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Toby Chu of CIBT is seen in this file photo from 2008.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

An ESL recruiting company is buying up real estate in Vancouver to cater to international students it says are being failed by the region's unaffordable rental market.

The CIBT Education Group announced this week that it had invested $37-million to buy and convert the 17-storey Viva Suites hotel into a 230-bed building, charging international students market rents in downtown Vancouver.

CEO Toby Chu said his company recently bought another two Vancouver buildings with accommodation for 500 students and plans to build apartments for up to 5,000 people in the coming years as the federal government almost doubles the number of international student visas.

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"When we have to place 8,000 to 9,000 students into homestay, it was difficult," said Mr. Chu. "When the vacancy rate in Metro Vancouver dropped to almost 1 per cent – that makes it almost an impossible task."

CIBT describes itself as an "education management company." It owns a network of business, technical and language colleges and recruits international students.

But an influx of international students could make rental units even harder to come by.

Mr. Chu estimates that about 112,000 of Canada's roughly 250,000 international students live in British Columbia, the majority of them in Metro Vancouver. He says up to half of all the 450,000 international student visas the federal government wants to approve by 2022 will be for learners attracted to the warm West Coast.

The Viva suites, located at the intersection of Howe and Drake streets, will charge students between $900 and $1,200 to rent one- and two-bedroom units and offer breakfast and dinner packages for $12 a day, Mr. Chu said.

Those prices are "consistent" with most homestays in Metro Vancouver, which Mr. Chu says are becoming less popular with students because there isn't enough quality control.

"In the last five years, we have seen people putting up a Shaughnessy house picture [to attract homestay students], but [students] arriving to a Chinatown apartment," Mr. Chu said.

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Linda Auzins, a director of membership at English-as-a-second-language trade association Languages Canada, said "more and more schools" are looking to offer their own accommodation to international students.

"That way they can control the level of quality a little bit and protect the students from landlords," Ms. Auzins said. "Certainly homestay is a very popular option for young students – and those students on their first study-abroad trip or if it's a short-term trip – but a lot of them, after a number of months, are looking for something else.

"They've met some friends and they want a little more independence."

These students may lose the "immersion experience" of sharing family meals and talking to a Canadian when they move out of their homestays if they live with only compatriots, said Ms. Auzins, whose organization represents 227 English and French schools across the country.

"Even when they share an apartment or they live in a dormitory-type setting, if they stay within their own demographic group then it's not the best value for their money because they're not getting that extra practice outside the classroom," Ms. Auzins said. "You've got to live the language – on the bus, in the store, at dinner, everywhere."

Mr. Chu said that international students, like their Canadian counterparts, are looking for dense, cheaper housing that is close to the transit system.

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