Skip to main content

Trevor Erikson, wife Gillian Allan, 16-year-old daughter Shakhti Baker, nine-month-old son Mateo and dog Cody sit outside their home in White Rock, B.C. In 2000, Mr. Erickson moved into a camper van and stayed there for almost four years while he was studlying traditional Chinese medicine at a private Vancouver college.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

As Vancouver's university students stare down the final weeks of August, attention turns to where to live come Sept. 1. For some, faced with rising rents and long waiting lists for on-campus housing, the solution is extreme: Moving into their cars.

"I decided, to save money, I'm going to try living in my van as long as I can," said Anna Baignoche, a master's student at the University of British Columbia. She lived in her van part-time during the past three years.

During warmer months, Ms. Baignoche said, she crammed a mattress, cooler, clothes in plastic bins, and bear spray – just in case – into her vehicle. At night, she slept on a futon mattress on the reclined back seat. Every morning, she used the bathroom and shower at a community centre pool.

Car life had downsides, said Ms. Baignoche, who is considering retiring her four-wheeled home while she finishes her degree in the fall. Even simple meals such as cereal were logistical headaches, she said, so she ate out a lot. She spent too much time in coffee shops and was often frustrated trying to find things amid her clutter.

Still, she said, not paying rent saved about $600 a month.

In the winters, she found cheap sublets for about $400 monthly. Last year, she and another woman shared one room. "Some people would say that's worse than living in my van," Ms. Baignoche said.

In 2000, Trevor Erikson moved his girlfriend and five-year-old daughter, of whom he had partial custody, into a camper van for almost four years. It was the only way he could afford to study traditional Chinese medicine at a Vancouver private college, he said. "I'm a single dad. I gotta pay rent," he said. "How am I ever going to go to school and achieve my dreams?"

He outfitted his extended Dodge Ram with battery packs, a stove and oven, and a glass fireplace, he said.

Living in the approximately 67-square-foot van allowed his family to pay for his education and put away about $15,000 for a down payment on a house. "I love Vancouver, but it is just too expensive," said Mr. Erikson, who now lives in White Rock. "We couldn't fathom buying anything there."

These problems aren't going away, he said. His daughter will soon attend university, and UBC may not be a possibility. "In reality, she's thinking: 'Well, maybe I should go to Montreal or something, because housing is much cheaper there,' " he said.

UBC runs Canada's largest student housing operation, with 9,000 beds on the Vancouver campus, said Janice Robinson, the university's residence life and administration director. But about 5,000 applicants are already on the waiting list for fall, she wrote – not an unusual number.

The university plans to create 2,000 more residence spaces over the next five to six years, Ms. Robinson said. But that would not even cut the current list in half.

Off-campus housing is not always a better option. "Vancouver definitely has some of the highest rents in the country," said Robyn Adamache, a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation senior market analyst. Rents for most suite types in neighbourhoods near the university have increased, according to a local CMHC report.

An apartment with three bedrooms or more in Montreal costs about $4 more than a bachelor suite in Vancouver, which goes for an average of $854, according to CMHC's spring provincial reports.

Vancouver's students are quickly burdened by debt, said Tiffany Kalanj, who works with the student union at Vancouver Community College. Affordable housing is a big issue for them, she said. "Students are having to make some pretty hard choices," said Ms. Kalanj. "Perhaps choosing housing that's not what they would consider safe or what they would consider ideal for their families."