Community Newspaper Columns

Housing for seniors vs. housing for students

July 2015

Is it time to address student housing issues the same way we address seniors' housing? Can we improve 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 needs can be catered to in a thoughtful way by trained professionals?: Nutrition, hygiene, preventing isolation, access to transit and to active travel modes like walking and cycling, which can help prevent the diseases of a modern, sedentary lifestyle.

We expect such features from housing that caters to seniors, yet we do not expect the same for young adults, whether they are students or starting out in the workforce. On-campus student residences are an exception, but they are in short supply, isolated from the rest of the community, and considered an option only for the first and maybe second year of post-secondary studies.

Let's be honest: Most of us have never thought about whether housing for young adults could be or should be a specialized niche, just as it is for seniors.

Well, some enterprising people have thought about it. The past decade has seen a surge in private, apartment-style, off-campus residences for students and young adults. Common in many American college towns and cities, they have moved into Southern Ontario and the first are setting up in Ottawa. A former suite-style hotel near City Hall has been transformed to cater specifically to students. It offers furnished rooms, full-time security, laundry facilities, study room, gym, restaurant, high-speed Internet, and bike parking.

I think this trend is mostly a good thing. In addition to offering student-specific amenities, these buildings are in the business of attracting clients— the residents or the parents paying the rent. Owners of specialized commercial accommodations for students have a vested interest in their reputation, just like the owners of a seniors' residence. Just as with hotels or restaurants, what people say about you matters.

Contrast this with many anonymous landlords of run-down student rentals in the Glebe and elsewhere. As neighbours watch the steady deterioration of some houses, and even entire streets, they bemoan the fact that landlords cannot really be held accountable for the behaviour of noisy or messy tenants, or only barely for a building's upkeep.

Consider the rash of single-family homes that were being bought, subdivided to the legal maximum (and beyond), and transformed into multi-unit apartment buildings packed with renters. The City 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.

Cashing in on run-down rental houses makes for an attractive business model for some landlords. But for the neighbourhood, there is nothing to gain and much to lose when the balance shifts away from housing that is maintained with pride, and where most residents intend to stay for a while.

So what of the alternative? Is it a good one? Are you open to having a corporately owned, professionally run apartment building or even four-storey unit on your corner or on the nearest main street? Would you say no to such a proposal if it were to house your 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 such forms of housing will 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.