This is the first of a three-part series on the cost of living in Waterloo Region
BY LAURIE SNELL
As summer winds down and the moving trucks pull away, students are beginning to feel the repercussions of their Sept. 1 rental agreements. You can pay a whole lot for a hole-in-the-wall apartment, or pay a little less and forego your privacy. Depending on your financial circumstance, the available housing in the Region of Waterloo probably made that decision for you.
A report on housing affordability, an insufficient minimum wage and a huge increase in the demand for shelter beds, was presented to regional council on Sept. 6. This report emphasized these coinciding trends and found a dwindling standard of living for certain income brackets within the region. Despite this, the Region of Waterloo is reluctant to supplement housing costs for other income levels, including students.
With an influx of almost 55,000 post-secondary students in the area each September, this area’s economy feels the burden of students leaving in the summer, and the boon when they return. It comes as a surprise, however, that the report did not touch on students or student housing at all, although, it did cover housing for low-income persons, which is an income bracket that most students fall into.
The report highlighted that low-income persons, who receive social assistance from the government — including a shelter allowance of $300 — do not make enough to meet rent for low-end bachelor apartments in the region. Students are arguably worse off financially than low-income individuals because of the difficulty in balancing a full course load, part-time job and a social life. This balancing act finds students focusing less on school and more on surviving long days.
Director of housing for the Region of Waterloo, Deb Schlichter, said students and non-students alike face similar dilemmas in this economy. With housing costs steadily on the rise, supply and demand is at the root of the problem.
“It’ll be difficult (for students) in any university town for the same reason — because they’re competing with everybody else for that same base of unit. Students are looking for housing that’s close to the universities and they’re looking for housing that’s suitable, but the supply of one-bedroom units is very tight,” Schlichter said. Some other barriers to affordable housing in the region are minimal vacant land, boundaries on the city in terms of growth and few appropriately zoned properties.
“Finding good land adds more complexity to (the housing issue). (And) there are a lot of obstacles to buying rental units. There’s not a lot of incentives, there’s a lot of obstacles to building it and not a lot of payoff with what type of income students can bring,” Schlichter said.
Marty Green, a Remax manager, Realtor, and a landlord himself, has watched the housing market gradually increase over the last few years. “The trend for rising housing prices is continuing, and in my opinion is starting to get out of reach of the young, first-time home buyer,” he said.
“We’re seeing … there’s very few houses being sold under $200,000 so that suggests to me that there aren’t many in that price point anymore … People are not able to purchase their own home so their only other option is to rent, so that’s why the rental market has tightened up,” he said. Green added that rapid transit is a main factor in rising housing costs. The Remax Realtor advises students looking for a rental property to get at least one kilometre away from the college or university, to escape high rent based on convenience.
“I don’t know if there’s a lot the government can do — that’s a supply and demand problem for housing. The demand is always going to outweigh the supply … They should be deregulating the rules on tenancy in Ontario because … the tenancy act is so severely weighted against the landlord,” said Green, who believes Realtors should be leading by example in becoming landlords, but many are discouraged by the strict laws.
The average bachelor apartment rents for about $644 per month in the area, and even that is hard to come by.
The benefits of living alone range from quiet nights to study, keeping the place as hot or cold as you like, parties, and the obvious appreciation of having your own personal space.
But for some students, even $644 per month is too expensive. Some landlords are beginning to understand this, and are taking the idea of a bachelor apartment and turning that into a makeshift five-bachelor-apartments-in-one style suite. This shared-living accommodation, called a pod, is seemingly a win-win for both landlord and tenant. Students who are willing to lose their privacy and compromise on other elements of living comfortably, ultimately save almost $300 per month.
The downside is the shared kitchen and bathroom, personality clashes, different study habits and potentially conflicting hygiene standards. Also, creating your own personal space requires a hefty deadbolt on your bedroom door and an amazing pair of earplugs.
For landlords of pods, making a profit over time is fairly simply. It’s as if rent is pooled by all of the students, but in reality, each student has his or her own contract and private bedroom.
Although Conestoga College does not supplement housing costs, nor are the fees competitive at residence, almost everything is included in the price, including cable, local phone calls and Internet. The suites are fully furnished and offer the convenience factor of being five minutes from school.
Traditional residence suites for an eight-month term run about $665 per month, whereas private suites are approximately $825 per month. The difficulty in this style of living is that there is a common kitchen for the whole floor, and few mini-appliances allowed in your suite.
“(Residence) offers a safe place for students to test boundaries and know that there’s a small community of people (who) they get to meet by name or by face … they have a lot of support constantly around them to help them with anything that can come up, especially in that first year transition,” said Stephen Prentice, residence life co-ordinator.
Another benefit of living in residence is that contracts are either four or eight months, so students don’t have to sublet over the summer. “If the roommate moves out for whatever reason, they don’t have to worry about their portion of the bills,” said Conestoga residence operations manager, Mike DiFlorio.
Students also have the opportunity to work out payment scheduling for their accommodations if they find the lump sum payments difficult.
Fourth-year accounting, auditing and information technology student, Mike Darling, has experienced two different housing options as a student after moving to the city from Wingham, Ont.
“The biggest benefit (of living in Conestoga residence) was the ability to meet people in various programs and different towns and cities,” Darling said.
The 20-year-old decided after his first year to move into off campus housing with some friends, but can appreciate both experiences. “Where I am now is a residential neighbourhood, so there’s very few students around us. When we do have people over, the neighbours get upset … but with our landlord it’s great — if we have any problems or concerns he kills them right away,” Darling said. He added living off-campus requires the maturity of enduring real world consequences – such as police shutting down parties, rather than residence advisers.
Vicky Frichitthavong, a first-year early childhood education student at the college from Listowel, Ont., is living in residence, and is still waiting for her roommate to move in. When deciding where to live, Frichitthavong envisioned her experience as “… more of an adventure … I had all these ideas of what it would be like and it’s nothing near what I thought it would be,” she said.
The region won’t help students by creating more affordable housing until it is predominantly students accessing shelter or food bank services, and the post-secondary institutions find themselves losing potential students to schools in less expensive cities or towns.
However, with students boosting our local economy for eight months of the year, it is up to the region to facilitate programs that would make housing more affordable, thereby letting students focus more on school and less on their part-time jobs to pay rent.