An ode to the student house
Staff writer Rafey Sattar investigates whether the new apartment developments take away the traditional student experience
During the summer, houses in Waterloo see a whirlwind of keggers and backyard parties. Once fall rolls around, those same houses host rookie parties and homecoming celebrations. After winter weather puts a damper on the festivities, St. Patrick’s Day livens up the student neighbourhoods in time for spring.
From the Northdale neighbourhood to Ezra Avenue, this cycle repeats in Waterloo. Students living in local houses have welcomed it the same way for decades.
“For the most part, after residence I lived in houses and preferred that feel,” said Eric Klimstra, who graduated from the University of Waterloo in 1998. “We had more of a feeling of autonomy.”
“We thought if we had our own house we’d have a lawn to play on and drink on obviously,” echoed Nate Fennema, a recent alumnus of the business program at Wilfrid Laurier University. “We wanted our freedom.”
However, Fennema and his roommates’ student lifestyle didn’t last. In June 2014 they had to leave their Hemlock Street house, which had been purchased by Schembri Property Management.
By the fall of 2014 the house was levelled to make way for a new condominium development — a fate far from unique in the student neighbourhoods.
“We do get calls from realtors acting on behalf of developers,” said Sheila Wallace, who owns Paracrest Properties, a management company for student houses in Waterloo. Developers have already acquired one of Paracrest’s houses on Columbia Street to build an apartment building.
“It’s two buildings a year for the next couple years,” said Darryl Firsten, president of IN8 Designs, speaking on his company’s ambitious plans for real estate in the city. After the success of IN8’s Sage I building, the Sage II and Sage III projects will have tenants moving in spring and fall 2015, respectively.
The foundations of new developments, like those by IN8 and Schembri, are being built on land that’s had student houses for generations. More than a real estate choice, these older properties in Waterloo represent a lifestyle.
“We need to keep these houses around,” said Fennema. “Part of going to university in a smaller town is getting to know all these people at house parties and backyard gatherings.”
Fennema participated in Major League Summer Baseball, a popular pastime during the warmer months in Waterloo. The teams, mainly composed of students, rely on houses to hold team socials. In recent years, it has been difficult to find houses to host them in, according to Fennema.
“It was so much harder to find houses this year than it was a couple years ago,” he said. “If that slows their ability to have MLSB parties and team get-togethers in someone’s backyard, then you lose a lot of that networking”
Now working as an accountant at KPMG in Toronto, Fennema believes his experiences living in a house in Waterloo made a difference in his professional life.
“Anyone I know downtown right now is from Laurier,” he said. “90, if not 100 per cent are from MLSB who we got to party with in the summers. That is your network growing up and getting into the workforce.”
While Fennema might have taken a lot away from living in a student house, an increasing amount of students are opting for the new condo developments.
Firsten explained traditional student housing just isn’t for everyone.
“They want to live in a newer, cleaner construction, which is potentially a safer environment from a health and safety perspective,” he said.
Second-year Laurier student Iris Harmanescu also prefers newer apartment buildings. Last year she moved into a new build on University Avenue and noticed the increased presence of social activity.
“When you’re in a house you’re kind of isolated from people around you, versus in an apartment you can live with friends on the same floor or in the same building,” she said. “It’s reminiscent of the idea of living in a residence.”
The rising popularity of condominiums has developers eager to meet the demand. A saying used by university tour guides to humour first-year students has become a very honest accurate representation of the city’s skyline: “the official bird of Waterloo is the crane.”
Wallace has seen many construction cranes and the changes in Waterloo’s real estate landscape that came with it. She grew up in the city, attended UW in the 80s and incorporated Paracrest with her husband Paul in 1999.
“The price increases have continued in the last nine years,” she said. “The value became in buying the land and tearing down houses.”
The fall of the traditional student house is an accepted part of the city’s planning. A 2004 student accommodation study encouraged denser zoning on major streets like University Avenue and King Street.
While the focus on intensification welcomed new apartments, the new vision plan for the Northdale neighbourhood has put student houses in danger. Incepted in 2010, the plan is looking to transform the area north of Laurier, often considered the “student ghetto,” into a more urbanized space.
“I know some houses are coming down, but it’s a small portion of the total housing stock,” Firsten said. “It allows for the opportunity to create a new kind of product that some people might want.”
Though Wallace was initially concerned the new housing products would affect Paracrest’s business, the demand from students has proven otherwise.
“There are more bedrooms than students if you do the math,” she said. “But we’re 100 per cent full and we don’t have any vacancies.”
Some students are not swayed by the new apartments, as Wallace illustrated.
“I just feel like a lot of the apartment buildings were all the same,” said Mariah Squire, a fifth-year Laurier economics and accounting student. “Living in a house we felt like we could make it our own,” she said, comparing her home to apartments that often come with “cookie cutter” furniture and standardized interior design.
Living in a house is also a familiar experience for many students.
“In a house I felt more like I was back at home because I never grew up in an apartment or in the city,” Squire continued. “I also find apartments are way more expensive.”
It may be puzzling, but some of the city’s condos are losing business to older houses, according to Wallace.
“The way they keep knocking houses down, we might be the only landlords with houses,” She said.
IN8 isn’t oblivious to the appeal of traditional houses in the student ghetto. In fact, their latest project is designed after that concept. “Ivy Towns is basically a recreation of a student house,” said Firsten, commenting on a townhouse-style development that’s in the works.
Regardless of the focus of developers, newer construction is going to replace houses that have hosted decades of Waterloo’s vibrant student life. Landlords and developers aren’t the only ones living the changes; students are aware of how their city is transforming.
“My friend used to live in a house where my apartment was actually built,” said Harmanescu. “Coming back and seeing it — Waterloo used to be so different.”