Kingston needs new laws to fix rental crunch, says councillor

Coun. Jeff McLaren says Kingston has the province's lowest rental vacancy rate because the market is so heavily skewed toward students, and that's creating one-dimensional neighbourhoods.

Demand from students part of reason Kingston's vacancy rate is below 1 per cent

A Kingston, Ont., city councillor wants to change the municipality's housing policies by building more affordable housing and creating more balanced neighbourhoods. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

A Kingston, Ont., politician says the city needs new tools to balance its rental market, which is heavily skewed toward students and has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the province.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC)'s latest annual report put Kingston's rental vacancy rate at 0.6 per cent in the fall of 2018, or approximately 83 available units out of 13,850 total units.

That's lower than Toronto's 1.1 per cent, the similarly-sized Guelph at 1.4 per cent and the provincial average of 1.8 per cent.

The demand for rental units has human consequences, said Meadowbrook-Strathcona Coun. Jeff McLaren on CBC Radio's Ontario Morning on Thursday.

"It looks like rising rents. It looks like people [sleeping on couches] with their friends," he said.

"It looks like people actually on the street, and on very cold days like the last few weeks, it's a very dangerous health issue."

Hordes of students

The CMHC said the historically-tight rental market has resulted in availability rates well below the provincial average over the last decade, and part of the reason is the city's reputation as a destination for post-secondary students attending schools like Queen's University and St. Lawrence College. 

"They seem to have an unlimited supply of students that want to come here, so those students come and fill up all the available rental market," McLaren said.

"The result is that any increase in supply will be taken up by an increase in student enrolment." 

Queen's University said it had more than 24,100 students in the fall of 2017 and more than 95 per cent of them came from outside of Kingston. (Frédéric Pepin/CBC)

'We get a monoculture'

McLaren said it's a good thing that people want to live in Kingston, but the fact that market's so student-heavy is a problem.

"We get a certain creeping ghettoization as houses become more profitable to split up and rent out as rooms or small condominiums," he said.

"We get a monoculture."

This monoculture doesn't work for young families who don't want to live in rowdy student districts, McLaren said, or businesses forced to close in the summer when students leave.

Listen to McLaren's interview starting around the 3:30 mark.

In an email, Queen's principal and vice-chancellor Daniel Woolf said its enrolment is limited by provincial funding and its guarantee to get all first-year students a spot in one of its residences.

"The low vacancy rate impacts many in the community, including students, staff and faculty at Queen's," he said.

"The university is committed to ongoing engagement with the city, community, developers, and other stakeholders … [This] is a multi-faceted issue with a number of contributing factors, and it affects all areas of the city, not only neighborhoods where students traditionally live."

His proposal

A former property manager, McLaren said the city should use some of the profits from landlords to build affordable housing and also force developers to include such housing in their plans.

The latter is known as inclusionary zoning and was recently introduced by the province, getting support in some corners of Ottawa's city council.

"When you have a huge amount of unbalanced growth, a restriction in the unbalanced portion of it would be a good thing in order to equalize growth," he said.

His vision for equal growth includes more grocery and clothing stores downtown to balance out the bars and restaurants that cater to students, as well as more high-rise development along transit corridors.

With files from CBC Radio's Ontario Morning


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