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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Off-campus life

How to live away from home, and off campus

By Luma Muhtadie
The Globe and Mail

Students at Sherbooke University have found a haven from the soaring rent costs and dearth of options faced by most Canadian students searching for off-campus houses on the cheap.

The university unfolds down a hillside in Quebec's bucolic Eastern Townships offering a view of the Appalachian Mountains and an elaborate system of footpaths leading to clean, affordable rental housing.

Of the university's 12,000 full-time students, 78 per cent come from out-of-town. And with only 1,000 students living on campus, most belong to the market of renters.

Even with 800 more students enrolled at Sherbrooke this year than last, all have managed to find decent places to live, university spokesman Gilles Petelloille said.

“The majority of students are able to find an apartment near the university, and if not an apartment than a room in a shared house,” said Chantal Bromin, a Sherbrooke student employed at Uni-Logi, the on-campus information hub that brings the city's renters and landlords together. “Most buildings near the campus are only about 10 to 30 years old and most are in good condition,” she said.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation says rents in Sherbrooke are among the cheapest in the country, so it’s clear why the university was ranked first on the University Report Card survey for the quality and affordability of its off-campus housing.

The University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres was ranked second in both categories. “In Trois-Rivieres you can find clean apartments with big rooms,” said University of Quebec student Brigitte Veilleux. “The owners of the buildings live close by and are always coming over to fix things right away. My landlord cleans the walls and stairs every two weeks, so it doesn't smell like cigarettes or anything like that,” she said.

The picture in these Quebec cities is in stark contrast to that at Queen's University in Kingston, which was ranked last in the survey for the quality of its off-campus housing.

Since it's not in vogue at Queen's to stay in residence past the first year, a feeding frenzy for housing begins each January for the following May or September. Most students group themselves in clusters of between four and six and scramble to find a shared home in an area near campus that is full of old, dilapidated student digs.

“It's no wonder the student housing just off campus is called ‘the ghetto’,” said Cara Smusiak, a Queen's student. “The homes are falling down around students' heads. A roof caved in at one house and a deck collapsed while students were standing on it. Anything remotely affordable is a dump and I wouldn't live in any of them,” she said.

Many of the houses within walking distance of the campus violate Kingston's property standards, but the city is unlikely to evaluate them unless someone files a complaint, David Wright, director of Apartment and Housing Services at Queen's said.

With most students too overwhelmed by their school schedules and social lives to bother complaining - and landlords hardly hankering to pour money into the needed upgrades - little is done to improve the state of the aging houses.

Old houses are also more difficult to retrofit and most are poorly insulated, leaving students with exorbitant heating bills.

The University of Ottawa was ranked next-to-last for the quality of its off-campus housing and last for affordability. According to the CMHC, a two-bedroom apartment in the national capital rents for an average of $930 a month, exceeding the provincial average of $883, but still not as expensive as Toronto's average of $1,047. “When you find a nice place it's very hard to pay for,” University of Ottawa student Lynn Nadon, said. “If you find a place that is cheap, it is very run down and you do not feel safe.” ROBTv Workopolis