Selkirk College president Angus Graeme has been thinking about affordable student housing for well over a decade. It’s one of the primary reasons why his institution loses students who would otherwise love to live in Nelson.
The school’s administration first identified the problem in the early 2000s, which is why they constructed their 100-room Fairview residence building in 2007. But these days those spots fill quickly — the downside of their surging enrolment numbers. Currently there’s a waitlist.
Now Selkirk has applied for provincial funding to build 50 more rooms, which Graeme figures they would have no problem filling.
“This residence was a real game-changer for us, because before that we didn’t have any residences for any of our three Nelson campuses,” he told the Star, after speaking at an affordable housing panel as part of Homelessness Action Week.
“In the end, most students normally find what they’re looking for. But there are those students who come in August and say they can’t find anything, and they end up sleeping in their car or couch-surfing for September.”
He figures that’s not a recipe for success.
“Everything starts with a good place to live. It’s not just a social determinant of health, to us it’s pretty much a determinant of success. If you have a great place to stay, with good resources and support, then you’re going to have a good experience at Selkirk,” he said.
“But if you’re hanging around hoping something will come up, not sure where you’re going to be living, that makes it more challenging for us to do our job.”
Selkirk has communicated to the provincial government that housing is one of their top three priorities, and he’s optimistic funds could be heading their way.
“Typically housing is something institutions have had to take on on their own, so if the government comes to us and says they’re going to provide capital infrastructure typically we’ll say we need classrooms, a new health wing, maybe some trades upgrades,” he said.
“But more and more we’re finding in B.C., because it’s a pretty ubiquitous challenge across the province, is institutions are coming forward and saying, ‘We’re having an affordable housing problem we could use some help with.’
The good news? The government is open to the discussion, which Graeme said they haven’t been in the past. In his institution’s case they’re currently housing approximately eight per cent of their total student body, which is down from the national average of approximately 15 per cent.
“Our most recent submission to the province for major capital requests, in the top three is a 50-bed addition in the community of Nelson — but how long it will take to put that all together remains to be seen,” he said.
“It still has to go through a prioritization process. Our ask is being added to the ask of all the 25 post-secondary institutions in the province.”
He believes providing more housing will be a boon to Nelson, and one of their aims is to “keep people here longer.”
“Many people who come here come from outside the region, so we have to ask, ‘What are we doing to create opportunities to remain here?’ We’re looking at different approaches to practicums, summer employment, apprenticeships and things like that.”
Graeme is enthusiastic about the environment that’s been created at the current residence building, which is run by co-ordinator Barb Fleming. She’s committed to creating a welcoming environment for newcomers to the community, and believes adequate housing is crucial for people at this stage of their development.
“They don’t feel isolated here. We can provide a sense of stability, security and convenience. They don’t have to worry about the commute in the winter time, they have study rooms and friends all around,” said Fleming.
“This atrium is being used more than I’ve ever seen. They play crib, they play Cards Against Humanity, they play chess. More often than not they’re down here jamming, playing music. Every single day somebody plays the piano.”
One thing to keep in mind is the increasing number of international students, and Graeme noted they currently have students from countries such the U.K., Ukraine and all over the U.S. Proper housing eases their transition to Canada.
“Without that idea that there’s a place for you to stay here, it would be hard to keep those programs vital. We rely on that in-migration and further net casting that we do.”
Graeme remains optimistic that B.C.’s housing issues will improve, and he’s enthusiastic about his new relationship with advanced education minister Melanie Mark, who toured Selkirk this summer.
“The government is well aware that for young people trying to get ahead and get an education, the whole ecosystem of affordability and education is to some extent determined by how easy it is to get a place at a decent price,” he said.
“Minister Mark was very open to understanding the challenge, how it’s affecting our ability to keep our enrolment up.”
He wants to make sure Selkirk remains part of the conversation.
“We would absolutely love to work with anybody on some housing solutions. The province is also looking at different approaches to funding this, such as looking at whether colleges should have the right to borrow,” he said.
“Basically that’s how we built the Castlegar residence in the early 90s, we established a sinking fund and paid it over 25 years. There are other models. My main concern is that we want to have our Selkirk stamp on how life on our residence looks so we can create a healthy experience for our students.”