By Catherine Thompson
KITCHENER — A walk through the Lower Doon neighbourhood is a study in contrasts: in the space of one block, there are well-kept homes with tidy lawns and attractive gardens. Next to them though, are houses, or even clusters of houses, where garbage bins stay out all week, where weeds have overwhelmed lawns, where front yards have been almost fully paved over and driveways are clogged with cars.
A short walk from Conestoga College, “For rent” signs stud most lawns on Amherst Drive, where the garages on at least a dozen homes have been turned into bedrooms.
Although the larger Northdale student neighbourhood in Waterloo has attracted more attention, the Kitchener neighbourhood closest to Conestoga College has seen its own radical transformation over the past decade.
And as September approaches, city officials and residents alike are gearing up for another influx of students in south Kitchener.
Conestoga College has boomed in recent years. More than 11,000 full-time students are enrolled for September, up 50 per cent from six years ago.
Most of those students live in what were once single family homes, which have been sold to landlords who put in extra bedrooms they rent to students for upwards of $500 a month.
Tom Ruggle, Kitchener Fire Department’s chief fire prevention officer, estimates there are 150-170 homes in the area that have been converted to accommodate students, often with as many as six or eight bedrooms per house.
The large annual influx of transitory, young tenants has transformed the neighbourhood, say longtime residents.
The streets are often clogged with cars, especially in winter. Parties are noisy and frequent, and students have been known to haul dilapidated couches onto porch roofs for an open-air perch.
Resident Bill Harris has endured next-door neighbours urinating on his hedge in full daylight, loud and drunken swearing, drinking parties in the garage and even the occasional indecent exposure.
Residents point to former “showpiece” houses that were known for fine displays of Christmas decorations, now looking rundown with weed-filled yards. Where roses once bloomed, metre-high weeds flourish.
“There’s deep history entrenched in this area,” says Danuta Akudowicz of the neighbourhood. “It’s a unique piece of ground and it’s being trashed.
“I’m very angry. We’ve been here 33 years and we see this area getting progressively worse and worse and worse.”
They’d love to see Kitchener introduce a rental housing bylaw such as the one Waterloo introduced in April 2012. It compels landlords to pay a licensing fee, limits rentals to four bedrooms per unit and regulates room sizes among other things.
Kitchener council rejected that idea last June, after city staff said drafting the bylaw could eat up two years of staff time. It opted instead to watch how such bylaws play out in other cities, and to step up enforcement.
But city officials say their ability to regulate such housing has been sharply curbed by recent court and human rights rulings that prohibit targeting specific groups such as low-income people or students, and prohibit the definition of a household based on numbers of related people.
The Kitchener Fire Department started up a program encouraging landlords to have higher safety standards for fire separation, fire detection and extinguishers, Ruggle said. Unfortunately, he estimates only about one-quarter of all landlords in the area participate.
“We have a general concern for the safety in the area,” Ruggle said. “The homes weren’t designed to accommodate those numbers of people.”
Fire officials knock on doors every fall to ensure homes are equipped with working smoke alarms, Ruggle said, but can’t do much beyond that in homes still classed as single detached homes. Overall, officers found most homes to be reasonably safe, he said.
The city has stepped up its bylaw enforcement, and has two bylaw officers — one for parking and one for property standards — assigned to the area every weekday, as well as a third officer to investigate noise infractions from Thursday to Saturday, said Gloria MacNeil, Kitchener’s supervisor of enforcement. It’s the only area in the city where bylaw officers are out looking for violations, rather than simply responding to complaints, she said.
“If there’s a party, it’s zero tolerance: they get ticketed,” MacNeil said.
Conestoga College wants to be a good community citizen, but president John Tibbits says there’s a limit to what the college can do. “We don’t own the housing, and we don’t set the bylaws,” he said.
The college’s own residences accommodate about 500 students, but demand for those spots is limited. It makes no sense to build more on-campus residences when there is no demand for more, he said.
The reality, Tibbits says, is that students are adults, and most prefer to live on their own rather than in a residence, with its more restrictive rules on visitors and curfews.
“It’s not as simple as we’ll build all kinds of residences and they’ll come,” Tibbits said.
Some relief might come from recent developer interest in building highrise apartments in the area, which would be designed to accommodate large numbers of people with less impact on the surrounding neighbourhood.
Residents fear their neighbourhood is sliding irreversibly into becoming a student ghetto. “We no longer have a balanced population here,” said Roman Szydlowski.
“It’s a beautiful area,” agreed Peter Jamieson. “It’s going downhill. What is it going to look like in a couple of years?”
Ruggle sympathizes. “Unfortunately, it’s the residents in close proximity to the college that are bearing the brunt of this,” he said.
He believes the neighbourhood has already reached “that tipping point” and that it would be difficult if not impossible for the area to revert to what it once was. “The controls that are currently in place really haven’t had any tangible effect on turning the tide.”
Converting a house and renting it out to a ready market “is a very lucrative business,” he noted.
Coun. Yvonne Fernandes, who represents the area on council, is determined to keep pressing for change. “We have to keep this issue in the eyes of the municipal government and the provincial government.”
“The students have rights and the landlords have rights,” says Akudowicz. “What about our rights?”