Rarely a day goes by without a warning from a politician or industry leader about the need for more skilled workers, more tradespeople, more nurses, more [insert in demand job here] in the northwest.
And while Terrace’s two post-secondary institutions are ready and willing to train people to fill those needs, the new reality is that the very students we want to attract here to study and train – and, fingers crossed, fall in love with the area so they want to stay here and work – might be unable to study in Terrace because it’s becoming so difficult to find a place to live.
University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) chair Phil Burton says it’s already happened at least once.
“Last fall for the first time we had a student admitted to our nursing program who just had too much difficulty finding a place to stay that was within her budget, that she in fact cancelled her registration,” he said. “We’re worried about similar things happening in the future.”
UNBC’s Terrace campus does not offer dorms due to its size. It has three main programs – education, social work, and nursing – and with about 20 students in each cohort, there are between 100 and 150 students on campus each year.
“And we’re hoping to grow those numbers,” said Burton.
Growing those numbers could prove challenging as he’s already anticipating a larger housing crunch come September. Of the 22 people who have applied for next year’s social work program so far, about half of those are from out of town.
“They’re going to be competing in the same market as these people working in the construction jobs and engineering on the big LNG proposals and the northwest transmission line and so forth, but essentially living on starvation wages and borrowed money rather than a very nice salary,” he said. “So, will they be able to find that basement suite or that shared house where they can pay $500 a month rent? That’ll be the challenge.”
If that challenge isn’t met, Burton is worried Terrace will face a situation like the campus in Fort St. John witnessed when their oil and gas boom hit.
“People in Fort St. John had experienced this issue before, including our students, and the consequences there were in fact a steady decline of both student numbers and the dropping of some programs because there weren’t sufficient students to warrant face-to-face programs.”
In order to get ahead of the crunch and ensure that doesn’t happen, the university is in the process of developing a housing registry, which is common at larger universities but hasn’t until now been necessary here. They’ll also be reaching out to their community members – faculty, past grads, staff – to ask them to look at their housing situation and be in touch if they have a suite or a room to rent.
Because housing students is a community issue, said Burton.
“We as a community have to really take stock of what we want to offer in terms of quality of life and a full breadth of people living here,” he said.
“If we leave everything up to the individual initiatives and income levels the writing’s on the wall that we’re going to see a loss in many dimensions. That’s not just lower income or working poor, that’s also people who could have a lot to offer in the future.”
If Terrace begins losing professional and university grads – people studying teaching or nursing, for example – to other communities, there’s a risk they won’t come back.
“That’s the danger for the future. If we’re going to have a growing population and a growing industrial base, we’re going to need those service providers as well,” said Burton.
Up the hill at Northwest Community College (NWCC), officials are also working on student housing solutions.
“Our residences are full, there’s no doubt about that,” said NWCC director of facilities and ancillary services Kerry Clarke, noting that this year the waitlist for housing averaged about 15 students, when in past years it’s been two or three.
Unlike UNBC, NWCC has 84 residences in five buildings on campus. The spacious 40-year-old buildings are gender specific, alcohol-free, and each student has their own room with shared bathrooms.
“The residences are really critical to helping people succeed,” he said. “They need housing and its too expensive downtown now.”
In the fall, the college embarked on a feasibility study to see about updating the current residences and building new ones to increase capacity.
“One of the issues is that residences are not core funded, they’re not funded by government, you have to fund them yourselves,” explained Clarke. “So that makes it very challenging when you want to build new residences.”
The study is currently in the concept phase and looking at various funding models. Clarke’s “blue sky” picture, three to four years down the road, would be a mixture of housing on campus – apartment-type living with two or three rooms for a family to stay – that maintains the village environment the residences currently have.
But the issue is financing, he said, giving the example of the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology in Merritt, which built nearly 70 rooms for close to $9 million.
“You can see the numbers don’t make sense. If you’re in Vancouver you can charge $900 a month rent, but you can’t do that here,” he said. “It’s a vexing issue for us – how we can increase capacity as well as renew the residences.”
But since that plan is still three or four years away, the college is looking to implement solutions to help students in the short term.
This summer, not unlike UNBC, they’ll be looking into establishing a homestay program, where staff could potentially house students in their homes and provide meals or services for a fee.
“We’re trying to get creative as to how we can solve some of the issues,” said Clarke.