City council invoked a rarely used power to put a one-year freeze on the multiple-bedroom residences — usually aimed at students — that are causing headaches for a number of communities.

At its last meeting before a six-week summer break, council unanimously approved an interim control by-law that would temporarily prohibit any new construction or renovations of a building with a large number of bedrooms. The maximum number of bedrooms depends on the size of the building, but the aim of the bylaw is to prevent the situation where a building with a few units contains as many as 20 bedrooms.

The freeze on this sort of student rooming house applies only to six student-centric communities: Sandy Hill, Heron Park, Old Ottawa South, parts of Old Ottawa East, Centretown and Overbrook.

Political win for Fleury 

There has been growing concern over reported problems caused by cramming so many students into a building that was not designed for so many people.

No community has been more vocal about this issue than Sandy Hill, which has seen an influx of all sorts of intensification developments, as well as high-density student housing projects.

The halt on bunkhouses is a political win for Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who has been lobbying his council colleagues for years about the need to take action against this type of housing.

"Years ago, it was a much tougher battle because it was seen as anti-development," said Fleury about his campaign to change the rules around the number of bedrooms in a single dwelling.

'It may be cheap housing, but it's not good housing.' - Mayor Jim Watson

Coun. David Chernushenko, who represents Old Ottawa South near Carleton University, said that a single home that in the past may have housed a large family of five or six is now housing double that many people. Sometimes a residential building may have a number of smaller apartments, but each of those units may have four or five bedrooms.

"Because these people are rarely related, they didn't sign the lease together, they may not have even known each other, they're not typically working together on garbage and recycling and green bin," said Chernushenko. "So you get 18, 20 garbage bags, out on the front lawn, often on the wrong week, so they're there for a long time. Then if urban creatures get into them, that's a mess."

In addition to garbage, residents also complain about the noise and general traffic that these sorts of bunkhouses create. And those complaints must be handled by the city's by-law officers.

"Creating these bunkhouses is something I don't support at all," said Mayor Jim Watson. "I think it diminishes the quality of life in a neighbourhood. And frankly it's not a very pleasant environment for students. It may be cheap housing, but it's not good housing.

"If someone wants to build an apartment, that's one thing … but to build these bunkhouses so that they can exploit the opportunity to get as many students in a house is not acceptable in a residentially zoned neighbhourhood."

Move came as a surprise

There are actually no zoning rules prohibiting bunkhouses. Often the buildings are constructed or renovated under the current zoning — which often allows a single-family home to be split into a few flats, or even a small, low-rise apartment building — and those units are divided into multiple bedrooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen.

But there are no rules about how many bedrooms can be in a single home. 

The city is trying to come up with some restrictions and is currently reviewing the zoning for multi-unit dwellings in residential neighbourhoods. The interim bylaw buys council and city staff more time for that review.

The interim control bylaw was worked on behind the scenes for the last week. City officials didn't want word of the development freeze to get out because they didn't want builders rushing to have their building permits approved. 

Some Ottawa developers say privately they are stunned by the bylaw. There are sure to be applicants who have already spent thousands of dollars developing a multi-bedroom housing complex, only to find that they cannot move ahead with their projects for a year. And when the freeze is lifted, the rules for these sorts of developments may very well have changed.

The bylaw can be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board, but the freeze would remain in force during the process.

70 Russell is still a go

Just this week, Fleury used another rarely used and new political power to force a site-plan application for a high-occupancy project at 70 Russell Ave. in Sandy Hill to go to planning committee.

But after about an hour of public delegations and discussion at Tuesday's planning meeting, Fleury withdrew the item and returned the authority for approving the project back to city staff. After all, the project didn't break any planning policies and would have been approved by staff under usual circumstances.

In recognition that the approval for this application was delayed because Fleury took the issue to committee — a very unusual move — the redevelopment for 70 Russell was explicitly exempted from the new bylaw by staff and council.

70 Russell Ave.

TC United Group's plan to tear down this single family home 70 Russell Ave. and replace it with a four-unit, 21-bedroom building, will not be part of the freeze on bunkhouses. (Google Streetview)