Low vacancy hurts students

Students cite mould, asbestos, faulty heating systems and landlord band-aid solutions as their chief housing concerns.
Students cite mould, asbestos, faulty heating systems and landlord band-aid solutions as their chief housing concerns.

“Basically, the theme has been half-assed jobs all around.”

Adam Caplan, ArtSci ’01, like a number of students who live in what is still referred to by many as the ghetto, is disappointed with his landlord’s efforts at providing and maintaining a clean and safe living environment.

“The house is more or less falling apart because the landlord won’t take care of it. The repairs have all been half-assed, holes in the walls, bad plaster jobs... They installed a bathroom fan but it doesn’t work properly, so the ceiling and walls are covered in mould. We asked him to get rid of it. Instead of cleaning it up and fixing the fan, he just painted over it. Predictably, the mould came back,” he explained.

The mould is but one issue in a long list of grievances that Caplan and his roommates have raised with their landlord, Perry Vivian.

“It seems to be that he isn’t treating his house like an investment. For example, we had a problem with the bathroom floor. The plumbing wasn’t done right so the floor was rotting away. The girls downstairs would have bits of plaster and stuff falling on them every time we walked into the bathroom.”

After repeated attempts to spur his landlord into action regarding these and other problems, Caplan and his roommates decided to seek recourse through formal authorities.

“We’ve spoken with the Ontario Housing Tribunal and Bylaw Enforcement. Bylaw Enforcement has had meetings with [our landlord]. There was an overgrown tree in our backyard that was blocking our fire escape and pressing on the power lines... His solution was to cut the whole thing down because it’s too much effort to maintain it. The branches are still in the backyard.”

Despite the strained relationship between the tenants and the landlord, Caplan and most of his roommates decided to stay on in the house they were renting. He explained that they were reluctant to move because a prime location, cheap rent and having friends nearby outweighed the often tedious and time-consuming process of finding and moving into a new place of residence.

David Wright, director of Queen’s Apartment and Housing Service, noted that a steady increase in demand for housing in the ghetto has put landlords in a much stronger position than in the past.

“Up until this year there was a significant vacancy rate in the student area. In the past, landlords were trying hard to attract students by renovating properties... This year, the market really tightened up. Landlords may be in a stronger position now,” he said.

One of Wright’s goals, in association with numerous campus services, is to educate students living off-campus about their rights as tenants and about the services available to them should they encounter difficulties.

“Our program is focused on students having the proper tools and then they find out that there are property standards from the Health Department, and about Queen’s Legal Aid, and a variety of mechanisms such as the Town Gown office that can assist them if they have problems,” he explained.

The program consists of a series of talks given at numerous campus residences just before the housing rush in early January. The talks are designed to equip future tenants with the proper tools, such as knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as well as information on pertinent aspects of the building code. Students are also informed of the various services directed toward ensuring that students know their rights as tenants, such as the Municipal Affairs Commission, the Office of the Town Gown, and Queen’s Legal Aid. The talks are followed shortly by an open housing fair, which emphasizes many of the same issues.

Regarding the more pressing issue of housing safety, Wright was confident that the majority of houses in the ghetto were sound.

“I think most of them are safe, the trouble is not all of them are, and that’s the worry, that there are properties out there where the quality and safety features aren’t what we would desire. It’s a small percentage but there’s still cause for concern.”

Dave Gallo, ArtSci ’01, who has yet to meet or even learn his landlord’s name, also expressed concern regarding the state of his house, as well as the performance of his landlord in keeping up with repairs.

“I haven’t ever seen my landlord. He just picks up the cheques and runs. Repairs to the kitchen and bathroom should have been done before we moved in. It was promised to be done but we haven’t seen anything.”

Gallo also mentioned his father’s reaction to the state of the premises.

“My dad works in property management and when he saw the place he said that it should be condemned,” he said, laughing.

Steve Murphy, head of Building Code Enforcement for City Hall disagreed with the view that houses in the Queen’s student “ghetto” are below property standards.

“As far as structural quality, the area is definitely better than at least one of our other areas. It’s mainly an aesthetic problem. Most of our calls are related to cleanliness infractions rather than structural problems. As a whole, we are pretty happy with that area, building wise. The area has a bad reputation unfortunately, but more for litter than anything else,” he said.

When asked about his view on uncooperative landlords, Murphy stated that he had experienced few difficulties in that respect.

“The landlords in the area are responsive to our warnings. They generally fix problems when we ask them to, though some of them are repeat offenders.”

Murphy was concerned, however, that problems may exist in the area that go unreported due to the simple fact that many students are unaware of their rights as tenants.

“I didn’t know about my rights when I was a student and I assume that problem still exists. For example, if tenants have a small problem, such as an electrical concern, they might think it is unimportant or they may be unaware of the threats. If a student is concerned about their house, they should still notify us,” he said.

For Municipal Affairs Commissioner Emma Jackson, educating students about their rights as tenants is a top priority.

“This has been a big problem that we’re trying to solve. There’s a lot of different information out there but it’s not all in one spot and there are a lot of different offices that deal work with these types of issues.”

In an effort to resolve this problem, the Municipal Affairs Commission is working to create an easily accessible tenant’s reference for students, which should be available later this year.

“We’re putting together a student housing handbook, which is in the works right now. It should be out by December but we definitely need to have it out by January when the big housing rush comes around. It will outline all your basic rights as a tenant, answers to frequently asked questions, and resources for where to go beyond those basics, so you can have it all in one easily accessible manual,” explained Jackson.

Andrew Alkenbrack, ArtSci ’01, who discovered asbestos in his basement in second year, approved of Municipal Affairs’ decision to produce the guide.

“I wish there had been something like that when I started looking for apartments,” he said.

Part two of the Off-Campus Housing Series will appear on Tuesday. Anyone with off-campus housing issues, is encouraged to contact the news team at 533-2800.

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