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I Came for School, and Spent Much of My Education Fighting to Live Here

An international student reflects on the struggle to find — and afford — a place to live. Part of a student series on finding home and housing in the region today.

By Juan Treviño 2 Jul 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Juan Treviño is a fourth year communication student at Simon Fraser University. Originally from Mexico, and previously an international student in Texas, he now lives and studies in unceded Coast Salish territories and hopes to become a social worker to bring awareness on the housing crisis and the struggles of vulnerable populations in the city.

I’m no expert on the housing crisis; I am the crisis.  

After five apartments and 14 roommates in two years, Vancouver has drained every hope I had of finding a suitable home. I’m an international university student from Mexico who moved to Canada from the U.S. in search of a more welcoming country and more affordable tuition, ignorant of the financial challenges students face in Vancouver.

A year ago I settled for a basement suite with a perfect view of the feet of passersby, the smell of skunks, the trickling sound of dogs peeing and the loud noise of late-night clubbers. It also features a plywood sheet that serves as a bedroom wall and dining table, and a living room smaller than a Starbucks washroom. We accept this so my girlfriend and I can live within walking distance of our minimum wage jobs, because commuting 45 minutes late at night after closing a restaurant is unbearable when you have to take university classes early the next morning.

There is only one bedroom in our apartment for us and our roommate, but we found a way to make space for three people when my girlfriend moved in after the crisis in Venezuela left her family without resources to cover her tuition and living expenses, and prevented her from going home anytime soon. We sleep in the end of the tiny living room, underneath the only two windows. After multiple rearrangements, we decided to put the bed there, concluding that good feng shui is not possible in a 400-square-foot apartment for three.

International students face unique challenges finding a convenient and affordable place to live. Many of us arrive under precarious circumstances and others suffer from sudden changes in their financial situations. My own situation changed abruptly after my parents divorced and their living expenses increased.

Renting in Vancouver is a high-anxiety endeavour. Our best chance when viewing rentals is to assume the role of wealthy international students with unlimited parental funding. Wear a fancy watch, bring unnecessary paperwork and pretend rich is the only language we speak.

Following my arrival in Vancouver, after living in noisy hostels and suburban Airbnbs, a Craigslist posting of a one-bedroom apartment seemed to be the answer. The phone call was quick; our offer was accepted. We signed the contract for what we naively thought was a fair price of $1,650. We even celebrated with a Cariboo six-pack.

It was all for nothing. We were kicked out after a few months and told that our construction of a temporary room divider was a reason for eviction. The real reason — the building manager that we spoke to had us sign a fake contract. He was subletting the place to make some extra cash without the owner’s knowledge.

It was only after the owners fired him that the new manager discovered his scheme. The eviction was a nightmare. I had to look for a new place within three weeks in the middle of the semester, and move all my secondhand furniture that had taken months to buy and transport.

A month of couchsurfing led to a small den for $700 a month in a shared apartment. Three months of that was enough; the landlord wouldn’t allow family visitors to spend the night and increased the den’s rent by $200.

I was too inexperienced and frightened to fight back, so I moved near Metrotown for the summer, convinced that I would eventually get used to commuting 45 minutes to work. I never did, and soon started a new search to return downtown. My current West End apartment, inadequate as it is, became my home when I luckily found a landlord originally from Mexico who cares for international students and their struggles, but this is a rare case.

Adequate housing is a human right, not a luxury to be enjoyed by a few. In this city, youth are crowding in basements, elders are being displaced and the only people with rightful claim to this land often lack a place to live.

I am grateful to call Vancouver home, but wish its beauty was also reflected in average peoples’ ability to inhabit it. My education in Vancouver was never planned; in 2015, after visiting some friends, I felt in love with what seemed a flawless multicultural city, completely blind of its social inequalities. As connected as I may sometimes feel to this land, until Vancouver gives back the unconditional love I’ve given it, I will remain the crisis.  [Tyee]

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