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Adventures in Real Estate: “I see now why landlords target international students—it’s easier to take advantage of us”

“One day, I noticed a camera aimed at my bedroom and the bathroom. The landlord said it was for our safety”

By Vansh Thukral, as told to Andrea Yu| Photography by Patrick Marcoux
Adventures in Real Estate: "I see now why landlords target international students—it's easier to take advantage of us"
Toronto Life, Vansh Thukral, 2023, Patrick Marcoux

Recent studies out of York University suggest that international students in Toronto—particularly those from India—are being targeted by predatory landlords. On top of paying astronomical rent, these students routinely fall victim to sexual harassment, discrimination and slum-like living quarters. Vansh Thukral, 21, understands these abuses too well. Since emigrating from Delhi in 2019 for a degree in commerce and refugee studies at York, he’s learned some harsh lessons about Toronto’s real estate market. Here’s his story, in his own words.


I always knew I’d do my undergrad in Canada. After being brought up in a conservative environment like Delhi, my goal was to move somewhere I’d feel comfortable expressing myself. So, after applying to several schools in Ontario, I decided that York was the best option for me because it had a strong commerce program. My intention was to graduate, get my permanent residency and stay in Toronto.

My parents would support me through my first year, but only with a budget of $1,500 a month for both housing and food. Already, they were spending $35,000 for two semesters of tuitionfar more than the $10,000 tuition for Canadian students. I couldn’t ask them for more. I needed to find a part-time job as well as an apartment for no more $800 a month. 

In August 2019, just before orientation, I landed in Toronto. My parents came too, to help me get settled. We stayed at a hotel downtown while I researched apartments on Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji. There weren’t many options. Housing around York was limited. Most of the places available were family homes that had been converted into rental units. And I only had 14 days to find a place to live.

The first unit I visited was in York University Village, a five-minute walk from campus. It was a furnished basement with four bedrooms, each rented out separately. It was $600, utilities included. The room was nice and big, but the landlord had so many rules. For example, we’d have to return home each night by 11 p.m. or risk getting locked out. We also couldn’t have guests past 10 p.m.; if someone did want to stay over, we’d have to pay a $15 fee. This was not the place for me.

Option two was nearby: another basement divided into four bedrooms and rented separately. At $550 a month including utilities, it seemed like a steal, and I took it. My room had a decently sized window, but one of the other bedrooms had no window at all. (I’ve since learned that renting out that room was illegal.) 

My roommates were all guysfellow international students from South Asia, Africa and Latin America. One week in, I noticed something weird: a camera in the shared living area. It was aimed at the entrances to my bedroom and the bathroom, a corner of the apartment that I would often walk through wearing only a towel. I felt violated, and I confronted our landlord. He said that the camera was there for our own safety, in case of a break-in. I felt powerless to press the issue further.

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Things then went from weird to worse. Our landlord started complaining that we were doing our laundry too much, so we were permitted to use the washer and dryer only on weekends, when electricity was cheaper. One time, my roommate invited some friends over to celebrate his birthday. When I came home from work that night, my landlord was sitting in our common area, fuming. “What’s your friend doing?” he asked. “There are girls in his room. They’re drinking. This is not allowed. You can’t have girls over late at night.” But it wasn’t late—it was 9 p.m. Soon, my landlord and my roommate were in a yelling match, which resulted in the party moving to a student residence. 

My landlord would regularly come into our unit without notice. It was stressful and frustrating. I’d never know when he’d be over to complain about something. He knew we were all international students, so he would threaten to tell the government that we were doing criminal activities and get us deported. I was 18 years old, on my own for the first time, without any support. Looking back at this moment, I can see why our landlord seemed to have targeted international students as tenants: he thought that he could take advantage of us.

By December 2022, I gave him notice that I was planning to move out in the new year. I had signed a “lease” (it was not a legal document, just a contract he found or made up) to stay until the end of the school year, but he didn’t have any issue with me leaving early. I’m not sure why he didn’t give me a hard time about it. Maybe he thought I was too confrontational and was eager to get rid of me.

Many international students, particularly those of Indian descent, are being victimized by abusive landlords

I eventually found a new place in March 2020, right before lockdowns. It was listed on Facebook Marketplace, and I later learned that the landlord had hired a property management company to rent out each room. I liked that my room was huge, almost double the size of my last unit. And I was on the main floor, which meant a lot more sunlight. It was semi-furnished and had an ensuite washroom. The price was good too: $675 including utilities. 

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My room felt like a little studio without a kitchen. Once I left my room, it was another story. The house had a total of 14 people living in itfour in the basement, two on the ground floor, four on the second floor and four on the third floor. The whole house was accessible to everyone, and we all shared one laundry room. There were always people using the machines, and I had to leave my laundry baskets in a line outside the door to wait my turn. When things were broken, we’d text the property management company and receive no reply. Sometimes they’d send a repair person a few days later. Sometimes they’d do nothing at all. My old place had a landlord who was around too much; this place was run by a landlord we would never meet.

The worst part was the kitchen. Before I moved in, it was decided that the four downstairs tenants would share their kitchen. This meant that 10 people shared the ground-floor kitchen. There was no storage space for my food, so I had to buy a $40 plastic rack organizer. There were three fridges that always smelled bad plus a fourth fridge that had stopped working before I moved in. We asked the property managers repeatedly to remove the broken fridge since the kitchen was so cramped, but they never did. So we ended up turning it sideways and using it as a table.

The sink and counters were always filled with dirty dishes. It was impossible to prepare a meal. Sometimes, I was so tired from work or school that I’d give up and get takeout. I knew it wasn’t healthy, and it was hurting my budget, which stressed me out. As an international student, I couldn’t just go back home for a weekend or call my parents to bring me food.

My mental health was declining. I was anxious and overwhelmed. I felt pressure to do well in school but also to keep up my hours at work. 

With my parents’ support plus the earnings from my part-time job, I decided to move into the Quad, a student residence at York, in September 2021. I found a two-bedroom unit, which I shared with a friend. My share was $1,400 a month plus utilities. It was expensive but worth it—I felt relief right away. My room had a massive window. Every morning I would wake up feeling fresh. There was a gym on the ground floor that I could go to at any time. I could make food for myself again. There was no drama. I could sit down with my roommate and have a chat or watch a movie.

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After two semesters in the Quad, I moved back into a shared house with friends in June 2022. There are five bedrooms here, and I pay $875, utilities included, for a room on the upper floor. The apartment is run through another property management company, so, again, I’ve never met my landlord. But these managers are much better than the last ones. When we let them know that something is broken, they’ll send a repair person the next day. 

It took me three years to find a good group of people to live with. Most international students come to Canada alone and have to live with strangers. They put up with terrible conditions because they have no other options. To this day, I see listings that are looking only for “Indian girls” or “Gujarati guys,” while some landlords refuse Indians altogether. There’s so much discrimination in the Toronto rental market.

I got my permanent residency this past May. I feel more settled now. I know my rights, and I’m comfortable voicing my renting experience. I’m no longer worried about a landlord threatening to have me kicked out of the country. I’ve been through a lot, and I want more people—both newcomers and those born in Canada—to understand the situation here. 

The city needs to come up with better housing options for international students and shut down the illegal, exploitative rentals we’re too often forced into. I’m thankful that my parents supported me, but not everyone’s parents can afford to. Better financial support, such as access to students loans like OSAP, would also help us stay safe.

I graduated in June 2023 and got a job as a book buyer for York University. I’m proud that I’ve been able to make it in a new country, but it hasn’t been easy.

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As an international student renting in Toronto, Vansh Thukral has faced price gouging, windowless bedrooms and filthy spaces

Have you survived Toronto’s wild rental market? Send your story to realestate@torontolife.com.  

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