On converting family housing to student housing

With Old Ottawa South apparently up in arms about the horror of students moving into an enlarged house, and the Councillor uttering sympathetic concerns, I thought it time to do a little case study of a house in Dalhousie.

It was a semi-detached for its first century. It’s on a corner lot, the front facing a busy street, the side door facing a quieter street. It’s on one of those funny corner lots that is tiny from the get go, maybe 50′ deep, so the back of the house is maybe 10′ from the rear lot line, leaving just enough space for one car to park off street, to be shared by both semi’s. The front door debouches directly onto the main street sidewalk. Cozy for sure.

The new buyer installed lockable bedroom doors, and the three or four second floor bedrooms were rented to separate students. Some from Ottawa U, some Carleton, as the house is convenient to buses and the OTrain station. The third floor was fixed up, making another one or two bedrooms (air conditioned!). A few years later, the basement got a bedroom, with a bathroom, which might make up for the subterranean gloom and vibrations from the buses and trucks. Then the basement got a bigger window. Then a year or two ago the living and dining room were walled off, and rented out to more students. So there’s at least 7 bedrooms there, maybe 9. They share the bathrooms, and the kitchen.

It’s easy to tell when girls dominate the tenant list. The side porch is tidier. Some even put out plants — domesticity seeking expression. I’ve chatted with a girl sitting on the porch trimming her pet rabbit’s toenails. Who knew?

When guys dominate, the porch is a disaster zone. Getting garbage out on garbage day is a very hit and miss affair. Pizza boxes grow to 3′ pile. And despite the costs of our university system, inmates demonstrate every week that the city’s new garbage schedule is not possible to be learned, nor the rules of what to put in which box and when to put it out. Even by the educated. And once out, cans and recycling boxes rarely come back onto the porch. Instead they stay on the sidewalk til the following week, when garbage is trundled out and put in the plastic barrels already at the curb.

Who says religion is dead among the young? These people believe in reincarnation of material goods, as they put stuff out to appease the recycling gods.

Parking problems? None. There is rarely a car in the driveway. Indeed, they don’t shovel it all winter. Mind, they don’t shovel the steps to the porch either, which means they now function as a sort of forty degree ice slope. Hey, they’re here for brain development, not brawn.

Nor mowing the 3′ x 2′  lawn.

Parties? I’ve never heard a peep from these students. I’ve seen enormous quantities of bottles go out on black-box day, but they have an attraction all of their own and are gone by the end of day.

It’s very cute in late August to see those U Hauls and parent cars show up on the street, parents looking so concerned and dubious about the neighbourhood and the neighbours (who is that shaggy elderly guy creeping around in short pants and beat-up sandals?). Eventually little darling is installed, and life’s adventure begins.

Students come and go at all hours of the day and night. They add a lot of pedestrian traffic to the street, whether it be 7am, 10am, 2pm, or 6pm. It is impossible to predict whether more students will be coming or going to classes. Occasionally they come back in pairs, somewhat shyly walking the street, self-conscious. I think all this adds hugely to the subjective safety of the street. When I next fall on the ice, I hope its some cute young thing who comes to my rescue.

Because they all have cell phones.

Strangely, they must not love the house or the location too much, because they all locate elsewhere the next year. I’ve never recognized a student for two years running. But the house stays full.

And the amount of furniture that gets tossed out each May … its enough to restock Ikea. Or Sarah Richardson’s next dream home (when spray painted).

I might find the experience different if it was one of a row of student houses. Or by a bar. Or very close to campus (same thing?). Or if the students get swapped out for another clientèle.

For now, as student housing, it’s no sweat. They are polite. They contribute to street life. They are not as domesticated as some, but are better than others I could point out in the area. They need a place to live. They are our children. They are our future. Hopefully they are tomorrow’s taxpayers, and I hope they all get really high paying jobs.

If other neighbourhoods make you unwelcome, com’on here.




8 thoughts on “On converting family housing to student housing

  1. We’ve had students next door for the past few years and the boys have out-mannered the girls. We’ve gone through 3 sets of tenants over there, and they do only seem to last a year (most likely getting tired of each other…).

    The girls had no parties, but didn’t clean up the porch or always remember to take the garbage to the curb, so it would pile up. The boys have had a few parties, but they’ve always cleaned up. When the girls were there, they kept to themselves, but the boys always say hi to us and chat with my son. If I am out gardening, the boys come sit outside, ask questions and apologize if the feel they’ve been too loud. Maybe we’ve just been lucky with the students next door. I was actually sad to see the last set of boys go (must be feeling maternal), though the replacement set of boys are exceptionally neat & tidy. They ride their bikes everywhere, all year, none of them have cars. (They seldom shovel either, but I think students don’t think to spend their money on shovels).

    I have seen many changes in Little Italy, and dealt with many types of people over the years, but I’ve never had a problem with the students.

  2. There are safety concerns for these kids – they lack proper exits from the house in the event of a fire. While I’m glad someone will be there if you slip on the ice, will you be there when one of them is trapped in the burning building (because oops, the slumlord didn’t maintain the furnace and/or oven?)

    Want to run a rooming house? Do it right, and do it safe. This guy collects the rent in cash only, I’m sure…

    1. There is an exterior metal fire escape from the third floor. The second floor has front and back metal balconies. The ground floor has two exits. The basement has its stairs plus the larger window was presumably put in to meet fire code (emergency exit). Dunno the condition of the furnace. The previous owners was two plus-size adults and about five kids, so the population density is only a bit higher.

  3. I think the issue in ottawa south is primarily the lack of any requirement to notify the neighbours that the Aylmer Ave residence was to undergo a dramatic expansion or to provide immediate neighbours with a chance to be heard on the plan. Secondly, sharing a driveway is common in that neighbourhood with 33′ wide lots (garages at the back of the property) and there are many related horror stories that don’t involve student housing – surely that factor deserves cosideration by the city permit clerks.

    1. Unless my plans for my property involve exceptions to the current zoning, or rezoning, my neighbours don’t get a say, even if they don’t like it. This is the basis – for better or worse – of the zoning system in Canada. Really, no one should be shocked that students live in Old Ottawa South, and that houses are often owned by landlords who rent to students. Carleton has only been in its current location for approximately 50 years.

  4. As a student myself, I can attest that every group is different. I’ve lived with three guys and a girl (plus our perpetual houseguests), thirteen other individuals in a staff house, and two other girls. It’s always different. Students do get a bad rep, but we really just want a place to live. Some are pickier, cleaner, and noisier than others. No, students probably won’t shovel the driveway if we don’t have a car (no point), and they might might always get their garbage out (evening classes make evening chores easy to forget), but what the hey–we rent the property just like any other tenant. This is more directed at other folks, and not Eric, but if you have a problem with something, tell them! It’s a lot better than complaining about it and then wondering why nothing gets fixed.

    I also just want to add that Ottawans are VERY lucky in that since the universities and colleges are so spread out and served by multiple bus routes, you don’t see “student ghettos” that are quite as bad as the likes in other cities. Sure, Sunnyside might have a lot of students living there, but as you pointed out, Eric, the upside is plenty of foot traffic.

    Your comment about students with cellphones and foot traffic reminds me of something that happened about a month or two ago. When I was walking back to campus one day, I saw across the street, an old man had fallen in his driveway getting out of his car. His granddaughter was trying to help him up, but his driveway was pure ice. She called out to two passing students and they ran over to help. By the time I got close, they were still struggling. I ran over and lent a hand and we were able to help him to his door. I thought that his granddaughter would go inside with him, but it turned out we were all just passing by, so once he was inside and got his cane back, we all headed on our way.

  5. Does Aylmer have such good access to transit that none of these 16+ tenants will have cars either? The density in this property has just quadrupled.

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