate of post-secondary student growth in the country.
The focus of the episode was on the many difficulties these students face upon arrival here.
Among other challenges, the episode tells of the often-awful living conditions they experience, in some cases with up to 15 students living in one small house and students sharing beds on a shift-by-shift basis.
Affordable student housing in key cities where foreign students are studying is much needed.
When you compare Canada as a student housing market to other industrialized countries, it has a lot going for it – student growth increasing quickly (and very much supported by the government), as well as a lack of supply.
The opportunity is right there for the taking, and you can learn more via our student housing resource site.
Having advised on and transacted many student housing properties over the past two decades, it surprises me that more people have not jumped into this space and that this wide-open opportunity still exists.