False panic increases average rent

Misconceptions that the Ghetto is experiencing a housing shortage caused average monthly rent to rise from around $450 to $600, says a Queen’s housing advisor

A City of Guelph senior policy offficer at the said the concerns were raised at a public forum about the University of Guelph student housing situation becoming similar to the Queen’s Student Ghetto.
A City of Guelph senior policy offficer at the said the concerns were raised at a public forum about the University of Guelph student housing situation becoming similar to the Queen’s Student Ghetto.

This time last year, Town-Gown Relations Co-ordinator Joan Jones heard rumours that Queen’s Student Ghetto was facing a housing shortage. She said the panic led to a rise in the average monthly rent from around $450 to $600 per person.

“A lot of landlords rubbed their hands together with glee,” Jones said, adding that the panic sprung from landlords pushing upper year students to re-sign a lease or give notice they won’t be re-signing as early as December.

“Landlords do a lot of really sneaky things to get students to give early notice,” she said.

Jones said she’s dealt with cases where tenants were offered Starbucks gift cards in exchange for making an early decision. But she said most student-tenants aren’t obligated to notify their landlords until late February.

“Landlords push this premature departure and so instead of just having the first years out there looking for housing, we have this mass of upper years as well,” Jones said. “It creates this illusion that there’s a housing shortage. Last year what it did was create a panic and housing prices jumped significantly because so many more people were looking for at exactly the same time.”

High Point Properties, one of the largest property managers in the Ghetto, sent an email to tenants offering cash for re-signing or terminating a lease early.

“According to your lease agreement, it is necessary to indicate in writing to Highpoint Developments / Highpoint Management about your intention to re-lease the same apartment/ house or to terminate the tenancy at the end of your lease agreement no later than mid-January 2011,” read the email acquired by the Journal yesterday. Each house or apartment was offered $25 per room if a decision was made by tomorrow.

The Ontario Residential Tenancies Act includes a clause prohibiting landlords from locking tenants into a year-long fixed term contract. Jones said Queen’s pushed for a program that would allow for Student Ghetto landlords an exemption from the rule.

“Queen’s said, ‘wait a minute. As a landlord, we can’t let that happen to our properties or else we’re going to have upper-year and graduate students just hanging on for a couple extra months,’ ” she said. “That would throw it out of the cycle of the academic year.”

The provincial government granted the exemption to landlords providing accommodations to postsecondary students. Any landlord wanting to receive the exemption can enter into the Landlord Contract Program for an annual fee of $20 per unit. Members are permitted a Tenancy Termination Agreement to be signed along with the lease—allowing for the tenancy to be terminated at the end of the lease. However, most landlords stipulate a time period for tenants to apply for a renewal of the lease.

The program requires that members have annual property inspections from a third party to prove the landlord’s units are in compliance with the Kingston Property Standards Act. All participants can only raise rent by a percentage set by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Guidelines annually. This year the regulated increase rate is 0.7 per cent.

“Other landlords that aren’t part of the program can raise the rent to whatever the market will bear,” Jones said. “So that’s where you get those big jumps.”

All landlords participating in Queen’s Landlord Contract Program are required to notify tenants of their affiliation when the lease is signed. However, not all landlords participate in the Queen’s program, Jones said, making it difficult for students to know what rights they’re entitled to.

“It’s a very complicated thing and that’s why students are naturally at a disadvantage because there’s so many rules,” she said, adding that the Town-Gown office, in room 135 of the JDUC, offers help to any Queen’s student unsure of what they’re obligated to tell their landlord. “Figure out which one of the rules applies to your unit. Don’t just accept what your landlord says about, ‘thou shalt re-sign a contract or thou have to give notice.’ ”

Landlords who aren’t members of the Queen’s program are lawfully able to sign students onto a fixed-term contract during the first year of tenancy. Following that period, another fixed term contract is not legally binding, Jones said. Jones said tenants shouldn’t tolerate landlords showing their home to prospective renters if they haven’t told their landlord they’re not re-signing the lease.

“Last year we had landlords dragging first-year students through houses and signed leases with them with the upper-year students who had no intention of leaving,” she said. “The landlord doesn’t have the right to show the house until the current upper-year tenants have given written notice.”

Jones said she recommends students use resources made available by the City of Kingston to remedy maintenance issues on their homes before looking for housing elsewhere to avoid entering into the competitive and expensive rental market.

Property Standards is a service provided by the city of Kingston Building Section which offers inspections of student properties to determine whether or not it meets the minimum housings standards which set by the Provincial government. Property Standards officers will issue landlords work orders to bring the house up to code.

First-year student Kelsey Keane said she’s scanning the student Ghetto housing market.

“I already have housemates and we’re going to look at a house,”she said.

David Gordon is a Queen’s urban planning professor who’s been teaching at Queen’s since 1994. The Sci ’76 alumnus said Queen’s student housing changed drastically in the early 1970s, with students moving out of the boarding houses advocated by their parents, and into private residences.

“The age of majority changed from 21 to 18, so off campus students could sign for an apartment by themselves,” he said. “In previous years when you came to Queen’s, you did your first year ... in residence. When you moved off campus, your parents signed for you, and your parents generally wanted you to live with someone who was taking care of you. That was called in loco parentis.”

He said instead of minors whose parents made arrangements with boarding houses, students became adults who could sign a lease, creating more opportunity for landlords.

“Take a four bedroom house and put two more bedrooms on the ground floor, two in the basement, and two in the attic, and suddenly you’ve got a ten bedroom house,” Gordon said. “The rent from that could outbid any family. Gradually the area around the campus started to be converted one house at a time ... into student housing.”

The University of Western Ontario, like Queen’s, has a large number of students living in small-scale, privately owned rental properties. According to Glenn Matthews, an off-campus housing administrator for Western, the key to making a set-up like this work is plenty of oversight, and fostering healthy discussions between students and landlords.

“We take a lot of time and effort to try and give both parties information to try and maintain [relations].”

London has recently instituted landlord licensing, a move Matthews hopes will prevent landlords from renting out properties that are not up to code. Kingston city council quashed a proposal to license owners of student housing last year, reported the Kingston Whig-Standard.

The City of Guelph recently passed a bylaw prohibiting the establishment of housing with six or more bedrooms within 100 m of another dwelling with six or more bedrooms.

“The intent is to increase diversity and create a healthy mix of housing types in all neighbourhoods,” Joan Jylanne, a senior policy planner with the City of Guelph, told the Journal via email.

Jylanne said public forums discussing the implementing of the bylaw saw concerns from the public about the city developing a University of Guelph student housing concentration similar to the Queen’s situation.

“There was certainly the concern that we would have a Queen’s Ghetto,” she said, adding that the actual bylaw didn’t echo the same concerns.

“The by-law does not target students, it applies city-wide,” she said. “[It] does not and cannot address the tenure of units (owned vs. rented) or make distinctions on the basis of relationship or persons [living in the dwelling].”

With files from Jake Edmiston

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