Hunting for houses

January frenzy causes unnecessary stress, AMS municipal affairs

House-hunting students gather outside a Phil Lam-owned property on William Street. Phil Lam won the AMS’s Golden Cockroach Award two years in a row.
House-hunting students gather outside a Phil Lam-owned property on William Street. Phil Lam won the AMS’s Golden Cockroach Award two years in a row.

On Sunday morning, six second-year students trudged up the steps of a potential house only to be faced with an all-too-familiar disappointment.

With low ceilings, unkempt carpets—which, the landlord eagerly pointed out, will soon be tiled—and a lingering smell of marijuana, the girls couldn’t leave the Brock Street residence quickly enough. Once outside, the frustrated group discussed their impressions.

“That did not meet our expectations at all,” said Jenny Doggart, ArtSci ’10. “This is about the 30th we’ve seen this year.”

Doggart and her future housemates went through a similar search last year. Every January, thousands of first-year students—and some upper-years—venture into the neighbourhood around the University to look for housing. Many students have little house-hunting experience and so the prospect of signing a lease that will represent their most significant expense other than tuition can be daunting.

Doggart said an irresponsible landlord put her back on the housing trail.

“We had some mildew and mold in the bathroom and it took him a couple of months to fix it for us,” she said. “He was never on top of things—we would call him and never be able to get a hold of him.” Doggart said she has been more impressed with some of the landlords she has met this year.

“There have been a lot I’ve really liked so far. They all seem very genuine and they know what they’re talking about and they really care about students for the most part.” Doggart’s future housemate Monica Taylor, ArtSci ’10, said the group was on the verge of signing a lease, but decided to re-think what they were looking for in terms of quality and price.

“We started to reconsider what kind of house we actually deserved. Could we survive in something a little more ‘ghetto’?” The group said they’re looking to pay between $400 to $470 per person, but are having trouble finding a good house for that price.

“They’re completely below our standards. I feel like the prices might have gone up this year,” she said.

Taylor said a year of experience has given her a better idea of what to look for in a house, and that she regretted rushing to sign her lease in first year.

“In first year there wasn’t a lot of information given about where to look for places to live, how to manage your time well, and not to necessarily rush into signing a lease. That was our fault.”

Taylor decided to move out of her current house because of a bat problem. She said having more information about housing searches leads to a more stressful process.

“We’re definitely more informed, but this year it’s become a lot more stressful,” she said. “I never thought there could be tears shed over house-hunting, but it has happened.”

Taylor said in first year she wasn’t aware of the Municipal Affairs Commission (MAC), or any of the sessions on house-hunting that it runs.

“It was mostly just word of mouth, asking people we knew that were older,” she said.

By the end of the day, Taylor and her housemates still hadn’t found a house. First-year commerce student Melanie Gravéline and her housemates were luckier. By Sunday afternoon, they had signed a lease on a seven-person house on Alfred Street. Gravéline said she used the Queen’s website to look for houses.

“There’s definite pressure to look early, especially because there aren’t as many houses for seven people,” she said. “We got really lucky that we found the house.

“I’m surprised at how well it went for us.”

Kaitlyn Young, AMS municipal affairs commissioner, said first-year students face unnecessary stresses when looking for housing.

“The biggest pressure is the belief that there is a shortage of good quality housing close to campus. … It really is entirely false,” she said. “Over the last five years there has been a housing surplus in the area around Queen’s.”

Young said landlords use this misconception to take advantage of uninformed students.

“I think it’s assumed that the first week in January, you start looking at houses,” she said, adding that landlords fuel this common assumption. “We’ve had circumstances where a landlord will stand outside a cafeteria and tell people to look at their houses.”

The MAC has numerous initiatives in place, such as housing talks, a property assessment team and a website (, designed to equip house-hunters with necessary knowledge.

“I think we’re covering pretty well but I’m sure there’s more we can be doing,” she said.

Kristine Tomlinson, Sci ’11, said she’s not sure yet about the specifics of house-hunting, but that she and her housemates want to get it over with before work piles up.

“I’m just going on gut. I feel good with the gut right now,” she said. “We don’t want this in the back of our minds haunting us the whole year so we just want to get it done with and have a house.”

Tomlinson added that she hadn’t heard of the various initiatives the MAC offers, and that they could be better-advertised.

“I’m kind of a little lost out here and I don’t really know what I’m doing,” she said. “It’s good getting out there and doing things on your own, but it would be good to have more information about it.”

Tomlinson and two of her housemates looked at two houses on Frontenac and William Streets owned by Phil Lam, two-time winner of the Golden Cockroach Award. For two years, the MAC has held the Golden Cockroach competition which accepts nominations from students who think their landlord deserves to be recognized for owning houses with poor living conditions. A committee of students tours the nominated properties to determine which has the worst living conditions.

Lam declined the ’s request to follow Tomlinson and her housemates into the houses.

“I’m trying to keep a low profile,” he said.

When informed of Lam’s award-winning history, Tomlinson said she was undeterred.

“He’s really trying to get people interested in his houses. He seems really friendly, and hopefully he likes us too,” she said.

Tomlinson’s future housemate, Mohamed Badreldin, Sci ’11, has lived in rented apartments most of his life. He said he was less convinced than Tomlinson.

“I know the landlord has certain responsibilities. If something breaks down he has obligations to fix it. I don’t know, things already look like they’re broken down, so I’m not sure exactly what kind of standards there are. That’s something I’m kind of worried about,” he said.

Badreldin and his housemates didn’t signing either lease with Lam and so their housing search will continue.

Trina Garrison, who has been a landlord for Kingston students for nine years, said the Queen’s housing market is notably different from other Kingston areas because of other daily pressures students face.

“The process is more intense just because of the rush. … [Students are] engaging in studies and there’s anxiety there, so it’s a bit different than a normal market,” she said, adding that the mid-January rush is pretty typical.

Garrison said she looks for a certain model when searching for tenants, but some landlords simply select the highest bidders.

“I’m looking for a tenant who’s going to respect our property and respect each other,” she said.

Garrison said she informs her tenants and gives them the opportunity to ask any questions they may have.

“I encourage them to take a little bit of time to talk amongst themselves and with their parents and then get back to me within the next two weeks,” she said. However, she added, she knows of some landlords who take advantage of students’ lack of housing knowledge.

When asked if all landlords are as patient and informative, she said, “No. Absolutely not, no.”

Landlord do’s and don’t’s

Most leases are backed by the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act. If your lease says something different than the Act, that clause is not valid. The law, which went into effect last January, also outlines what your landlord can and cannot do.

Your landlord must:

• Pay you 1.4 per cent interest on any rent deposit. (It’s common for landlords to ask for the first and last months’ rent as a deposit.)

• Give you until 60 days before the end of your lease to decide if you are staying next year. (This is not the case if they are part of the Queen’s housing contract program, which doesn’t fall under the Residential Tenancies Act.)

• Provide you with a clean property in good repair at the beginning of your lease

• Respond to repair requests promptly

• Provide you with a heating system capable of maintaining a heat of 21.1 degrees Celsius

Your landlord can’t:

• Forbid you from having regular household pets in the house. Pets are only forbidden if they’re dangerous or if they cause allergic reactions or other problems for other tenants.

• Require you to give them a SIN or a student number

• Ask for any other type of security deposit other than the first and last months’ rent.

Kaitlyn Young, AMS municipal affairs commissioner

Questions to ask ...

... yourself when considering a house:

• Are the windows and doors weathertight and reasonably draft-free?
• How much storage space is there in the bedrooms and the kitchen?
• Are appliances such as the fridge and stove in good condition?
• Is the house secure? Look out for peepholes and overgrown bushes and make sure the doors are sturdy.
• Are there three-pronged outlets? Are there enough?

... your potential landlord:

• What’s included with the rent? Parking? Utilities? Summer lawn maintenance? Snow removal?
• Who pays for utilities? This is especially important if you share the building with other tenants.

... the current tenants:

• Why are you moving out?
• How’s the relationship with your landlord?
• Does your landlord respond quickly to repair requests?
• How well does the heat work?
• Is there enough hot water for everyone to shower in the morning?
• How good is the soundproofing between rooms?
• How much do you pay in utilities each month? You can also call Utilities Kingston to get the average utility cost for the unit for the past 12 months.
• Are there any pest or rodent problems in the house?

Kaitlyn Young, AMS municipal affairs commissioner

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