City takes tough line on house signs

Signs nicknaming houses in the Ghetto are considered graffiti under city by-laws.
Signs nicknaming houses in the Ghetto are considered graffiti under city by-laws.
Photo by Katrina Ludlow and Ian Babbit

By this time next week, 262 Earl St. may no longer be “The Lodge” to passers-by.

Resident Jon Taylor, Sci ’06, received a letter through his landlord early last week from the City of Kingston, informing him that the outdoor sign he and his housemates put up to nickname their house is a violation of property standards bylaws.

According to the letter, it’s a “required action” that the sign be removed by Nov. 1, because it’s considered graffiti by city standards.

The letter says that failure to remove the sign by this date will result in a fine of $100, although residents can appeal to the Property Standards Committee by Nov. 1, for a $75 fee.

Taylor said the sign affixed to the front of the brick house was made with a wood-burning kit at his housemate’s parents’ home, and has never caused a public complaint.

“We haven’t had any problems regarding the sign,” he said. “And we don’t understand why we’re targeted instead of Lee’s Laundry or The Journal [House].”

Taylor said he doesn’t think he should have to take his sign down.

“Absolutely not. Our sign is just a sign of individuality in the Ghetto,” he said. “We sort of had the initial feeling that it is more about the city targeting students and telling them not to do what they want to do—but that’s pretty self-centered, I guess.”

Joan Jones, co-ordinator of Town-Gown relations, said the inspections are a response to student requests to improve conditions in the Ghetto. Over the past year, the issue of property standards has been raised several times at different forums, such as last year’s public meetings by the Principal’s Task Force on Community Relations. In the fall, property standards bylaws were also revised after a process of public consultation.

“While it may feel like [students are] being targeted, the city had a whole program downtown,” Jones said, noting that during the summer, a student was hired to clean up graffiti around the city.

“They’re not targeting students but they’re also using students,” she said. “I just don’t think that argument [that students are being targeted] has a lot of weight.”

AMS Municipal Affairs Commissioner Naomi Lutes agreed.

“I’m looking at the big picture … because I very much want the city to be enforcing interior bylaws, [and] with that comes the exterior,” Lutes said. “And [that’s why] I don’t think students are being targeted.” Steve Murphy, a city property standards officer, said the notice issued to Taylor is not an individual case. The first proactive city-wide inspections began after the bylaws were rewritten in early September.

“[Taylor is] not being centered out,” he said.

Murphy said six other properties have been charged with the violation.

He explained that the sign “The Lodge” is not only graffiti but also a slogan.

“We could charge under two different bylaws but we’re doing it under the property standards bylaw,” he said.

The other bylaw under which the sign could be considered a violation is the sign bylaw, he said.

“You can’t have graffiti or slogans on the walls. If this had just been painted on the wall, you would say it is [graffiti]. If you stick a piece of wood on the wall and paint on that ... it’s the same thing.” Murphy also said the city has been working with Town-Gown and the AMS to improve the property standards in the student area.

“It’s proactive enforcement in the Queen’s area, which people have been pushing for,” he said, adding this aspect of the new system aims to catch violations before complaints are filed. “This will continue on—we’ll have someone go through there regularly.”

Lutes said there will be more of a push to uphold property standard bylaws by the city this year.

“The City of Kingston doesn’t often send inspectors out, it’s often complaint-driven,” she said. “If someone complains, [the city does] a follow up.” However, Lutes said the recent bylaw revisions didn’t create new bylaws against graffiti.

“Kingston property standards bylaws cover things like peeling paint and mould in houses, but also exterior things,” she said. “We support the property standard bylaws and inspections because it improves the housing situation.

Murphy said the University was involved when the property standards bylaw was rewritten this past August.

“They’ve been at the [public] meetings when everyone was getting beat up over the conditions of the properties,” he said.

Jones said the community was invited to talk about new property standards at a meeting last April, but the University wasn’t specifically consulted.

“Graffiti wasn’t one of the ones that [Gord McGuire, former AMS municipal affairs commissioner] and I were concerned with,” she said. “We were more concerned about issues like not having garbage cans on front porches, things that affect the students.

“And [the bylaw is] not just addressing the student area but graffiti all over the city,” she added.

Lutes said the property standards division has been helpful in setting up programs like the new AMS-run Student Property Assessment Team and answering questions about property standards, so she doesn’t think students are being singled out for signage.

“I would be hesitant to think they would be targeting students,” she said.

A resident of a house in the Ghetto, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s had problems with the city regarding his house in the past, has a similar sign affixed to his residence. He said he hadn’t received a letter requesting its removal.

He said he feels there is no reason to enforce the taking down of signs.

“[The city is] suddenly enforcing things and targeting the Ghetto [by saying,] ‘Take down your sign,’ [issuing] jay-walking tickets, [and telling us,] ‘Your grass is over eight inches.’ It’s ridiculous.”

He said he doesn’t understand why this initiative is necessary, adding that he feels there are bigger issues to deal with.

“If they want to [improve housing], take a look at our leaking roof,” he said.

Murphy said people charged with the violation can appeal or apply for a voluntary compliance form for more time to fulfill the requirements. If they take the latter action, they will forfeit their right to appeal, he said.

Taylor said he and his housemates plan on appealing.

“Our case is that [our sign] is clearly not graffiti,” he said. “There are other signs in the neighbourhood that show what a sign can’t be. So right now, the differing opinion [in the house] is whether or not we want to pay $75 to [see if we have to] pay $100.

“I just think there’s a homogenization of houses and that the city council doesn’t want the bohemian attitude that exists in the Ghetto,” he said.

“They want what exists in West Kingston: a more mundane suburb-type area instead of the vibrant student village.”

Jones said this campaign is about community standards and is aimed at improving the quality of student housing.

“That is what is being expected of everybody,” she said. “It’s just the way the bylaws are laid out. I think students need to be careful what they wish for. If they want the city to be vigilant about property standards ... then don’t complain. You have to be willing to accept that graffiti is part of the exterior property standards bylaw.” The anonymous student said that if his house is issued with a letter, he won’t take his sign down.

“If [the sign is] offensive to someone, I’ll take it down,” he said. “[If not, then] we’ll probably put up a bigger one in the window.”

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