Raising a young family while pursuing a graduate degree isn’t easy. Doing it in a new country far from home – and in a city with sky-high housing prices – is even more complicated.
For Yasmin Aboelzahab, a mother of two and master of health sciences candidate at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, the challenges have been alleviated by living in U of T’s Student Family Housing, which provides attainable downtown accommodation for U of T students and their families.
She, her husband and their two children live in one of the roughly 700 apartments at U of T’s high-rise student family housing at 30 and 35 Charles Street West. Tenants are full-time U of T students who are living with a spouse or common-law partner, or who have custody of one or two children.
“Living here is very convenient, mainly because of the location,” says Aboelzahab, who is originally from Egypt and is in the Translational Research Program in the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology.
“It’s downtown, so it’s walking distance from all the places you want to go: grocery stores, the pediatrician, the TTC and the university.”
Aboelzahab and her family originally moved into their Charles Street West unit when her husband was doing his PhD at U of T. At the time, her daughter was only one year old. Now aged seven, her daughter attends a school in the neighbourhood while Aboelzahab’s three-year-old son goes to the daycare centre located in the building, which offers priority to student families who are residents.
They are also regulars at the building’s free drop-in centre, which organizes programs and services aimed at helping students and their children socialize.
Aboelzahab says easy access to such amenities has been a huge help, but the biggest advantage of family housing is living among a supportive and diverse community.
“I’ve had the chance to meet people from a wide range of cultures. It’s a mirror image of what Canadian society looks like,” she says. “This is really helpful when this is your first contact when you’re in Canada and moving from another country to Canada, and [people] should take the benefits of living in such a community.
“It’s a wonderful community for me.”
Unsurprisingly in a city as expensive as Toronto, the demand for accommodation for students and their families is high. As of late 2021, the wait list for family housing at U of T’s Charles Street West apartments and smaller units in the Huron-Sussex neighbourhood stood at 995 – a figure that would likely be higher if not for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on travel.
As demand continues to grow, U of T has been exploring ways to build more family housing units through projects such as laneway infill housing. Two laneway homes and a single-family dwelling on Huron Street were recently constructed as part of a pilot project in Huron-Sussex, where U of T plans to build more low-rise infill housing for university families.
Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice-president, operations and real estate partnerships, said that housing is among the most important factors for students and faculty who are considering bringing their talents to U of T, particularly if they're coming from abroad – but it's also one of the most difficult things to arrange.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of attainable and conveniently located accommodations for student families and faculty coming to the University of Toronto,” Mabury said. “That’s why we’ve made housing one of the pillars of our Four Corners Strategy, which aims to provide the spaces the university needs to advance its mission.
“We quite simply have to deliver more housing options and we are absolutely committed to leveraging our significant real estate assets and building partnerships to do so.”
Like Aboelzahab, Sujata Mishra, a PhD student at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health who also lives at Charles Street West, also sees community as one of the biggest advantages of U of T’s student family housing.
“These buildings mostly house international students who don’t have social capital – they don’t have parents, they don’t have families and they just recently moved,” says Mishra, who is originally from India. “So it allows us to make friends with people from different cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities. It gives you a sense of belonging in that everybody’s in a similar boat.
“Everybody’s trying to finish up their studies, and they have families. The problems and the struggles are fairly similar, so you can build a support system around that.”
Mishra notes that residence management takes a proactive role in developing programming to forge a sense of community among residents, even if it has been temporarily curtailed by the pandemic. “You can develop a sense of community, friendships and talk to each other. So there is this social interaction that happens, which is great.”
She says the extent and importance of her social interactions increased “many-fold” after she gave birth to her daughter, who is now three.
“This was my first child, and I’m away from home,” Mishra says. “So, I was constantly needing support to understand how the daycare system in Toronto works, how the subsidy system works, where do I send her to school, how does the schooling work – because of all these things are quite different than where we come from.
“It really helped me build community and have friends with whom I could talk, discuss and get information.”
U of T is also looking to grow its stock of faculty housing, which offers a limited number of unfurnished rental units to newly and recently appointed faculty. At present, new faculty can expect to wait a year or more before they can be offered an apartment.
Yun (William) Yu, an assistant professor in the department of mathematics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, says the opportunity to live in faculty housing on campus helped ease his transition to U of T in 2019 after completing his post-doctoral work at Harvard University.
“The faculty housing accommodation was incredibly helpful in making the logistics of moving to Canada so much easier,” says Yu, who lives in a rowhouse unit in Huron-Sussex. “The Toronto rental market is quite difficult, and not having to think about that meant one less item that I had to check off.”
Yu says housing is a “reasonably large bonus” for faculty who are offered positions at U of T.
“Just the convenience of not having to think about logistics while moving – and it is in a brilliant location,” says Yu, who notes that the Bahen Centre, where he does his graduate teaching, is only a 10 to 15-minute walk from his home.
“Living on campus did make me feel more welcome. It really allows me to feel like a part of the university.”
As for Aboelzahab, she is actively taking steps to ensure others enjoy the same sense of community that has embraced her family. Since September 2020, she has been serving as a residence adviser and is responsible for orienting new residents, educating community members on policies and running programming.
“I was so impressed by the resources and services provided to me and my family,” she says. “I thought it’s time to give back and take an active organizational role in the community.”