Ottawa Citizen, Suneeta Millington – Despite the convenient narrative that has emerged — from the universities, the city, and now the Citizen’s editorial board — regarding Ottawa’s urgent student housing crisis, most of us who live in affected neighbourhoods know full well the benefits of having students in our spaces. Indeed it’s often why we choose to live here ourselves. We like the energy and dynamism students bring to the streets, the diversity and economic productivity that their presence lends to our areas, the enthusiasm and eclectic edge that shape their contributions to our day-to-day lives.
We wonder, however, why no one seems to like the senior citizens who were kicked out of their long-term homes last year when their building was gutted and sub-divided to cram in a bunch of international undergrads? Or the couple and their two toddlers who are being pressured to leave their apartment because the landlord can get more money from a combined rent of four students than from a family? What about the young professional or the retirees who are priced out of the lucrative developers market? Who’s concerned for them? As more and more potential permanent residents are shut out of our communities because of unchecked economic forces and bad planning decisions, it becomes less and less likely that the city itself can meet its own goals for revitalizing the urban core, supporting local businesses or attracting healthy long-term investment into these areas. Thus, while ad hominem attacks vilifying concerned individuals as anti-student may provide tempting sound bites or set up expedient storylines, they are divisive and unconstructive, and do nothing to fix the lopsided development and resultant disequilibrium that is eating away at the streetscapes and social fabric of our neighbourhoods.
But let’s assume for a moment that every single one of us does actually hate students — including the hundreds of students themselves who added their voices to a 2013 petition that gathered 1,100 signatures calling on the University of Ottawa to build on-campus residences — this simply does not negate the realities of the situation on the ground: our historic neighbourhoods are being disproportionately and irrevocably ghettoized with no sign of a clear plan or end-goal in sight.
It is thus highly distressing that the recent call for a city-wide student housing strategy made by 10 separate community associations — each distinct and diversely situated — has been dismissed by city hall. It is even more baffling that Mayor Jim Watson has rationalized the current ad hoc approach by stating that it is “not possible, or practical, to create a one-size-fits-all city-wide strategy because each university and college has its own housing needs and situation.” This claim is patently false; the Canadian cities of Whitehorse, Hamilton, London, Kingston and Oshawa all have such plans currently in place. Around the world major cities like Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester and Melbourne do, too.
The issue came to a head last week when the planning committee voted in favour of a development that would see six buildings of heritage value along Laurier Street East demolished in order to erect a nine-storey 650-bed purpose-built student housing facility. This would require rezoning from the existing permitted R4 residential use and would furthermore violate the Sandy Hill Secondary Plan. It may be that this development, scaled back in terms of height and overall bulk, could actually be a good thing. It is entirely possible that, with some sensitive revisions, the building could add architectural interest to the street, could provide a knock-on effect for other reasonable and attractive growth in that area, and could afford a safe place for those 650 students lucky enough to live there. However, it is equally possible that the building will simply amount to an out-of-scale anomaly smack in the middle of a residential neighbourhood that alleviates housing concerns for only a small fraction of the thousands of students looking for space, does nothing to mitigate the ongoing negative impact of the university’s continued growth and is accessible only to a select few for reasons of cost. In the absence of any further study or justification, it is simply impossible to ascertain where this project would fall.
At a recent party, a City of Ottawa planner dismissively stated “What do Sandy Hillers expect? They moved next to a university.” To her and all the others who share that view, I offer this: I expect to live in a neighbourhood that is safe, aesthetically attractive and clean; I expect to find my streets peopled by inhabitants from the full intergenerational spectrum; I expect to be surrounded by local services, amenities, programs and businesses that cater to the needs of diverse inhabitants, not just one specific demographic; I expect post-secondary institutions to find innovative, constructive and positive ways to contribute to their adjoining communities; I expect the city to show leadership in creating and implementing policies that ensure balance between permanent and transient residents; and I expect more than mediocrity in the built environment that surrounds me. If Ottawa is truly going to tap into its potential to become a world-class capital city, no one reading this should expect any less.
Suneeta Millington sits on the board of directors of Action Sandy Hill and chairs the Celebration Sandy Hill working group.