The legalities of student living

How to know when your housing situation isn't acceptable

Inexperience can lead to some students making rookie housing mistakes.
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Dealing with housing is an almost unavoidable part of the Queen’s experience. 95 per cent of Queen’s students come from outside of Kingston, so unless you’re a Don, chances are you’ve been involved in the Kingston housing market, or will be after you move out of residence in the spring.

Most of us sign a lease for the first time toward the end of first year, and our inexperience in doing so can leave students vulnerable to making mistakes. Whether you’re still in the house-hunting stage or in your final year of renting, it’s important to know your tenant rights.

Joan Jones is the student community relations coordinator at Queen’s, whose job is to “provide confidential guidance on evaluating off-campus housing, tenant rights and responsibilities, and resources for moving in/out.”

Over the last 20 years, Jones has become an expert on the most common mistakes students make when it comes to finding housing, and the best ways to avoid them. In an interview with The  Journal, Jones said that while students think getting the house is the only thing you need to do, moving in can be the first of many problems you experience when renting.

Inexperience can lead to many students making some rookie housing mistakes. Here are the most common issues that come up for student tenants, and what the law says about them:

Your house is a dump

Many students think living in the University District means living in a dump as a rite of passage or part of the “university experience.” However, you have the right to live in a good, safe place that meets the provincial standards for a rental unit, even if it wasn’t up to code when you first signed your lease.

Everything is broken

It’s the landlord’s responsibility to maintain and repair your unit, even if you were aware of the problems when you signed the lease, or if it—illegally—states in your lease that you’re responsible for fixing it. The only thing the tenant is required to do is keep the property reasonably clean.

However, Jones highlighted a common issue, which is students not acting soon enough on repair issues. If you have a broken window or a leaking pipe, it’s best to tell your landlord as soon as possible, before you end up with a bigger situation on your hands.

Your lease is illegal

As of April 2018, most landlords are required to use a standard Ontario lease in typical student housing units. Make sure you have a valid, legal lease when you go to sign it.

This standard lease helps protect the rights of both landlords and tenants. It outlines rules about rent, utilities, repairs, and includes a 15th section where landlords can add their own additional terms. However, there are rules about what they can and can’t add. Any extra term that infringes on your rights under the Residential Tenancies Act is invalid. This includes things like banning pets, limiting or restricting guests, and requiring a deposit that’s any more than one month’s rent. Under the act, landlords can’t restrict roommates or additional occupants, so technically they can’t stop you from having six people in a five-person unit or a shared room in a house. If your landlord puts an invalid term in section 15 of your lease, it isn’t legally binding and can’t be enforced.

Your housemates don’t do their fair share

The largest and most common issue of them all is housemate problems. Many students live with strangers or people they met very recently. Leases for shared student homes are joint, so you’re responsible for things like your housemates’ rent or any damages they cause. Legislation around housing was designed for individuals, partners, or families, not groups of young adults. So, in the case of conflict or your housemate skipping town, remember your legal responsibilities.

Jones says students come see her the most about housemate issues. As a way to avoid these, she shared many resources Queen’s has to help students make this tough decision. One of them is the housemate agreement, which is an online checklist of housing expectations and responsibilities that lets you talk about certain issues before they arise.

Jones suggests that if you aren’t feeling good about a housemate situation, it’s better to do something proactive like find new housemates sooner rather than later, instead of waiting it out.

“If you’re getting a bad feeling, that’s when you should do something,” Jones said. “You have to be brave to leave a house.”

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Housing at Queen’s is difficult to manage, and these challenges can be magnified for international students, exchange students, and members of marginalized groups. It’s important for everyone to know their rights and to have resources to help them with the housing process. In addition to things like a housemate agreement, the AMS provides the Housing Resource Centre in the JDUC that helps students in conflict with landlords or housemates. And, of course, you can always reach out to Jones, who’s an expert on student housing and who can help you with anything from housemate mediation to reviewing your lease before you sign it.

At the end of the day, the most important points to remember are to read over your lease and be proactive about housing issues. You’re a busy student, and the last thing you need is a legal dispute on your plate. Make sure to take care of your house and your relationship with your housemates and landlord before things have a chance to go downhill.

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