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Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Desperate calls by schools to urge local homeowners to rent out their rooms; students paying $650 a month to live three-to-a room in college towns boasting monthly rents upward of $2,000; a viral TikTok video purports to show an international student living under a bridge in Scarborough, Ont.

Housing is a complicated issue. It will take co-ordination, cash, and time to fix. But in the short term, there is at least one glaringly obvious – if surely controversial – way to help ease the challenge of finding affordable rental accommodation: We need to stop issuing so many international student visas.

Of course, this is not going to solve the housing problem in and of itself. But anybody who thinks that our desire to bring in as many fruitful international students as possible isn’t contributing to the housing crunch hasn’t looked at the figures lately.

Canada was home to more than 800,000 international students as of the end of last year. That number, which began growing under the Conservatives, has continued to increase at an extraordinary pace since the Liberals took office; it has roughly doubled since 2015.

International students, who actually dwarf the population of temporary foreign workers at the moment, comprise about 17 percent of university enrolment in this country. Further, the majority of those students are opting for schools where housing is exceptionally expensive and difficult to find – namely, in big cities in Ontario and British Columbia.

Why this is happening is fairly obvious. Firstly, the federal government is trying to use study as a method of attracting top international talent. Between 2010 and 2016, 47 per cent of international students who graduated from a Canadian postsecondary institution stayed in Canada.

Secondly, international students are cash cows. Tuition fees for domestic students are regulated by provincial governments. Not so for their international counterparts, which makes bringing in foreign learners incredibly lucrative for perpetually cash-strapped schools and universities. (The real growth is increasingly not just from universities, but also from private colleges.)

And these visas don’t come with anything else – that is, the schools don’t need to provide housing for the students they bring in. Student housing is annoying and expensive and a pain to manage, and most schools know that, which is why they are not particularly keen to do it. That’s why Canada’s stock of purpose-built student housing lags dramatically behind our counterparts in the United States and Europe.

This isn’t an isolated problem, either. These kids need to live somewhere, and their desperation ripples through the broader housing market, driving up demand for affordable rentals and even single-family housing.

I spoke recently with Mike Moffatt at the Richard Ivey School of Business, and he provided me with some research on the subject – including links to his own recently published report offering advice to governments on how to address the housing crisis.

Ontario alone needs to build 1.5 million housing units by 2031 to keep up with expected growth led by immigration and, yes, by international students. (The province is behind on its commitment to do so.)

And while there will be no quick fix, no silver bullet – at least one answer is painfully obvious, no?

Granting an ever-growing number of student visas to people we know will struggle to find housing is unethical at best and fraudulent at worst.

We need to dramatically cut the number of student visas, especially for private colleges, some of which are offering a quality of education that is less than desirable. We then need to tie student visas to housing availability – that is, a university shouldn’t be allowed to take on more international students than it can house in that community, for the duration of that person’s time studying in Canada. And we need to ensure schools don’t respond to this edict by pushing out less profitable domestic students, which only displaces the problem from one class of student to another.

That means we need to incentivize building more affordable rental housing. There will be a role for federal and provincial governments in this effort, perhaps in co-ordination with the private sector, to address this critical need as quickly as possible.

But I don’t see any way to address this problem unless we temporarily curtail the number of international students. The federal government needs to become far more restrictive about that particular avenue for immigration, and quickly.

If that edict seems extreme, I would remind everybody that reducing international student visas to a more manageable baseline would actually be among the easier levers to pull to relieve pressure in our housing market. Everything else from here on in is going to get much more difficult.

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