Off-Campus housing is only getting more expensive

As Queen’s adds more students, ‘demands keep going up [and] supplies stay the same’

Students are paying high prices for low-quality houses.
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For students living in Kingston, the norm is to pay exorbitant prices for substandard housing. It’s become a rite of passage for Queen’s students to move out of first-year residence and scramble to find housemates and sign leases before the best houses are gone. 
 
According to Queen’s off-campus housing resources, students should expect to pay between $475 and $950 each month per room plus utilities. The price is determined by space, number of roommates, distance from campus, and overall quality of the unit. 
 
For students looking to live alone or with one other roommate, it’s common to be paying well over $1000 per month.
 
The pandemic has put students in tough situations with their off-campus housing. Many upperclassmen were stuck paying rent despite them never returning to Kingston during the 2020-21 academic year. 
 
A decreased number of students returned to Kingston during the pandemic, but the city saw a surge of first-year students who chose to rent off-campus. 
 
Luke Emblem, ArtSci ‘21 worked for local rental property management company MacKinnon Development during his undergrad. His experience gave him unique insight into the inner workings of the Kingston rental market and student housing crisis.
 
“Queen’s isn’t taking in as many first-years as they usually take into residence,” Emblem said in an interview with The Journal. “They’ve only taken half. So you have an extra 3000 first-years that are looking for housing now, and that’s made it a lot more competitive.”
 
“[First-year students] reached out a lot earlier and they seem to be a lot more eager.”
 
In a normal year, about 95 per cent of first-year students would live on campus in Queen’s residences. During the pandemic, residences have only accepted about half of their normal capacity. 
 
First-year students who wanted to live in Kingston looked elsewhere for housing, keeping rental properties competitive and prices high. 
 
As more and more students flood Kingston’s rental housing, the city’s permanent residents are forced to compete with students who are paying upwards of $700 per month. 
 
In the early 20th century, Queen’s was the main provider of housing for Queen’s students, with most students living on campus in gender-segregated residences. 
 
In the 1960s, the on-campus model failed with a surge of over 10,000 students enrolling faster than Queen’s could construct new residences. Over the next few decades, students began renting off-campus. By the 1980s, off-campus housing for upper-year students was the norm. 
 
Currently, Queen’s  upperclassmen don’t have the option to remain on campus unless they choose to work in residence. The university introduced its first-ever upper-year residence program in 2015, and upper-year students could apply for a lottery to live in a limited number of rooms in Jean Royce Hall and Smith House. 
 
The 2020-21 academic year saw a pause on this program that will likely continue until residences can return to full capacity. 
 
The Queen’s Residences website states they “strongly encourage” students to find off-campus housing for the 2021-22 academic year.
 
The Mayor’s Housing Task Force Rental Market Analysis, published by the City of Kingston, states that “to maintain a well-balanced, strong community and ensure long-term sustainability, it is vital that municipalities offer a wide range of housing options for a broad range of income groups, including a provision for rental housing and affordable housing.”
 
Despite the acknowledgement of this need, Kingston faces serious barriers when providing the community with affordable housing—including concerningly low vacancy rates and an increasing number of renters.
 
Vacancy rates represent the percentage of rental units occupied in a certain location. Low vacancy rates tend to drive up renting prices and limit housing options for all market segments.
 
 
Kingston needs to dramatically increase the amount of available housing in order to return the city’s vacancy rate to a normal range. 
 
Low vacancy rates are exacerbated by increasing student populations. Enrolment at Queen’s, St. Lawrence College, and the Royal Military College continues to increase, limiting rental supply and driving up rental prices despite new condos being built in downtown Kingston. 
 
A long-term analysis of Kingston’s rental housing published by the City of Kingston in 2020 estimates an increase of over 10,000 in the student population in the next 25 years. In order to accommodate this increase, an extra 3,300 off-campus rental properties will need to be built by 2046.
 
Although student populations are increasing at all three of Kingston’s post-secondary institutions, Queen’s shows the greatest growth. Queen’s added over 7000 full-time students between the 2010-11 academic year and the 2020-21 academic year.
 
According to the Rental Housing Market Analysis, “occupancy trends by institution suggests approximately 80 per cent of student renter household growth over the forecasted period [2020-46] will be driven by students attending Queen’s University.”
 
Emblem feels that Queen’s isn’t doing enough to help the community manage rental prices. 
 
After first year, most students migrate to the student ghetto—consisting mainly of the area south of Princess Street. 
 
Due to the close proximity to campus and the high concentration of students, these houses are in high demand. However, due to an increasing student population and low vacancy rates, these highly competitive properties tend to be fraught with issues despite maintaining an expensive price tag.
 
“Queen’s isn’t helpful at all. They just keep adding students,” Emblem said. “After first year they don’t really care where the students go. They know you’re going to go to the [student] ghetto and if you want to pay for the ghetto, you’re going to have to pay a lot more.”
 
As vacancy rates remain low and the student population increases, students are left with no other choice than to live in expensive rental units with poor living conditions.
 
“I was paying like $740 a month [and] our floors were crooked. We had a hole in our floor. The landlord never came and fixed that,” Emblem said.
 
The City of Kingston’s plan to increase rental availability for post-secondary students is to increase the number of purpose-built rentals. 
 
Purpose-built rentals are rental properties built to be long-term rentals, unlike houses, which can be rented one year but not the next. 
 
The City plans to build most of these rentals in Central Kingston, in the area around Queen’s University and downtown Princess Street. This location would allow students to be close to campus and amenities.
 
The report states: “to accommodate the growing student population, there need to be more higher density dwellings in the form of purpose-built rentals.” 
 
The city projects that Kingston will need 5,700 purpose-built rentals to meet demands by 2036, with 1,800 of those units needed over the next five years.
 
“The city’s starting to change a little bit because now everyone’s paying high rent, including the locals, especially north of Princess, but it’s still a very slow process,” Emblem said.
 
Emblem explained that the city needs to build more high-density housing to accommodate the increasing student population. 
 
“All these single-family homes are just not sustainable.”
 
Recently, Kingston has built many purpose-built rentals in the form of condos. Although these condos create more rental units, they tend to have very high rental prices that are not affordable to many students. 
 
“The condos aren’t going to help very much because they’re all priced at a luxury price point,” Emblem said. 
 
Not only does the City of Kingston need to continue to build purpose-built rentals, but they need to build purpose-built rentals at a variety of price points to accommodate all market segments. 
 
Put simply, as Emblem explained: “Demands keep going up [and] supplies stay the same.”
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