Where do all the students go?

Hannah Walters-Vida
February 1, 2019
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes
Photos by Kyle West, Graphics by Sukaina Imam

For many students, living in residence is an important part of the first year experience. In recent years, universities across the country have had to act quickly to meet the increased demand for residence space on campus.

McMaster has 12 residence buildings that house approximately 3,700 students. The demand for student housing, however, is far higher. Currently, there is only enough residence space for about 40 per cent of incoming first year students.

McMaster is one of the only universities in Ontario that does not provide guaranteed campus housing for first year students. In order to be guaranteed admission to residence, students must meet a minimum grade average. All other students are placed on a waitlist.

Finding Space on Campus

In 2016, McMaster had to fit 200 additional students into residence due to higher than anticipated enrollment numbers. As an immediate solution, double rooms were converted into three person units.

The Living Learning Centre currently being built on the north end of campus will help to meet the need for residence space. In addition to classrooms and student services, it will also offer 500 suite and traditional-style residence rooms.

But there is only so much space on campus. In order to meet the rapidly increasing demand for residence space, universities across Canada are rushing to create new housing options.

One novel yet controversial approach to the problem of minimal housing space comes from the University of British Columbia’s “nano suites” pilot project.

Enrolment numbers at UBC have been steadily increasing and have led to space and resource shortages. The university is now considering scaling back admission of international students, according to UBC’s student-run newspaper The Ubyssey.

Nano suites are 140 square foot housing units containing a bed, desk, bathroom and kitchen. A desk sits under the bed, which can retract into the wall to save space.

The nano suites will account for 71 rooms in a new 362 unit student residence building on UBC’s campus.

One of the main draws of the nano suites is the cost. Each unit costs around $700 a month which, compared to Vancouver’s notoriously high rent costs, is a strong draw for students.

However, living in such a small space is not a feasible option for everybody. The Ubyssey notes that the units are less than double the size of a minimum-sized single occupancy Canadian prison cell.

While scaling down the size of residence rooms is one approach to the problem, the more common approach is to build residences off campus.

Turning to Private Companies

Private developers have noticed this trend. In some cities such as Waterloo and Toronto, the demand for student residences is so high that private companies have built student residences independently of the universities.

Since privately operated residences are not affiliated with universities, students do not get access to the same benefits and support systems that are typically available in traditional residences. Additionally, privately owned residences are often far more expensive than traditional options.

Due to a lack of government funding for residence construction, many universities are unable to build their own new residence buildings. In recent years Canadian universities have begun exploring public-private partnerships to fund university-affiliated student residences.

York University, U of T and McGill are among the growing cohort of Canadian universities who have partnered with private companies to fund student residence buildings.

In 2017, McMaster announced its plan to follow suit. The university bought a group of nine Westdale houses around campus for $9.5 million with the plan to develop a multi-storey residence building in partnership with Knightstone capital management, a Toronto-based company that specializes in student residences.

While the construction will be handled privately, McMaster will run the residence as part of the university-wide student housing system.

The proposed first phase of the residence will have 950 beds, and there will an additional 455 if there is sufficient demand.

In addition to the Westdale residence, McMaster is also partnering with Knightstone to build a residence in downtown Hamilton for graduate students and their families.

Knightstone aims to build residences that challenge the perception of unclean, unsafe student living. Their website claims that they cater to the new generation of students with higher expectations about their student living conditions.

“These expectations, taken together with security, cost and cleanliness as their parents’ hot buttons, have created consumers that seek a student residence experience at a level that corresponds to their home life,.” read a part of their site.

Some of the new privately developed student residences across Canada more closely resemble luxury condominiums than traditional student dormitories.

CampusOne is a student residence in downtown Toronto that houses students from the University of Toronto, Ryerson and Ontario College of Art and Design. The building houses movie theatres and a fitness studio, and the website advertises Feng Shui compliant rooms.

While privately and jointly funded residences offer luxury, they also tend to be more expensive than university owned buildings. A standard room at CampusOne, for example, costs about $1700 a month, not including the meal plan.

McMaster has yet to announce the costs of the new residence buildings in Westdale and downtown Hamilton.


Community Impact

By building student residences the surrounding city, universities are better able to meet the increasing demand for housing. However, building residences off campus means that universities must account for the needs of the surrounding community members.

The proposed Westdale residence concerned residents, who worried that the height and density of the proposed building would alter the community. A letter from Ainslie Wood/Westdale Community Association Of Resident Homeowners Inc. to the city of Hamilton expressed concern about foot and vehicle traffic and, as well as the plan for yearly move in and move out.

“We understand the need of the University, and we endorse a development on the proposed site; however, we feel that this development in its present form will have long-lasting negative effects on the immediate community,” states the letter.

Community resistance to off-campus student residences is not unique to Hamilton.

In 2013, a proposed private residence for U of T students faced similar backlash from members of the surrounding community. The Harbord village residents’ association found issues with the proposed building’s height and density, among other concerns.

A new proposal was announced this past summer that accounted for the concerns raised by the HVRA. However, it took five years of negotiation to come to the agreement.

While building residences off campus may be necessary to accommodate for increasing enrollment, it requires careful consultation with community members.


As university admissions continue to rise across the country, so too will the demand for student housing. While many incoming students want the first year residence experience, the future of campus living is anything but traditional.


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