BY CARMEN PONCIANO
It is nice to know that Kitchener city council has at least one member who is looking out for Conestoga students. Ward 4 councillor Yvonne Fernandes plans on bettering student housing and transportation and further aiding international students.
Fernandes, who is also a Conestoga alumnus, started to work on the student housing issue a few years ago after receiving complaints from students about their landlords and living conditions.
“This is my second term as a city councillor and what I was first working on was making sure that there was safe, healthy and clean housing for students, especially in the lower Doon area,” Fernandes said.
Though she had brought forward a student rental licensing bylaw, after a student house with eight residents caught fire, it was turned down by city council, including Mayor Berry Vrbanovic who used to be a council member at the time. Student living conditions are just part of the issue surrounding student housing. Over the last couple of years, Fernandes has been working on different strategies which would see landlords be held accountable for the bad condition the houses are in. The fire department implemented voluntary guidelines but they didn’t get as much attention as they had hoped. Although there is a small handful of landlords working together to improve things, Fernandes admits the situation is still pretty bad as some landlords have done renovations in the past without proper building permits resulting in unsafe conditions. There is also the matter of the long-term residents who have complained about the number of parties, noise and mess left by students.
“We have to make sure that students understand that they are living with people, families, who have lived here their entire lives,” Fernandes said.
As a result, Fernandes met with the mayor, bylaw officers, planning developers and the fire department to come up with strategies similar to those that other cities with college residences have implemented in the past. Some of her solutions lie around re-introducing the student rental licensing bylaw, enforcing an inspection by the fire department of every house that is rented, zoning specific areas for student purpose housing complexes and determining what role Conestoga College can play.
“Can the college partner with a private developer to build a student housing complex?” Fernandes asked. “I see it more like stack townhouses or what the universities have called ‘pods,’ with four to five houses together and someone managing the behaviour. That’s how I see us moving forward.”
Fernandes is also looking to improve the transportation system as well as find a way to incorporate the student bus pass into student tuition like the universities. Though she is still waiting on Grand River Transit (GRT) and Conestoga College to provide her with more information, she thinks the students who heavily rely on transit should not be paying “extra” for transportation. She said if the cost was incorporated into tuition, OSAP would cover it rather than students paying it on the side.
“What the college has told me is that 70 per cent of the students who come to Conestoga College drive. Sure we have the 13 parking lots to prove it but what are we doing to reduce the number of cars coming here,” she said.
She hopes by partnering with GRT and having buses run more frequently, that there will be a change in students’ mentality.
Further aiding the international students is also on the councillor’s agenda since she’s been working with two international students who have given her some insight on things that could be improved. One is providing proper housing when students arrive in Canada. Conestoga is actively recruiting international students, however, currently upon arrival they are given a list of two or three landlords who they can get in contact with to find housing which can be a challenge for them, something Fernandes finds unacceptable.
“There seems to be a gap between the international student department and the needs of the international students,” Fernandes said.
She plans to meet with the resource staff of Doon Pioneer Parks Community Centre, which is five minutes away from the plaza where CSI’s shuttle service drops students off for groceries, sometime in March to talk about potential programs that could be put in place to benefit international students, specifically on how to navigate the Canadian system.