Housing horrors

What your landlord didn’t tell you

Most students living in Leonard Hall during its renovations last year thought it would be the worst housing of their lives. Ghetto houses, however, often aren’t much better.
Most students living in Leonard Hall during its renovations last year thought it would be the worst housing of their lives. Ghetto houses, however, often aren’t much better.
Journal File Photo
Not all Ghetto houses look this bad on the outside—but sooner or later, you’ll probably experience your own troubles.
Not all Ghetto houses look this bad on the outside—but sooner or later, you’ll probably experience your own troubles.
Journal File Photo

Sometime around July 25 last summer, I started wishing I’d paid more attention to the housing information plastered all over residence in first year.

I’d come to Kingston for a Journal production weekend expecting to knock back a few pints by night and churn out a few pages of layout by day, with enough time in between for some quality sleep. I didn’t plan to get out of the sleeping bag I’d laid out in my housemate’s room—mine was still under renovation—until at least 9:30 a.m. on Saturday.

You can imagine how pleased I was when the contractor walked through the front door at 7:30 a.m., and even more thrilled when he proceeded, not knowing I was there, to install drywall in the room below me. By 8 a.m., I decided the hammering six inches below my ear was too much and forced myself into the kitchen for some badly-needed breakfast.

Joan Jones, co-ordinator of Town-Gown relations, the student-community liaison office that distributes much of the housing information available on campus, said most scenarios like these are avoidable. Students aren’t always as well-informed about housing issues as they should be, she said.

Town-Gown’s mandate is to try to fill this information gap and help students with housing-related problems, usually through information dissemination, Jones said. The office does, however, play other roles as well.

“We do mediation and advocacy for students in the community,” Jones said. “We can help them communicate if they don’t feel they’re being heard because they’re students.”

It occurred to me later, after digesting some of the information available, that I’d brought my housing inconveniences upon myself.

My first cardinal summer housing sin was not making sure my lease’s clauses were clear.

My housemates and I thought we’d taken care of this one by getting one of our mothers, a real estate agent, to look over our lease. Unfortunately, this was before the clauses concerning renovations had been formally written in.

My landlords are wonderful people interested in making sure the house is top-notch. They agreed to turn a breakfast nook into another bedroom, replace the furnace and renovate two basement rooms before we moved in the next fall. They added lease clauses to that effect before we signed.

I honestly believe they thought the work would be done quickly, and I know the extra tasks they added to the list as the summer progressed—replacing a toilet, reworking the heating ducts, replacing all the carpets and drywall in the basement—were long-term investments they undertook with both us and future tenants in mind.

It’s just too bad we never agreed, in writing, on the date the work was to be completed. If we had, we would have had more negotiating leverage with our landlords, they in turn would have had more pull with the contractor and their over-the-phone assurances that, yes, the work would all be done before May 7, would have been true.

Jones agreed that a formal commitment is best, saying if landlords promise renovations or repairs over the summer, tenants should monitor them on an ongoing basis.

“Put everything in writing,” she said, adding that even sending a polite letter to your landlord as a follow-up to a phone call, outlining everything agreed to in the call, could turn out to be a valuable record later.

“It’s establishing patterns, and if your pattern is more consistent, if there’s a dispute, you might come out on top,” she said.

I never had a dispute with my landlords, although my second mistake was not properly communicating with them.

I was going to be in town three weekends during the summer and I figured, since I was paying rent on the house, I could come and go as I pleased.

In principle, that was true, since I wouldn’t be doing anything in the house but sleeping and showering. The fact that the landlords and the contractor were often in and out of the house on the weekends I was there didn’t bother me, but I think they were frustrated by not knowing how much privacy I wanted or whether it was okay to turn off the water.

In hindsight, since my landlords were trying frantically to schedule days when they and the contractor could both come in to work on the house, I should have confirmed my visiting weekends in advance.

My third error was not properly communicating with my housemates about the situation.

Long story short, our discussion about whether or not to pester our landlords turned into a full-blown argument in less than five minutes. One housemate said he didn’t want to look like we were taking advantage of their generous improvements to the house, while I wanted the house to be as liveable as possible during the summer, since I was paying rent on it. The other two took sides, and you can imagine how productive the discussion was.

I did wind up calling the landlords to explain the situation. I arrived in Kingston at the end of July in time to have two apologetic landlords and one harried contractor show me my almost-finished bedroom—except, of course, for the ceiling drywall.

I have also learned that just being good friends with your housemates won’t guarantee that living together will go smoothly. When people who’ve been there advise you to have formal meetings with your housemates to discuss every conceivable aspect of living together, they mean it. My housemates and I get along pretty well now, and ground rules are a major reason why.

Although it may not appear to fall under Town-Gown’s portfolio, Jones said she deals with a number of housemate disputes each year. Most of these don’t occur at the start of a lease or the start of the year, but bubble over at other crisis times for students, she said.

“There’s lots of money stuff and lots of misunderstandings about how much is expected,” she said.

Jones said she aims to ensure students solve their problems while sticking to their financial and legal responsibilities when she mediates these disputes.

“Really what we’re making sure is that ... they understand their obligations to the bigger picture,” she said.

For me, things have worked out well. I get along with my housemates, landlords and lease terms, and will keep the same living arrangements next year.

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