U of T, OCAD, Ryerson, York collaborate in massive joint research project on affordable housing
It takes University of Toronto student Syed Imam about an hour and a half on public transit to get to the university’s downtown Toronto campus from his home in Mississauga.
That’s almost three hours of daily commuting, five days a week, for Imam, who studies civil engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.
“I'm spending a little over $250 a month on commuting. If there was something reasonably close to campus, I would definitely choose to stay there,” says Imam, who spends almost 12 hours a day downtown to “optimize commuting times.”
Imam’s commuting woes aren’t unique – they’re a symptom of a larger issue facing post-secondary students in the Greater Toronto Area: the lack of affordable housing.
Recognizing the urgency of the issue, the presidents of Toronto’s four universities – the University of Toronto, OCAD, York and Ryerson – are teaming up for a new initiative called StudentDwellTO, bringing together almost 100 faculty and students to take an in-depth look at student housing in the GTA.
“It’s yet another example of how the impact of our collective efforts can be far greater than the sum of individual contributions,” says Shauna Brail. An associate professor, teaching stream, Brail is U of T's presidential adviser on urban engagement and director of the urban studies program in the Faculty of Arts & Science.
This follows a previous collaboration among the four presidents – a massive survey of student travel behaviour called StudentMoveTO. That survey uncovered an unsettling narrative – students said a lack of housing affordability led to longer daily commute times, lower levels of campus engagement and, in some cases, hidden homelessness.
Considering the number of post-secondary students in the GTA – more than 180,000 spread across seven campuses – these findings are a big deal, says Brail, who will be U of T’s representative for StudentDwellTO’s steering committee.
University of Toronto president Meric Gertler agrees, emphasizing the importance of a rich co-curricular life for undergraduate and graduate students.
“We want our students to be able to take full advantage of all the opportunities offered by a U of T education,” the president says. “The university experience extends far beyond the classrooms, laboratories and lecture halls. By providing the research needed to develop innovative policy on student housing, this project has the potential to help students participate more fully in university life and make the cost of attending university more affordable.”
The new project will look at affordability from a multidisciplinary perspective. Researchers in architecture, education, engineering, psychology and geography will collaborate with GTA community partners.
“The opportunities for knowledge exchange are pretty incredible,” says Kearon Roy Taylor, a graduate student at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and one U of T’s two student leads on the project.
Mauricio Quiros-Pacheco is one of the faculty leads of StudentDwellTO (photo by Romi Levine)
Results of the 18-month initiative, which will include a heavy research component, and data collection from a wide-scale survey and focus groups, will be made public. The subject matter will also be incorporated into courses, which will look at case studies from around the world on how to make housing more affordable.
The collaborative nature of StudentDwellTO across a variety of disciplines will encourage creative thinking, says Mauricio Quiros-Pacheco, an assistant professor, teaching stream, at the Daniels Faculty and one of the project’s academic leads. And because there’s no particular outcome expected, the teams will be able to experiment with a variety of ideas.
“We can be a bit more daring, going deeper into studies, trying to understand the potential of the city and the four institutions to address the crisis,” he says.
Marcelo Vieta, an assistant professor at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, is looking forward to applying this kind of out-of-the-box thinking to StudentDwellTO research.
“With me, it's around how to live differently and how to live better. How do we address some of the social ills we face by influencing policy and practices?”
StudentDwellTO has the potential to positively influence the affordable housing landscape in Toronto, but in order to do so, it’s crucial that students play a central role in both their input and research contributions, says Brail.
“Our students are leading-edge thinkers who bring \insight and intelligence to bear on this work,” she says. “As rising researchers, their understanding of the conditions, challenges and possibilities and their ability to shape the outcomes – potentially for future generations of students – is exciting.”