Student Housing shortage: innovative solutions needed

Our community, and other communities with post-secondary education institutions, is in dire need of student housing.

Student housing is built to help students transition into the community, adjust to their newly found freedom of moving away from home, and support their success as they strive to attain their degree.

This supportive environment that affects a student’s success is the difference between student housing and housing for students.

Consequently our community, and others with post-secondary education institutions, has an excess supply of housing for students.

In Waterloo, the excess supply is in the form of mid-rise, five-bedroom apartment buildings, converted single-family homes, and accessory apartments. Sure, these accommodations house students, but they do nothing to support a student’s growth.

Over the past 15 years, the private sector has capitalized on the opportunity to provide housing to students. First, single-family homes became multiple-student dwellings and more recently, these dwellings have morphed into those mid-rise, five-bedroom apartment buildings. Maximizing a return on investments for developers is driving this conversion.

Yes, these apartment buildings are often an improvement on the conditions that existed before, but we’re only replacing deplorable housing with poorly suited accommodations for students.

Granite counter tops and high-end fixtures often mesmerize potential tenants, before they realize how detrimental this space is to their success as students.

University residences are an example of a supportive residential environment that provides the services essential to student success. Through adaptive use of the physical space, residences provide the space and programming that support students. Some American colleges have even begun making on-campus residency a requirement for the first and second years of schooling, to ensure students live in a supportive environment while studying.

Most Ontario colleges and universities do not require students to live on campus. Rather, they use on-campus residences as a recruitment incentive by “guaranteeing” a space for incoming students. In reality, requiring students to stay on campus actually emphasizes the imaginary bubble that many feel surrounds university and college campuses.

Students need the community as much as the community needs students.

We must consider quality-of-life measurements — for both students and the entire community — while bearing in mind the role successful student development can play in developing our entire community.

Recently, the presidents of Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo stood together before Waterloo city council, calling for an end to the five-bedroom apartments housing students, and imagined a community that would become a model for “town and gown” initiatives.

Ironically, Wilfrid Laurier purchased properties with five-bedroom units surrounding their Waterloo campus a few days after their delegation before Waterloo council. This purchase will allow them to build on their residence capacity and lend for future land development opportunities.

With this acquisition, Wilfrid Laurier has an opportunity to provide an example of how these buildings can be modified and provide supportive service that help students succeed.

Just as some campuses across Ontario have modified the physical residence space of building that are more than 100 years old, Wilfrid Laurier can provide this example of modifying these units and supporting the students living in these buildings.

In early May, the Town and Gown Association of Ontario held a symposium in Kingston. It became abundantly clear after this two-day gathering that we can no longer afford to have students say they survived student housing and wear that like a badge of honour. We must take an aggressive stance to find innovative solutions together.

Neither universities, nor cities, will solve this situation alone.

We cannot cram students into shiny new apartment buildings without proper common spaces and programming, hoping they will find the support they need for success and overall mental health. The private sector was the first to provide accommodations for an increased student population, but public sector involvement will create successful student housing.

The esthetics of student housing have improved considerably in communities across Ontario over the past 10 years. These esthetic improvements are a fraction of what is needed to change the perceptions of what constitutes student housing.

As described in many Town and Gown Association of Ontario presentations, public-private partnerships prompt neighbourhood redevelopment and create vibrant communities — exactly the communities envisioned by the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University presidents.

This blog post also appeared in the Waterloo Region Record as part of a community editorial board submission

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