CLOSING THE GAP: NEW PARTNERSHIPS FOR GREAT NEIGHBOURHOODS SURROUNDING OUR UNIVERSITY AND COLLEGES
The Student Housing Issue in London TownGown World Article By John M. Fleming Manager of Implementation Planning, City of London, Ontario May, 2008 CAN
The City of London has a long-standing history of student housing issues. With a combined full-time student population of approximately 45,000, students make up almost 15% of Londons total population. We estimate that approximately 60% of these students come from out-of-town and live off campus that means about 28,000 students are looking for off-campus housing each year. Projecting into the future 10 years, we anticipate this number will grow by about 3,500 to 4,000.
Evidence of student housing problems is abundant in Londons near-campus neighbourhoods. Neighbours often point to untidy lots, parking on front lawns, deteriorating buildings (many of which have heritage value), unruly gatherings, vandalism, overly intense additions and new structures designed as student stuffers, and a dire loss of residential amenity. The economy of housing has changed significantly in some of these neighbourhoods, with modest homes being traded at prices that reflect their income potential as student residences, rather than their traditional value as a home for long-term residents; as a result, properties in these areas are completely unaffordable for long term residential users. Each Spring, For Rent signs pop up like tulips, often lining long stretches of successive homes, giving a clear sign to long-term residents that they are becoming marginalized. Meanwhile, students are often confronted with housing that is non-affordable (requiring sharing with multiple house-mates), unkempt, and sometimes unsafe. All of this sends the signal that portions of these near-campus neighbourhoods are moving towards a student ghetto something that everyone in the community, including students, neighbours, many landlords, University and College administration and municipal Council are wholeheartedly against.
So, where do the answers lie? As has been the experience for other municipalities in Canada that have large student populations, it has been a difficult and ongoing struggle for London. Neighbourhood representatives who have been involved in the issue for decades are fatigued and dismayed by the apparent lack of progress that has been made. Administration at the University and Colleges have devoted progressively more time and effort in working towards solutions. Meanwhile, Municipal Council has devoted an enormous amount of resources to the issue, with London often leading on innovative approaches to addressing student housing concerns. For example, London has rezoned near-campus neighbourhoods to implement floor area ratio restrictions that limit the size of building additions. We have collaborated with the University and Colleges to jointly fund a student housing mediation office that acts as a liaison between the community, students and the academic institutions. We have introduced Official Plan policies which direct higher intensity student housing to strategically identified areas, rather than the low density interior of near campus neighbourhoods. We have implemented a cap on the number of bedrooms allowed per unit the first in Ontario to do so. We proactively enforce By-laws in targeted areas around our campuses and our Police conduct low-tolerance enforcement and education programs during the first and last parts of the school year.
Beginning With A Vision Meanwhile, the issues and problems persist. On the direction of London Municipal Council, Planning Staff have gone back to the drawing board to look at the problem from a fresh perspective. The result is a draft report, entitled Closing the Gap: New Partnerships for Great Neighbourhoods Surrounding Our University and Colleges. Whats new or different about this latest approach by the City of London? First, and probably most importantly, there is a very deliberate intent to begin with an overall vision for our near-campus neighbourhoods.
This approach has changed the focus of the discussions occurring at our consultation sessions on student housing. For the first time, it has moved us all away from problem identification which has the been the primary focus of consultations that have occurred in the past. While problem identification is important, beginning the discussion at that point tends to set the tone for pitting stakeholders against one another. The discussion quickly turns into a finger-pointing exercise, with those being blamed quickly defending themselves and turning the finger back on another stakeholder. It can also lead to reactionary policy development which doesnt consider the big picture and often leads to unintended consequences.
Beginning with a discussion about vision helped us to focus on mutual interests between stakeholders. It was clear that stakeholders initially found it much more difficult to speak to, and define, vision as opposed to engaging in problem identification which they were very good at. However, when the discussion progressed around vision, it was surprising how quickly agreement developed between stakeholders that have been at odds for decades. Through public meetings, workshops, focus group sessions, and one-on-one discussions, it became clear that there was unified agreement with the vision for great near campus neighbourhoods. Importantly, this concept was operationalized by defining the elements of great neighbourhoods.
There was general agreement that great near-campus neighbourhoods:
Are diverse and inclusive from many different perspectives Are occupied by a balanced mix of long-term and short-term residents Provide for a strong sense of social connectedness amongst neighbours Exude vibrancy, culture, creativity, interest and dynamism Protect residential amenity and character Offer a strong sense of identity Engender respect for the neighbourhood and all those that live in it Provide for reasonable quiet enjoyment of private property Provide for reasonable entertainment, expression and diverse activities on private property Cherish, conserve and protect heritage resources Provide for safe, varied and affordable housing opportunities Support the attraction of a strong student body Help to encourage students to stay in London after their studies are complete providing the community with an outstanding labour force Help to recruit the best and brightest staff and faculty Allow residents to enjoy unique culture, entertainment and recreation opportunities
Focusing on the vision has taken us from an approach which is aimed at addressing problems (a philosophy of no more harm), to a much higher goal of improving near campus communities to create truly great neighbourhoods.
Closing the Gap With a unifying vision in hand, the next step was to clearly identify our current state of affairs. The discussion during consultation flowed easily as stakeholders rattled off the problems that they were encountering. In an effort to make the current state of affairs more tangible to all involved, Planning Staff took many photographs of near-campus neighbourhoods illustrating the issues that were raised. Having gone through this process, it was abundantly clear that there was a vast incongruence between our mutual vision for near-campus neighbourhoods and the current state of affairs in these neighbourhoods. To be successful, this gap must be closed and the discussion then turned to the elements of a strategy that could move us in this direction. This broader strategic approach marks the second divergence from earlier efforts made by London which focused on specific perspectives such as over-intensification of housing.
Partnerships The current draft strategy places a premium on partnerships. This identifies that the vision that we are all striving towards is a mutual vision and we cannot hope to attain it with the efforts of only one or two stakeholders. In the past, there has been an over-reliance on municipal action. This has led to mostly policy and regulatory actions which are aimed at addressing problems, rather than a partnership approach which is aimed at creating the type of near-campus neighbourhoods that we all aspire towards.
Mobilizing partnerships requires that each stakeholder clearly understands what is at stake for them and thus truly values, and wants to participate in, goal achievement. Discussions were held with each stakeholder group to identify what is at stake for them in addressing student housing issues and moving towards the vision of great near-campus neighbourhoods. For example, students have affordable, safe housing at stake, as well as an opportunity to engage in the community as valued citizens. The higher academic institutions have their reputation and ability to attract the highest quality of students and faculty at stake. Residents have their property value and residential amenity at stake as well as their opportunity to live within a vibrant neighbourhood that blends students, professors, young professionals, families, etc.
Through the process there have been many excellent examples of partnerships. The University and Colleges have been extremely strong contributors to the discussion, fully engaged in the development of the strategy. The student representatives have also raised the bar, removing themselves from an inward-looking perspective and moving towards the role of collaborator and community leader. The University of Western Ontarios Student Council has established a full-time paid staff position who will provide for continuity from year to year as the student body turns over. Meanwhile, the many community associations that represent individual neighbourhoods surrounding the University and colleges have banded together in the form of a coalition that has provided a clear and unified voice moving forward. The table is well set for strong partnerships.
10 Prong Strategy In pursuit of the vision, a 10-prong strategy has been established. While the full detail can be found at www.london.ca (search for student housing strategy), the following summarizes each of these strategies.
1. Welcome students as a vital part of our community Too many student housing strategies alienate students. We heard over and over again that students wished to be engaged in the community and valued as community citizens. The intent of this prong of the strategy was to make it clear that we value our students and to help them become more engaged in the community. This strategic element allows for the exploration of establishing a student owned housing co-op or a student/resident run food-co-op. The strategy also calls for a housing fair at the academic institutions and the development of an accredited housing list.
2. Provide for safe housing All parties agreed that providing safe housing for all in our near-campus neighbourhoods is vital. With changes to the Municipal Act, London City Council is considering a rental housing licensing by-law. While this by-law would address the City as a whole (as the issue of safe, healthy housing is one that applies throughout the City for all demographics & not just students), this could be a useful tool in pursuing this strategic initiative. Training sessions for landlords, more information on their responsibilities for providing safe housing, and the dissemination of safety information to students are additional initiatives to be pursued through this prong of the strategy.
3. Offer a higher level of public service to the community This strategic initiative primarily deals with by-law enforcement. This includes broadening proactive enforcement areas, more after-hours enforcement, the consolidation of by-law services, the exploration of a 5-day garbage cycle, and new nuisance by-laws.
4. Align expectations The concept of social norming was raised through the visioning discussion. Essentially, the concept explains that people develop an expectation for how an area or neighbourhood is to be treated by the visual and behavioural cues that are evident to them. So, when properties are unkempt and deteriorating, vandalism is clearly present, cars are parked on front lawns, and garbage is strewn throughout, the social norm is to treat this neighbourhood with disregard and disrespect. The result is a downward spiral towards an entire neighbourhood of neglect that is seen as a dumping ground for those that visit or live in it. This is diametrically opposed to our collective vision for great neighbourhoods.
This strategic prong is aimed at aligning expectations so that the social norming leads to respect and value for the neighbourhood. The focus of this strategy is around enforcement of by-laws, the possibility of escalating fines for infractions, tighter by-laws relating to parking and nuisances, and effective policing.
5. Protect residential amenity This strategy is aimed at protecting and enhancing the residential amenity associated with near-campus neighbourhoods. New policies have been formulated to guide infill development, to ensure that it is in keeping, and a good fit, with the established character of the neighbourhood. In addition, regulations are being explored relating to the number of bedrooms per unit based on unit type, hard surface coverage, removal of rear-yard amenity space in favour of parking, etc.
6. Provide alternatives to balance the mix The University of Western Ontario conducted an excellent survey which demonstrated that students are seeking a greater choice of housing. Specifically, they would like to have more choice of high density forms of housing which allow them to live, affordably, with fewer roommates. The survey showed that it was important that this housing be located either close to campus or in a location that is well-connected to campus by transit.
This prong of the strategy calls for the investigation of intensification opportunities at such locations. The intent is to develop housing that can serve a mix of different demographics, including students. Importantly, urban design master plans would be integrated into such an approach such that they contribute to the vision for great neighbourhoods.
7. Create great places and spaces in our neighbourhoods This strategic prong focuses on the collective vision and goes beyond simply addressing problems. The strategy calls for the development of Official Plan policies which lay out goals and direction for each near-campus neighbourhood. In some cases, master planning will be conducted to establish a finer-grain level of planning for important streetscapes and areas in transition. For the heritage areas surrounding the University, the strategy calls for an evaluation of a heritage conservation district. The strategy further suggests that each neighbourhood be explored for opportunities to provide public amenities which may add to the quality of the neighbourhood.
A final element of this strategic direction is to consider ways for blurring the line between the academic institutions and the communities that surround them. Are there opportunities for creating a more positive interface between the two land uses? For example, could there be commercial uses or community gathering spaces that can be jointly used by students and long term residents. Is there opportunity to develop elements of the campus that cater to the near-campus community not exclusively to students.
8. Invest in infrastructure A survey prepared by the University of Western Ontario showed that, when searching for housing, students rate cost as their number one decision factor. Their second most important factor is proximity close to campus OR proximity to transit which can transport them to and from campus quickly. Importantly, 51% of students use transit to travel to campus (vs. 12% who drive). Furthermore, the survey showed that students would like transit to operate later at night.
Currently, London Transit services cease at 12:00 Midnight. The strategy calls for a review of the timing of this service as well as the frequency and directness of common student routes either current routes or those that could facilitate higher density forms of housing. A more contentious perspective relates to the provision of bus services after nightclubs and taverns close. Currently, problems are cited when such establishments close and patrons who may have consumed alcohol congregate outside of these facilities. Taxi service is often difficult to secure and busses are not running. While not directly related to the student housing issue, the provision of later transit services could address this issue as well all in the pursuit of the vision for great neighbourhoods.
9. Level the playing field for landlords There are some owners of rental properties that do not provide for safe housing. Others allow their properties to deteriorate, over-use their properties, keep untidy lots or are deficient relative to municipal property standards. These property owners may enjoy savings by not completing necessary work, relative to those landlords that provide for safe, healthy and quality housing. The intent of this prong of the strategy is to ensure that those who neglect their properties are not given an unfair advantage over those that maintain their properties. If Council chooses to introduce a rental housing licensing by-law (which would not be exclusive to student housing), this could serve as a tool to address this issue. An accredited housing list is another tool that could help address this issue. The key point is to recognize that student housing must be safe, healthy and of quality to be in line with the collective vision for great near campus neighbourhoods.
10. Provide for affordable housing Affordability is a key contributor to great neighbourhoods surrounding universities and colleges. Clearly, housing prices are substantially inflated in near campus neighbourhoods. It is also recognized that it is expensive to convert multi-bedroom or multi-unit structures back to single detached residents meant for long term residents. The strategy seeks to assist with affordability in several ways, including the exploration of housing co-ops, the provision of higher density forms of housing, establishing a targeted home ownership program to provide property owners with incentives for converting homes back for long term users, etc.
Where From Here? The Closing the Gap strategy is now out for consultation. Staff are taking a proactive approach, presenting the strategy at the University and colleges, within the community and at more traditional City Hall venues. Were also hosting a number of focus group sessions to hear feedback from those that we initially spoke with prior to the development of the strategy.
Based on the consultation, the strategy will be amended and presented to Council for consideration. A work program will be developed to include cross-stakeholder working groups that will implement one or more strategic initiative. Evaluation criteria will be developed so that progress can be measured.