Through the sweltering days of summer and frigid winds of winter, Nathalie Alaves visits rental units all over London, Ont. She has learned dozens of new bus routes as she treks across the city. She has taken photos, videos and asked hundreds of questions.
The third-year international relations student at Western hasn’t been looking for a place to live. She has been working for a Western initiative believed to be the first of its kind at any Canadian educational institution.
When Alaves walks through the door of a rental unit, she’s verifying a potential home on behalf of international and out-of-province students coming to Western. The program, run out of Western’s off-campus housing services office, helps those students with the legwork and paperwork required to find a suitable place to live. They act as eyes on the ground, viewing homes the students are considering, and even mapping out how to get there on public transportation.
“Students have been reaching out saying how thankful they are that we offer this service. They’re also very excited it is free,” Alaves said. “I’ve received some very nice emails.”
Finding a home takes work, and for students who are trying to plan their university journey from thousands of kilometres away – while also preparing to move across the country or even across the globe – the process is a bit trickier.
Oftentimes students will have Alaves or another off-campus housing assistant screen multiple properties on their shortlist. The initiative helped 220 students last year.
“Sometimes students will say ‘Thank you so much, I will not be moving forward with this property, and I would have, had you not visited the property.’”
“Often students apologize for having asked us to go and then not moving forward with the property, and I tell them, that’s just as important as deciding to rent.” – Nathalie Alaves, off-campus housing assistant
“We’re not recommending anything. We’re just trying to provide international or out-of-province students with as much information as possible. We are unable to make any guarantees – the information we collect is based on what the landlord indicates – but with a photo taken by us, or a video, we’re able to show students what is in front of us.”
Alaves and other off-campus housing assistants hired to help her ask a series of questions when they visit a property, such as: who controls the temperature? Is the unit covered under Ontario rental laws? What amenities are nearby? Are there smoke alarms?
Last year, the team grew from one to three workers who verify and visit rentals during the summer to boost the program’s reach and expand services to out-of-province students, with Alaves staying on year-round.
It operates out of Western’s off-campus housing services department, which provides information, support and guidance to students who live off campus.
The housing verification program was first started by housing mediation officer Glenn Matthews 12 years ago. He holds a position jointly funded by Western, Fanshawe College and London City Hall.
“A growing number of international students are in need of information and assistance to support their housing search,” Matthews said.
“I did some research to try and find a program like this, somewhere in the world. I couldn’t find anything.”
Factor in an increasingly tight housing market and a low vacancy rate in London, Ont., as in many cities across the province, and options become slimmer than usual. Usually, the staff visit units within 24 or 48 hours of receiving the listing, given the speed with which rentals are leased.
Western’s off-campus housing office offers support services, resources and documents to help all students with house-hunting, like the accommodation comparison chart Alaves takes to properties to help rank them. Matthews and his team recommend against pre-filmed video tours, instead suggesting students request live virtual tours, where a landlord can clearly be seen entering the unit via Facetime or Skype, to ensure an honest portrayal.
For those eligible for the program, including out-of-province and international students, the process usually begins with an email to the off-campus housing office, and a call or a Zoom conversation with Alaves.
Those students are directed to the rental listings posted on the office’s website, but the off-campus housing office will also verify or visit properties advertised on Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji or other popular online platforms.
Students send a listing, or several, for off-campus housing assistants to review and report on.
The verification program is an important lifeline for many.
The off-campus housing office also examines rental agreements – a service that’s available for all Western students – to ensure lease documents are properly constructed and determine if the unit is covered by Ontario rental laws. (For instance, owner-occupied housing where bathrooms or kitchens are shared with the owner or a member of their family is exempt from provincial tenant laws.)
Alaves started the job in the summer of 2021, and said she knew “this job was made for me.”
She recalled the stress of trying to find her own housing during a summer abroad, studying at a language school in Vienna. It made her sympathetic to the task of finding a place to live while studying in another country.
She also remembered welcoming new students to her high school and trying to help with the transition.
“My mom was an English as a second language teacher, so she worked a lot with refugees and immigrants, and I always admired how much she helped newcomers or visiting students. I think that helped me become friends with students who were visiting,” Alaves said.
There are other advantages to scouring the city’s student rentals, too.
“I got to get to know London a lot better spending the summers here and being able to explore the downtown core; seeing it outside that Western bubble,” Alaves said.
She’s preparing now for the next wave of new students looking to find a house – and a home – in the city.
She will snap more photos of more rentals – inside and out – take videos, and pepper landlords or tenants with questions.
Then it’s out the door and off to the bus stop, ready to visit the next apartment.