Nominations open for Golden Cockroach Awards

If your house has mouldy bathrooms, drafty windows or slanted floors, the AMS wants to hear from you.

Between now and Jan. 20, students can nominate their landlords for the “Golden Cockroach Award,” which will be presented in January to an individual deemed by an AMS panel to be the worst student housing landlord.

The initiative—part of the AMS executive’s election platform from last spring—aims to address what AMS officials have described as a substandard student housing situation off campus.

“A lot of students—especially first-years—don’t realize that there’s actually a surplus of housing out there. You don’t have to fight for a house,” said Naomi Lutes, municipal affairs commissioner. “By illustrating that there is a choice, we can point to bad landlords, we can point to good landlords, and really let students know—especially the first-years who are doing this for the first time—that there is a choice out there, and to make the right important decisions about what house and what landlord they want.”

AMS President Ethan Rabidoux said the initiative is based on a pre-existing Golden Cockroach award system set up by the Parkdale Tenants Association (PTA) in Toronto.

Max Wallace, a member of the PTA, said the award had been very effective.

“We often find that when we nominate a building, the landlord who’s been doing nothing for years suddenly decides to make repairs and sink a lot of money into it,” he said.

Wallace added that, while some landlords have threatened to sue the PTA, no one has because the organization ensures all complaints are valid.

Rabidoux stressed that students should be able to avoid substandard housing off campus.

“The PTA in Toronto has had tremendous success with this, with getting the spots cleaned up, or if they don’t clean them up, at least being able to inform the public, ‘Listen. Avoid this place. Avoid this landlord.’ And that’s what the award is all about,” Rabidoux said.

Rabidoux said he is sure the award will have similar success at Queen's.

The idea for the award was one of the main tenets of the RHM team’s platform during AMS elections last spring.

“For the longest time I knew that student housing was a big issue,” Rabidoux said. "When I was leading up to the election, I thought, if I could think of a policy that would actually go and make some tangible improvements for students in this area … then that has the potential to be one of my crowning achievements as AMS president."

He added that, until now, the AMS’ role regarding student housing has been primarily that of a lobbyist, encouraging the city to take action regarding landlords who violate tenants’ rights. He said the award will present a new, more aggressive approach by going directly to landlords whose properties don’t meet municipal standards.

The AMS’s new Student Property Assessment Team inspectors will verify that student complaints violate property standards.

“The hope is that, if it’s made a big enough deal, no landlord will want to get this,” he said.

Erica Cowan, ArtSci ’06, said she thinks the award is a good idea.

“It would put the Kingston landlords in their place,” she said, adding that when she was in first year, “everything” in her house seemed to break. That included the drainage system, she said, leaving fecal matter in her shower and basement until the landlord came to fix it four days later.

“That was the worst experience of my life,” she said. “I really think there should be a [landlord] blacklist.”

Chris Brens, ArtSci ’08, said he also supports the concept.

“It’s a great idea,” he said. “There’ll be more accountability [by] the landlords.”

Kim Kelley, ComSci ’01 an alumna who was visiting campus, said she thinks the initiative is “amazing.”

“Our landlord was so bad,” she said. “The house was falling apart, it was so dirty … [landlords] just get away with everything.

“There’s this expectation that students are supposed to live in crappy housing.”

Kelley said she wasn’t told of her rights as a tenant when she first rented a Kingston house.

“We didn’t know that we were supposed to get interest back on our deposit,” she said. “We actually ended up having to use Queen’s Legal Aid to get our interest back, which was just outrageous.”

Kelley said she thinks information regarding tenant rights should be presented to students in a simple, easy-to-read format. While she found the Queen’s Apartment and Housing website helpful, it might be more effective if it was accompanied by a rating system, she said.

Last March, the Principal’s Task Force on Community Relations recommended that properties be required to meet certain standards to be eligible for advertisement on the Apartment and Housing online listing service.

David Wright, an Apartment and Housing Services staff member, said these standards haven’t yet been put in place, as information is still being gathered.

“We’re trying to find out from the students what is important to them in terms of standards, and we’re also talking to landlords for the same reason,” he said, adding that the timeline for implementing the standards will depend on what information is provided.

Wright said that while there have been complaints regarding some postings on the website in the past, he thinks students have mostly been satisfied.

“Surveys indicate that it’s a very popular method for students to find accommodation, but not the only one,” he said.

Wright also said that, while resources currently exist for students to learn about property standards and tenants’ rights, ultimately it’s up to the individual student to take advantage of these resources.

“Obviously students are in the driver’s seat,” he said. “They have the power to call the property standards office.”

Cowan said she doesn’t think it’s the AMS’ responsibility to inform students of their tenant rights.

“It’s more the responsibility of the students to figure it out,” she said.

This year, in addition to information on display at the Municipal Affairs Commission office, first-years will receive a housing handbook in their mailboxes in January and have the option to attend annually-held talks about housing issues organized by the Municipal Affairs Commission, Town-Gown relations, Queen’s Apartment and Housing, Queen’s Legal Aid and ResLife. This will be the first year that ResLife representatives will speak at these talks.

“None of these are the perfect solution, and we’re not going to improve all of Kingston’s stock of housing overnight, but we can’t stop trying,” Lutes said. “So we’re going to bring the information to students and hope that we see some change by the end of the year.”

Rabidoux said the award is meant to put the issues in the spotlight.

“The term ‘Golden Cockroach’ sounds a little absurd. It’s meant to get people’s attention onto the subject,” he said. “It’s also to get the attention of the city and the landlords on it, saying, ‘OK, if you’re a bad landlord, you can’t get away with these things anymore.’ If you are a city politician or a city official, [you] realize, ‘Oh, this is actually a problem, this is actually a priority.’”

Lutes said the award will be presented Jan. 28, to coincide with the time when many students, especially first-years, are house-hunting and signing leases.

Joan Jones, co-ordinator of Town-Gown relations, said she is optimistic about the award.

“It’s an educational tool to empower students,” she said. “I think anything that encourages students to get property standards [inspectors] to get in there is great.”

Jones said one student housing problem is that many students are afraid to report problems with their house for fear of eviction. She said she hopes the award will dispel these concerns.

Lutes said she doesn’t believe the award will negatively affect city-student relations.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to crack down on bad landlords,” she said. “As a community, it’s a good thing to be improving our housing, whether that’s for students or whether that’s for permanent residents.”

Lutes said the AMS will be making off-campus student housing standards a priority this year.

“It’s an unfortunate reality that substandard housing is a common link between a lot of Queen’s students,” Lutes said. “Improving off-campus housing is long overdue.”

The initiative is open to all students living in rented housing both in and outside of the Ghetto.

Lutes said students can send their nominations to cockroach@ams.queensu.ca.

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