Councillor’s Column, August 2015: Should we expect more from student housing?

By David Chernushenko

Should we address student housing issues the same way we address housing for seniors? Should we give more thought to improving the lives of students — and their neighbours — by ensuring an adequate supply of appropriately designed, affordable, safe and conveniently located units?

What if we took steps to ensure that our students are part of a community that shares many of their interests and is invested in their wellbeing, and where their special needs — nutrition, hygiene, preventing isolation, easy access to transit — can be catered to in a thoughtful way?

While we expect such services and features from housing that caters to seniors, we do not expect the same for young adults who are studying or just starting out in the workforce. While on-campus student residences are a notable exception, they are in short supply and usually isolated from the rest of the community.

The truth is, most of us have never really thought about specialized housing that would help young adults ease in to independence. But some enterprising people have. Apartment-style, off-campus residences for students and young adults are increasingly popular in American college towns, and are now a reality in Ottawa. A suite-style hotel near City Hall has been transformed into a private apartment building catering to students, with furnished rooms, laundry facilities, study room, gym, restaurant, high-speed Internet, and bike parking.

I think such residences are mostly a good thing. Why? Because owners of commercially run student accommodations — unlike nameless, absentee landlords — have a strong incentive to maintain their reputation. Just like seniors’ residences, hotels and restaurants, they are motivated to run a quality operation in this age of online reviews and social media.

The same cannot be said of many anonymous landlords of “traditional” student housing, namely run-down rental homes. Neighbours witnessing the deterioration of such houses and even entire streets bemoan the fact that landlords cannot really be held accountable — not for the behaviour of noisy or disruptive tenants, and only to a limited degree for the building’s upkeep.

Consider the rash of single-family homes that not long ago were being bought, subdivided to the legal maximum (and beyond), and transformed into multi-unit apartment buildings packed with renters. Ottawa passed a zoning amendment last year to halt these undesirable conversions but, unfortunately, some property owners are still finding ways to squeeze more rooms into existing buildings.

So what of the alternative? Would you welcome the prospect of a corporately owned, professionally run apartment building down the street? What if it were to house your elderly parents, or maybe even you?  

What if it was for your children when they head off to university?

I don’t have all the answers, and I will want more information before deciding if I support any particular development proposal of this kind. But I believe this model can be a part of the solution to our student housing shortage, and to the challenge of encouraging infill without destroying the character of our neighbourhoods.

Councillor David Chernushenko
613-580-2487 | David.Chernushenko@Ottawa.ca | capitalward.ca

 

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