In defence of the District

Renaming Student Ghetto is just the first stage in a larger initiative involving participation of students, landlords and the City

Paper surveys conducted between 2002 and 2009 suggest overall satisfaction with student housing is on the rise.
Paper surveys conducted between 2002 and 2009 suggest overall satisfaction with student housing is on the rise.
Photo illustration by Justin Chin

While the Journal’s editorial on Tuesday Sept. 20 titled “Not ready for new name” was well written, I fundamentally disagree with some of the arguments within it.

I want to take this opportunity to respond directly to some of the ideas stipulated within the editorial in a way that contributes to a healthy debate on how the AMS approaches housing conditions surrounding Queen’s campus.

It’s worth noting at the outset that I appreciate the Journal’s comments and look forward to continued discussion of the issue.

I commend the Journal for highlighting why the term “ghetto” is an inappropriate use of a term to describe the area where students live. However, the editorial then continues by stating, “Our nomenclature is inappropriate. The Student Ghetto isn’t comparable to historical ghettos, but the term’s common acceptance at Queen’s will prevent the renaming from taking root.” I wonder, then, why the Journal has consistently decided to refer to the University District (formerly Student Village) as the Ghetto or Student Ghetto. Given that the editorial represents the views of the editorial board, it would seem as if a majority of Journal staff believe that the common use of the word “ghetto” is incorrect.

Why would the Journal not take this opportunity to influence the “inappropriate” vernacular of students? It seems the Journal is not only contributing to the problem that the Municipal Affairs Commission (MAC) is attempting to fix, but criticizing the MAC for its efforts.

The Journal also mentioned that launching the advertising campaign to rebrand the area, prior to the full establishment of the Student Maintenance And Resource Team (SMART), is a mistake on the part of the MAC.

This is a fair point to which I offer two explanations. First, it’s worthwhile to get the new name out there. If students start thinking about the name, then as the conditions improve when SMART service is fully established in May 2012, the term University District will become increasingly appropriate and find its way into the vernacular of students.

Second, the Municipal Affairs Commissioner, like all full-time positions in the AMS, is a one-year position. It wouldn’t be fair to drop the burden of an enormous advertising campaign for the new name solely on my successor. While I understand the Journal’s opinion on this, I simply disagree. AMS employees must take decisive action to make use of the limited time they have in office.

I am completely in agreement that for any name change to take place, the housing standards in the area must improve. However, it’s unfair to say that the AMS should “start by improving housing conditions in the area.” The AMS and the City of Kingston have been doing this for years and have data which suggests that overall satisfaction with housing is on the rise.

In a paper survey first conducted in 2002 which included responses from over 400 individuals living in properties in the University District, 85 per cent of students indicated that they were satisfied with their housing situation. That number steadily increased until the last year of the survey, 2009, when it reached an overwhelming 90 per cent.

Of the students who said they were dissatisfied with their accommodations in 2009, only 37.93 per cent indicated that it was due to quality. 25.86 per cent ranked cost as their main cause of dissatisfaction, 18.96 per cent ranked location as their main cause and 17.24 per cent ranked other as the main cause.

This evidence suggests that the quality of the housing is not only meeting student expectations but is also not the overwhelmingly serious issue that the Journal’s editorial suggests.

This is not to say that the housing issue is resolved. The MAC will always strive to improve the quality of living of Queen’s students in the University District.

The other telling conclusion that can be drawn from the survey is that 63.23 per cent of students ranked location as their most important criterion for selecting a house.

This is problematic in that it suggests that students are willing to rent a below-average property, typically overpriced, as long as it’s close to campus.

I can hardly blame students for wanting to live close to campus, but rushing to rent a poor-quality house simply because it’s close makes it possible for landlords to ignore badly-needed renovations on their properties.

Renting these expensive and below-average properties sends the message to landlords that the terrible properties they are renting are still competitive in the market. They have no incentive to update or improve the properties.

Moreover, there is no need for students to feel rushed into moving into a property, especially one close to campus. I can assure you that there is ample housing for every student.

Aside from the paper survey, each year Town-Gown Relations, the AMS and the City partner in what have come to be known as VIP (voluntary inspection programme). These inspections focus on houses on University Avenue which have been deemed potentially poor-quality properties. The AMS contacts tenants and the City sends letters to property owners.

On Feb. 29, 2008, the Kingston health unit, fire department and property standards and parking division teamed up and got access to 28 houses on University Avenue. From those visits, only one serious offense was uncovered; many of the houses were in fantastic shape. The most common concern had to do with sidewalk snow removal.

In the future, I suggest the Journal more keenly investigate the facts regarding housing rather than basing their editorials on speculation. The Municipal Affairs Commission, Town-Gown Relations, or the City of Kingston would have happily provided this information at your request.

The Journal also states, “Houses are rundown, unclean and many landlords treat students unfairly.” This is a very strong claim that I believe to be somewhat inappropriate.

Indeed, some houses are in poor condition. I lived in a house during second, third, and fourth year which saw $1,000 utility bills during the winter months. However this is hardly indicative of every single house in the University District.

Moreover, to say that many landlords treat students unfairly is too strong a claim and too vague. The Journal offers no support for this claim and doesn’t specify in what way students are treated unfairly. I agree that some students are taken advantage of because of their naïveté with regard to housing and the Residential and Tenancy Act, but to say that a majority of landlords violate the rights of the tenants or act unlawfully is simply untrue.

I agree that rebranding the area does require multi-faceted change. It involves the efforts of students, landlords, the AMS, the City and the University. Support from all these stakeholders will be necessary to make this proposed change a reality. It’s on all of us to do our part to try to improve our community. The simple reality which the Journal alludes to is that landlords need to treat students better, and students need to treat their properties better. We all have a role to play and together we can create the change that’s so badly needed.

Indeed, it was the conclusion of the piece which most confused me. The editorial states, “Changing the Student Ghetto’s name is the recycling of an old idea that didn’t work. For the results to be different this time, the name change needs to be backed up with substantial action.” Plans for substantive action are already underway. AMS assembly has approved, in principle, the implementation of a new government service which will pay students to clean and maintain properties in the University District. This is unprecedented. In fact some of the steps, such as opening up applications for a SMART co-ordinator to help shape the new service, were already approved unanimously by AMS assembly after a lengthy debate.

Full assembly approval is a purposefully slow process. This is the testing year to ensure that the service is in fact worth the student dollars that would be invested in it. Would the Journal have preferred that I rush to introduce this service without gathering input and simply watch it fail?

In my opinion, there are two things the MAC could have done with regard to the Student Village or Student Ghetto issue: take action to try to improve the area in an obvious and substantial way, or simply do nothing and pretend that Student Village is catching on. I have chosen the former.

David Sinkinson is AMS Municipal Affairs Commissioner.

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