Moving out of the “monster house”

New housing options change the nature of student dwellings in Kingston

Attempts to create more density in converted family homes led to quickly-built additions and more “monster houses” in Kingston.
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Mould, flooding, poor insulation and inadequate locks were the norm for student housing in 2010 — often in converted “monster houses”.

But for the first time in years, living in the den of a converted family home may not be a part of the typical Queen’s experience.

After decades of converting 100-year-old family homes for student renters, housing projects in Kingston are being built with students in mind. Property development corporations, such as Varsity Housing, are gradually replacing landlords, providing poorly maintained properties and limited tenant support.

Many of the newest developments come with maintenance and cleaning services — a service that few traditional landlords provide.

According to Matt Kussin, AMS municipal affairs commissioner, students are responding positively to the change.

“We are seeing the construction of a lot of new units … these are high quality units with more amenities,” he said.

On the surface, little seems to have changed. Students today contend with the same high rent prices and subpar housing conditions. But Kussin says long-term changes may be afoot.

Construction of new apartments and houses in 2015 put the total housing starts at above 2014 levels. At the same time, the number of single detached homes this year is lower than the average for the past 10 years.

According to a report released by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), demand is shifting towards higher density housing, and it’s a trend that’s only predicted to increase.

Vacancy rates — the percentage of housing not filled by tenants — is lowest among new buildings, and according to the CMHC report, this is expected to continue.

With more housing options available, there will be less pressure on students to sign the first lease that becomes available to them, Kussin said. He added that new options will shift the renters towards higher quality homes.

“[When] we see a lot of good development … outpacing enrolment, they will drive out ones that aren’t paying enough attention to tenants.”

Housing in crisis

Even as new developments emerge across student housing areas, renters continue to be affected by a housing crisis in Kingston that peaked in 2010.

The lingering effects of the crisis have led to limited housing options at inflated prices.

For three years straight, Kingston had the lowest vacancy rates amongst similar municipalities. Vacancies in the downtown plummeted to a record low of 0.7 per cent.

With almost every home in the city rented, students had no choice but to accept the options available to them.

At the same time, the supply of housing didn’t grow. Data released by the CMHC reveals that between Oct. 2010 and Oct. 2011, no new rental apartment units were built in the city.

Rental prices, meanwhile, grew 15.8 per cent in four years. By 2012, the CMHC reported that the average rent for an apartment in downtown Kingston with three or more bedrooms was $1,426. On average, students were paying more for an apartment in a mid-sized university town than the $1,413 they would be paying in metropolitan Toronto.

Growing costs outstripped growth in minimum wage and income, and housing became unaffordable, according to a report by the CMHC.

The University District, located in the heart of downtown Kingston, was at the centre of the mounting pressure. According to Kussin, local landlords adopted techniques to emphasize the lack of options.

Double booked showings and tight timelines for decision-making were common, he said, and the underlying message was clear: sign a lease today or risk being trapped somewhere worse.

“Knowing your rights as a tenant [is important for students] … and it can be hard to find out those rights,” he said.

All those factors together created an ideal climate for absentee landlords to thrive, according to Kussin.

In an effort to increase the density of converted 100-year old family homes, Kussin says hastily constructed additions and room conversions fuelled the supply of “monster houses”.

“[There were] not enough good landlords and companies to drive out ones that aren’t paying enough attention to tenants,” Kussin said. “Students accepted what was available.”

 

Kingston suffered a housing crisis in 2010, with the vacancy rate — the percentage of housing not filled by tenants — reaching a record low of 0.7 per cent. (Journal File Photo) 

The role of the University

Today, Queen’s has almost no formal involvement with Kingston housing. But this hasn’t always been the case.

As reported by The Journal in 2012, the University was once the central provider of student housing. The first on-campus women’s residence, Ban Righ Hall, was built in 1925. Following this, permanent men’s residences were introduced in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, the student population increased by more than 10,000 people. To accommodate the influx, the University attempted to construct residences as quickly as possible.

When this failed, Queen’s — alongside other Ontario campuses — became a site of student housing protests. In the years that followed, university housing options continued to fall short.

Over the course of the next few decades, off-campus student housing gained popularity. Since then, the University has quietly retreated into the background of the Kingston housing equation. The only role it retains is oversight of the residence experience. 

Queen’s Historian Duncan McDowall told The Journal in 2012 that “off-campus student housing [had] gained popularity by the ’80s” when a “surge of expansion” occurred in the University District rather than on campus.

But the climate may be changing. At Queen’s, the administration is making tentative strides towards increasing its involvement with upper-year student housing.

With the new residences opening in the fall of 2015, an upper-year residence program will be offered for the first time.

The Senate Residence Committee is also reexamining graduate student housing. Spaces reserved for graduate students are being removed from the residence system with the expectation that Community Housing and privately developed properties will fill the void.

Bruce Griffiths, director of housing and ancillary services, says graduate students retain a voice in the future of community housing. At present, graduate students have a voice on the board governing the University’s Community Housing system.

That said, Griffiths also recognizes this impact of new housing developments on the Kingston rental market. According to Griffiths, competition in the University District provides more options for students.

“Competition drives conditions [in the long term] and, in the short term, pricing,” he said, adding that the trend is “great for students.”

HOUSING ACROSS ONTARIO

Across the province, universities have put their foot into the student rental arena once again. Today, the Ontario government is urging universities to play an increasing role in housing in their municipal region. 

Ontario’s new Differentiation Policy Framework, a guiding document recently released by the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities, states that “institutions’ collaborative work with … regions” and the creation of “innovative partnerships and programs that serve [their] distinct Ontario communities” should be part of the future of post-secondary education. 

Rental housing also offers a promising new source of revenue for universities, according to the document. As a result, many post-secondary institutions have become more active in conversations about urban development. In some cities, such as Waterloo, they’ve become key agents for change.  

Funded by a Smarter Cities Challenge Grant, the City of Waterloo worked with Waterloo University and Wilfrid Laurier University to create a housing plan. 

The group’s published findings show that increased enrolment resulted in the conversion of single-family homes into units with up to seven or eight student tenants. They found that student housing options offered were limited in their “variety, agility, coordination, or collaboration”. In other words, universities and the City were working without knowledge of what the other was doing.

The universities, including the University of Waterloo, are now building new units for students.

— Allison Williams

 

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