“Nothing short of getting rid of all students will appease local residents,” John Gray, mayor of Oshawa, said Friday. His city is dealing with town-and-gown conflicts between students and residents that culminated in police raids on student housing this fall and now a proposed new bylaw.
“All three groups are not happy,” Gray said, referring to the situation in the neighbourhoods surrounding the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Durham College. The area has been the target of a blitz to enforce noise and parking bylaws.
The new proposed bylaw would limit the number of bedrooms within rental houses in the area surrounding the university to four, regardless of the size of the house. Landlords will have to pay a $250 per bedroom annual licensing fee and carry increased insurance. The bylaw will be debated by city council on January 16.
The move follows months of tension in the community that led the city to impose interim control bylaws, preventing renovating properties for rental purposes, and to execute search warrants looking for leases and cancelled cheques.
Police and city officials raided 17 houses being rented by students in September. One Durham College student returned from school to find police officers, a fire marshal, and a building inspector searching her personal possessions. A locksmith had picked the locks to her rental home to gain access. Her roommate was awakened from a nap when the officials entered her bedroom to search.
Students were given no notice of the searches and houses were entered whether or not the students were at home. One student said officers searched his home for three hours, overturning his mattress and going through all of his roommate’s personal papers to try to find a lease agreement.
Fraser McArthur, president of the students’ union at UOIT/Durham, is disappointed in the proposed bylaw. “There is nothing that we were looking for in it,” he said. “Sure they consulted us by did they actual listen … looking at the document, it does not seem they did.”
McArthur wonders where students will live next year and how they will find affordable housing when many large homes will only have four bedrooms when they presently have six to nine. With a four-bedroom house paying the city $1000 a year for licensing plus the cost of insurance, McArthur figures that students will be unable to afford to live in the area.
City councillor Louise Parkes, who chairs the committee considering the bylaw, says that the city has to act to deal with an “infiltration of students into the community.”
“We have to address the health and safety issues, many of these houses have been renovated without licenses or inspection,” she said. “Some of the construction even happened at night. … Unfortunately, I guess there wasn’t proper planning [when the university was built] to address student housing.”
Parkes and Grey both say the city does not want to create a housing crisis with the bylaw and has been working to encourage development of apartment buildings for students.
In an interview last fall after the police raids, Mayor Grey was quoted as saying, the warrants were obtained as part of an investigation into alleged fire and building code violations. “This is absolutely not targeting students,” he told the Durham Region News.
But not everyone saw it that way. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology student newspaper published an editorial entitled, “Officials are in denial in regards to students complaints of discrimination.” The article pointed out that the crack down on housing bylaws is only happening in one neighbourhood of Oshawa: the rental area surrounding Durham College and UOIT campuses.
“It’s systematic discrimination against students,” one student told the Durham Region News. “We have exactly the same rights to live here as anyone else, but you don’t see the police knocking on the door of a family that has lived here for three or four years.”
A University of Western Ontario law professor told the Western Gazette, "In my 10 years of practicing criminal law, I’ve never seen search warrants executed for such a purpose," Jason Voss said. “If the search was to look for lease agreements, then I would wonder why the police wouldn’t search the home of the landlord rather than the tenant."
Oshawa’s proposed licensing regime may not go far enough for some city councillors. Mayor Grey expects that some politicians will call for a ban on student houses being close to each other. Grey says that such a move will not solve anything and would be wrong. “I am truly trying to create a safe community for everyone, homeowners and students, to live in.”
The licensing bylaw will be the first in Ontario under recent changes to municipal laws passed by the provincial government. Mayor Grey says that many other communities are watching the events in Oshawa and will likely pass their own bylaws in the future.
– with files from Erin Millar