John Orr Tower ­— Queen’s Community Housing

To potential new tenants in John Orr Tower (or An Clachan, or other “core” Community Housing properties), I offer this advice: keep looking.  You can find a better apartment at a better location at a lower price with a landlord who, unlike Queen’s Community Housing, won’t be able to take advantage of you when it comes time to renew your lease.

About John Orr Tower

I’ve been living in John Orr Tower, operated by Queen’s Community Housing, for 2 years, 10 months, and 23 days, as of this post.  I’ve served over that period as the building representative for Community Housing, and as such I have some notion of the planning and internal decisions made behind the management of John Orr Tower (and other Community Housing properties).  That position carries no actual weight towards any decision—meetings are entirely a one-way source of information from Community Housing to representatives.

Up until about a year ago, I was relatively happy living in the building; I have a decent view of Lake Ontario and Wolfe Island, there’s a bus every 15 minutes to main campus, the apartment isn’t too expensive, and the walls are thick so I’m never bothered by neighbours.

But during my time here things started changing, in part due to larger Queen’s fiscal problems.  Community Housing stopped treating its properties as a benefit to students, and started trying to extract as much money as possible from students, while being as cheap as possible on building repairs and upgrades, lying to tenants (and myself, the “representative”) about changes, and using its status as a university to exploit legal loopholes regarding rent termination and increases.

Rental termination clauses

Community Housing has made no effort to hide its exploitation of Ontario’s exemption for universities from many of the rules in the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act (RTA).  Rent increases, for example, for an existing tenant in Ontario are limited to annual published guideline amounts, which are based on inflation.  (“Guideline” is a misnomer: these are rent increase limits).  The RTA, generally quite favourable to tenants, also specifies conditions under which tenants can be evicted, preventing landlords from arbitrarily kicking out tenants without significant justification.  It also specifies that tenants automatically move to a month-by-month rental basis at the end of a year’s tenancy.  Termination clauses—that is, agreements by both parties to terminate a lease at a given time—are void if agreed to (or required) when the tenancy agreement is entered into.  (Unrelated to this post, but near and dear to my heart, the RTA also declares “no pets” clauses void).

All of that about rent increases, termination clauses, etc. is fine and good, of course, until you notice this little gem:

Subsections (4) and (5) [the clauses declaring termination clauses void] do not apply to rental units occupied by students of one or more post-secondary educational institutions in a residential complex owned, operated or administered by or on behalf of the post-secondary educational institutions. 2006, c. 17, s. 37 (6).

I understand the theoretical reason for this exemption: without it, someone who was once a university student could stay around in a university-maintained building indefinitely.

In practice, however, it lets Queen’s ignore all the legislation about rent increases, eviction rules, month-to-month rentals, and a whole lot else: because termination clauses are automatically and universally added to every Community Housing lease, Queen’s Community Housing has the option of increasing rents by arbitrary amounts, for not renewing a lease for any reason it sees fit, even if such renewal would be prohibited by the RTA.  It also allows itself to require new 1-year leases at the end of a year, even when it is the same tenant staying in the same apartment.

Moreover, it also completely circumvents the usual renewal process.  For a normal apartment that the tenant has been in for at least a year, tenants can give two months notice of leaving; thus they can look around for apartments that they have a chance of actually taking before having to give notice of moving out.  Community Housing, on the other hand, forces tenants to sign lease renewals more than 4 months before the end of the lease (this year, for instance, lease renewals happened in March, for a leases renewing on September 1st).

The thing is, what Community Housing uses aren’t really termination clauses, that’s just what they call them to satisfy the RTA’s legal loophole requirements.  I’ve now had three separate leases, for the same apartment in the same building, with the same termination clause.  In that time, my rent increased by 2.4 times the guideline increase in 2011, and more than 7 times the guideline increase in 2012, and would have increased by double the guideline increase had I renewed my lease.  My lease didn’t terminate in any meaningful way: it simply continued with a new 1-year lease at whatever rent Community Housing decided to ask for.  The presence of termination clauses in every lease is mainly about giving Community Housing significantly more ability to increase rents and force longer leases.

Queen’s Community Housing exploits this legal loophole to the maximum extent possible: while other landlords are unable to evict (except in egregious cases of misbehaviour), unable to increase rents beyond inflation, and unable to force tenants of more than a year to renew for more than month at a time, Community Housing gets it all.

The thing is, Community Housing doesn’t have to operate this way, even though the law permits it.  They could, for example, make the termination clause based on student status.  They could voluntarily commit to guideline increases for renewing tenants.  But they don’t: there is more money to be made by being allowed to act like just the sort of landlord the Ontario RTA was designed to protect tenants from.

Rent increases

When I first came to Queen’s (and John Orr Tower) in September 2010, my rent for my 1 bedroom apartment was $673/month, plus $40-something a month for parking.  That was a decent price: the location isn’t great, but it’s close enough (about a 20 minute walk, or 5-20 minutes if I take a bus) to campus that it worked.

In discussions that year, Community Housing revealed that because the university was in bad financial shape, it was squeezing every area to cut costs and increase revenues as much as possible.  Thus they decided to increase rents, particularly for west campus properties (John Orr Tower, my building, and the nearby An Clachan complex) “to market value.”  In order to determine what the market value of a 1 bedroom apartment was, they turned to the CMHC housing survey, and determined the target market value to be the average of similar apartments (i.e. 1, 2, or 3 bedroom apartments) in the CMHC housing zone.

Except they didn’t, really.  In determining the “market value” for John Orr Tower, they used the market value for Kingston’s “Zone 1” region, which includes the Queen’s main campus itself plus the downtown core of Kingston.  What it does not include is Queen’s West Campus, where John Orr Tower is located: John Orr is part of “Zone 2”, which had significantly lower average rents (no doubt due to the lack of inclusion of downtown waterfront apartments, with rents of $1200 or more).  I brought this issue up at the Community Housing meeting, and was told that my objection was irrelevant because John Orr is “close” to zone 1, even if not actually in it.

The rents for John Orr Tower jumped by over 20% that year, from $673 to $810.  As a bone thrown out to renewing tenants, our rents would increase by “only” 5% (2.4 times the guideline increase of 2.1%).

The following year, Community Housing decided that it had not yet reached “market value”, again as judged by the average of Zone 1 rentals despite John Orr being a Zone 2 building, and increased rents by 5% for everyone in the building (this time more than 7 times the guideline increase for that year, of 0.7%).  As was pointed out to me by a friend, this was slightly unusual and a little unfair: the monthly dollar increase for people like me, on the lower rent tier, was lower than that for the upper rent tier.

Last year, the increase for the top-tier rents was 2.5%, coinciding with the guideline increase.  It should be pointed out that 2.5% wasn’t chosen because it was the guideline increase so much as that 2.5% was pretty close to the increase in average Zone 1 rents over the year.  The 2014 guideline increase is only 0.8%, a value which seems highly unlikely for Community Housing to respect, since its always-terminate-even-if-renewing strategy lets it ignore that guideline entirely.

When it comes to rent increases, Community Housing is exactly the landlord that everyone wants to avoid: renewal means locking yourself into a new one-year lease, and the rent increase will usually violate the guideline rent increase limits that any non-university landlord must follow.

Building renovations

John Orr is a relatively old apartment building, having been build about 40 years ago, and as such the building is going through a series of repairs and replacements.  The past two years saw elevator replacements, balcony repairs, and kitchen cabinet replacements take place throughout the building.  Some apartments have had the floor replaced (changing from carpeting to laminate flooring in the living/bedroom areas, replacing tiles in kitchen/bathroom), with plan to have all apartments converted within the next year or two.

In the summer of 2011, the building underwent balcony repairs.  These involved chipping or grinding off damaged sections of balconies, and applying new concrete to the removed sections.  This was an understandable repair—the building is relatively old, and maintaining its structure is appreciated.  What wasn’t appreciated was that this repair reverberated loudly through the entire concrete structure of the building meaning that, while repairs were underway, every building in the apartment was unliveable.  What was worse, repairs started promptly at 8am every weekday, with no regards to students who might try (and fail) to sleep in.  When I suggested at a Community Housing meeting that tenants would appreciate it if the work started later, perhaps at 9am, I was told that they would “consider it.”  Any time in my life that I have been told that a suggestion would be “considered,” it has really been ignored.  This time was no exception.  No apologies of any sort for the disruptions were offered to tenants, just a statement that “we thank you in advance for your cooperation during this repair.”

From late 2012 through to about March 2013, all apartments had their kitchen cabinets replaced.  This was a major project that had been presented at Community Housing meetings, and communicated to tenants.  Every time it was mentioned, it was referred to as “replacement”.  It turns out that at best Community Housing has sort of a funny definition of “replacement”, at worst Community Housing lied to tenants and the building representative.  While the project indeed significantly improved the quality of kitchen cupboards, they actually replaced only about half of the above-counter kitchen storage cupboards, and simply removed the rest without replacing them.  No doubt anticipating that this would be viewed unfavourably by residents, they neglected to mention this removal in any communication to tenants at large, or to me as the building representative.

Only after the replacement had taken place did Community Housing decide to notify people about this change, perhaps having in mind the adage that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

This past year also saw replacements of the building elevators, beginning in the fall.  What was scheduled to take 3 months (6 weeks for each elevator) actually took 7 months, during which residents of the building had to put up with the slow service of having only a single working elevator.  To top it off, the new elevators break down frequently (much more often than the old, 40-year old elevators did), have nearly defeaning fans (I measured, using a noise meter app, a noise level of 70 dBA inside the elevator—roughly the same noise level an inexpensive vacuum cleaner in the same room makes), and are no faster than the elevators they replaced.

What’s more, attempting to hold the door open (i.e. by holding the “door open” button) for more than 5 seconds engages a loud, screeching alarm and forces the door closed, even if there is an object in the way.  Building residents used to hold the elevator when they see someone coming in just after them, but are now actively punished (via deafening) for their friendliness.  Community Housing offers recommended procedures for new tenants, instructing them to load all furniture into the hallway, they take a full elevator load up to the tenant’s floor to be unloaded, freeing up the elevator for the next person’s load.  This seems impossible with the new elevators (and a friend who recently moved out of the building confirmed it): the new choices offered are to bring along an extra person to hold the elevator door open button (since standing or moving in the doorway won’t stop the door from closing) and giving them earplugs (to avoid the 70 dBA fan, and 80dBA screeching door open alarm), or take items one or two at a time in the elevators.  When I move out, I know which option I’ll choose.

Aesthetically, the new elevators consist of various arrangements of metal—some smooth, some textured—which, if not for their relative small size, would make the elevators interesting movie sets for the entrance to an underground cold war-era bunker.

So 7 months of inconvenience plus a third of a million dollars got John Orr Tower residents elevators that are no faster, are significantly uglier, screech at you for attempting to be friendly, deafen you with noisy fans, and break down more often than the 40-year old elevators they replaced.

Window replacements are on the plan for next year.  One of the nice thing about the John Orr apartments is that they have nice big windows in both the living room and bedroom.  This is something of a curse, as well, since the rooms get hot (particularly in the mornings for me, giving my south-east-facing windows), which is at least partially offset by having large opening sections of the windows.  At full open, a third of the window area in the bedroom can be opened, and half of the living room window area.

The windows, however, are old; they are hard to open, and they let out a lot of heat in the winter, thus the desire for replacement.  Unfortunately, I saw the replacement in apartments in An Clachan (Community Housing’s other West Campus apartment building complex): instead of a large opening, the new windows will open only in a small corner, allowing only about 1/10th of the window area to be opened.  (Tenants can install air conditioners, but only if they pay a fee of $200 per year (plus the cost of the a/c), and only if they use the inefficient, noisy, keep-all-the-noise-inside portable units).  I can only imagine how hot the apartment will become, especially because Community Housing is unlikely to pay the extra cost for heat-resisting windows, and am thankful that I won’t be there to experience it.

Summary

I used to be positive about John Orr Tower; it wasn’t that close to campus, but it wasn’t too far either, it was reasonably well maintained, and rent was decent for a 1 bedroom apartment.

I no longer feel the same way.  The distance hasn’t changed, but bus options have become worse.  Where there used to be a city bus that stopped in the mornings at about 8am, the nearest bus stop is now a 5 minute walk away.  The nearby shuttle bus had its hours (but not its price) cut as of May 1st.  Parking isn’t included in the rent, which seems ludicrous given that the nearest grocery store is 2km away (even the nearest convenience store is about 1km away).

Serving for 3 years as the building representative has made me realize how Community Housing’s priorities have changed: it no longer attempts to provide good housing at a decent price, it no longer maintains any façade of trying to break even.  Instead the new Community Housing is all about extracting as much as possible from the students living in it, while being as cheap as possible in maintenance and repairs.

To new graduate students coming to Queen’s, while once I would have recommended John Orr Tower without reservation, I now offer the advice I started this article with:

Keep looking.  You can find a better apartment at a better location at a lower price with a landlord who, unlike Queen’s Community Housing, won’t be able to take advantage of you when it comes time to renew your lease.

 

Aside: Rents, economics, and all that

As an economist, I am generally in favour of prices reflecting market value.  The undergraduate, first-year textbook justification is that increasing prices serve as a signal to potential entrants that there are profits to be earned, which should (over some definition of “long term”) induce entry.

Similarly, in a perfect world, termination clauses should be perfectly acceptable: no one would agree to them if they aren’t worthwhile, and competition among landlords would either reduce prices or reduce the incidence of termination clauses, or both.

The problem is that rental markets really aren’t like the market for, say, bread.  For one, competition is limited: landlords compete against each other, certainly, but it’s much harder (i.e. costlier, in time, transportation costs, etc.) to find and compare apartments.  Once one is already living in an apartment, moving is very costly (I start moving in 8 days, a daunting task).  Buying bread is comparatively easy, with no lock-in: here’s one brand, 3 feet away is another brand offering similar products.  If I buy Uncle Ben’s today, no one says I have to buy only Uncle Ben’s for the next year.  If I don’t like Uncle Ben’s, I can buy brilliantly Wonderbread (in case you question my taste for bread, let me just say that I’ve never bought bread of either of these brands).  Commitment is low: at worst, I’m out about the 2 bucks I spent on the bread.  I don’t have to pay significant amounts of money and time to switch from one brand to another.

Renting an apartment really isn’t like buying bread at all: I’m stuck with my choice for a year.  All sorts of things can go wrong in that year (see later in this post), but I’m still stuck there.  At the end of the year, I can choose to move, but only at significant moving cost; even if faced with a 10% increase, many of us would choose to stay in our current apartments rather than go through the hassle of moving.

The problem is that the relationship between landlord and tenant is not equal: landlords generally have an ability to extract more surplus from tenants than tenants have to extract surplus from landlords.  An example can help illustrate one reason why rental increase limits are useful.  Suppose that moving will cost me about (in terms of direct cost—boxes, truck rental, etc.— plus indirect costs—such as the value of my time) $500, or a little over $40/month spread over a year.  Also suppose that rental prices are increasing by 2% per year, and that my current rent is $750/month.  An opportunistic landlord (without legislation limiting rental increases) would then offer me a lease at the market price, $765 ($750 plus 2%), plus just enough to prevent me from moving, i.e. about $40, for a total rent of $805.  I can either agree to that, or leave, finding an apartment for the market rent ($765), but paying $500 to move.

Legislation like the RTA is designed to prevent that, and other abuses, by providing a stronger bargaining position for tenants.  Tenants and landlords aren’t prohibited from mutually agreeing on an above-guideline rent increase, or from agreeing on a new rental term (i.e. first terminating the current one), but the landlord cannot force either on a tenant: presumably the landlord would have to offer something of benefit to the tenant in order for the tenant to agree to the changes.  It’s legislation like the RTA that helps tilt a landlord-favouring “free” market back towards equal footing between buyers and sellers.

The problem here, with Community Housing, is that by allowing universities to include a termination clause (which non-university landlords can’t use), the RTA undoes all the bargaining power it is designed to impart to tenants, and the end result is exactly what you’d expect: the landlord uses its power to extract as much as possible from tenants, and tenants have no ability to avoid getting screwed other than moving away (but they can only do that once per year).

One thought on “John Orr Tower ­— Queen’s Community Housing”

  1. Just want to thank you for this post. I’m facing the difficult issue with looking for apartment for September 2015 when I start my graduate school and being international student doesn’t make it any easier.Thanks for detailed information.

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