Delving into Waterloo’s housing crisis

There’s a new trend in the Kitchener-Waterloo Region and no, it doesn’t involve fashion, food or phone apps. Rather, it’s undeveloped student apartments.

Over the past two years, four condominium buildings have failed to be completed on time for the beginning of the fall term. The first building was 1 Columbia in 2014. The second was the Sage 2 condo in 2015. The third and fourth buildings to be delayed in 2016 were ICON and K2, respectively. It has been reported that the K2 delay has been pushed to Dec. 27.

According to CBC News Kitchener-Waterloo, students renting with the K2 building on King Street and James Street were supposed to move in on Sept. 4. In August, the building’s customer care department emailed their tenants saying their move-in date would be delayed, as construction workers were on strike.

Tenants with ICON had the same experience. On Sept. 2, tenants received an email that said their move-in dates would be delayed, as the construction site was affected by the drywall strike that occurred throughout May and June of this year.

While some ICON tenants were forced to wait until Sept. 28 to move in, some K2 residents have yet to move into the building.

Since they have moved in, ICON tenants began to publish complaints about the building on social media, particularly on the Facebook group, “I (got) CON(ned).”

Jennifer, a tenant at ICON, signed her lease with the building in November 2015. She commented to the building representatives upon signing the lease that the building was yet to be finished, but she claimed they promised her this would not be an issue. They gave her this answer when she asked again in July.

Like many of the other tenants, Jennifer’s move-in date got pushed back from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5 and then once again to the week after. During their delays, ICON allegedly offered their tenants free rent for the month of September or they were put in hotel rooms in the Waterloo region. Luckily for Jennifer, she was able to drive from Guelph to Wilfrid Laurier University during the delay.

When Jennifer and her roommates were finally allowed to move in, she claimed the apartment was missing various appliances and furniture, such as a couch, desks and even bedroom doors.

“[We] didn’t get [bedroom doors] until about a week ago,” she said.

This was only the beginning of her problems.

In the beginning of October, Jennifer claimed that ICON told their tenants they would give them back September’s rent. When Jennifer went to pick up her cheque, ICON allegedly told her they would only give back half of her utilities, which they had never mentioned before. When Jennifer came back again, ICON was allegedly requesting that their tenants sign a form saying they cannot sue them or ask for anymore money.

“When people said, ‘I’m not going to sign this because it’s not fair if things aren’t done, I’m entitled to a rent reduction,’ they said ‘okay, get a lawyer’, [and] people said ‘okay I will.’ So they ended up getting rid of [the forms] and [then] it said ‘okay, sign this paper saying you got a rent reduction,’ so we ended up getting $50 back for October and November. We still haven’t heard anything about December,” Jennifer claimed.

Jennifer had also originally paid for a room with higher rent, but later switched into another room with a lower rate. She told The Cord that she asked ICON to destroy her previous cheques and gave them new ones, to which they complied.

In September, Jennifer claimed that she noticed she had lost money while checking her bank account. Jennifer believed that ICON had ended up cashing two of her previous cheques.

Over the next few weeks, Jennifer came into the ICON office to ask them to fix this and give her the money back, to which they allegedly promised they would.

While buying groceries in October, Jennifer’s credit card got declined. ICON had, again, allegedly cashed her old cheques.

“I said okay, [when I asked them about it], but you owe me a substantial amount of money. This isn’t pocket change. I’m a student. I can’t afford this.”

ICON, once again, allegedly promised to fix the problem

Jennifer ended up emailing ICON. Rather than promising again to fix the problem, Jennifer claimed that ICON told her they had no clue as to what she was talking about, even though she had spoken to the ICON managers about her situation.

She told The Cord that she later got a phone call from an ICON representative, who asked Jennifer for proof.

“I was like, ‘I have the proof. I have the photocopies of the cheques that only get photocopied when they get cashed and I have my bank statements that say it’s been withdrew,” she claimed.

According to Jennifer, ICON sat her down to talk about a stop payment on her bank account and explained that they did not take her money.

“They pretty much want me to sit there for like an hour and I don’t have time right now. I don’t have time to sit for an hour but I need the money, so that’s been the biggest pain.”

Jennifer claimed that she has been tempted to take legal action if she doesn’t have the money by January 2017.

“It’s a lot of money and my savings are a little depleted right now.”

Believe it or not, Jennifer has experienced other problems in her short time at ICON. Aside from difficulties with parking, privacy is a separate problem. Jennifer explained that ICON representatives have allegedly walked into her apartment without her consent.

Jennifer stated she is not planning on renewing her lease with ICON next year.

Stories like Jennifer’s have become so common in Waterloo that student leaders and politicians have come to a consensus: something must be done.

“It’s one of the biggest things that affects students,” said Colin Aitchison, vice-president of university affairs. “It can add significant stress when your building’s not done.”

Aitchison, along with Sarah Wiley, vice-president of education at University of Waterloo’s Federation of Students, have started advocating for student tenant rights in Waterloo. The pair brought their concerns to the municipal and provincial level with the help of MPP’s Catherine Fife, Michael Harris and Kathryn McGarry.

Both Aitchison and Wiley have been meeting consistently with the MPPs to discuss the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006. MPP McGarry has offered to bring up the issue in a cabinet meeting and discuss the issue with Chris Ballard, the Minister of Housing.

Aitchison also sent a letter to Ballard stating that the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union wants the Ministry of Housing to review and amend the Residential Tenancy Act to ensure increased protections during the preoccupancy phase.

“We also asked [Ballard’s] ministry to work alongside the Ministry of the Attorney General to increase funding for the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) so they can hear cases a lot quicker, because oftentimes when you have to go to the Landlord Tenant Board it’s a timely issue. It’s not something that can wait two or three months,” said Aitchison.

“The [Residential Tenancy Act] provides protection for residential tenants from unlawful rent increases and unlawful evictions; establishes a framework for the regulation of residential rents; balances the rights and responsibilities of residential landlords with those of tenants; and provides for adjudication and other processes to resolve disputes informally,” said Ballard via email. “It’s important to point out that the RTA applies to agreements between a landlord and a tenant and not to a developer’s contractual obligations.”

“As the parent of two college-aged girls, I can imagine the frustration that this must add to an already stressful time of year. While the LTB does provide a forum to have these issues resolved, as Minister, it is my hope that developers can better address this issue and aid students in finding a solution when contracts fall through.”

Recently, Aitchison and Ian Muller, director of policy, research and advocacy, also met with MPP Daiene Vernile, who brought up their concerns to Ballard. Minister Ballard was concerned about the problems raised by Vernile and is currently looking into these issues.

“I’m not sure where this will lead, but I expect that the ministry will look into it,” said Aitchison.

Last year, MPP Catherine Fife wrote a formal letter to the former Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the Honourable Ted McMeekin, to express her concern regarding the increased number of students moving into recently built apartment buildings in Waterloo.

In her letter, Fife called attention to building developers who were exploiting Waterloo’s housing system and leaving students with insecure housing situations. She asked the Minister to support MPP Jagmeet Singh’s Bill 60, Tarion Accountability and Oversight Act, which makes developer’s building records accessible to the public.

In response, McMeekin pointed Fife back to the LTB and provided little external information on what must be done to solve this problem.

“[The LTB] has been a source of frustration for students, as well. They neither have the resources or the time to pursue legal actions,” Fife said.

“Unfortunately, this minister and others before him don’t fully agree that there is a problem — and we all know that finding a solution is more difficult until you acknowledge that a problem exists.”

In June, Fife wrote a second letter to Ballard asking, once again, to review the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006 and to support Bill 60.

“At the end of the day, it’s that clearly students are at a disadvantage when they run up against a developer and around advocating for their rights to access property on time and having those developers honour their contractual obligations,” said Fife.

While students may experience stress when looking for a place to live during the school year, MPP Michael Harris explained how the main focus for students should be education.

Harris realizes that undeveloped apartment buildings in Waterloo have become a reoccurring problem in the region. He explained that his party is currently advocating this issue on behalf of students and hopes Minister Ballard will listen to them as well.

“The minister needs to meet with students to listen to their concerns. Clearly using the examples in Waterloo is justification for the minster to look hard and long at the Landlord or Residential Tenancy Act to ensure that there are protections there for student tenants and ensure that there’s something clear there that speaks to developers who fail to meet their obligations for housing provisions,” he said.

As a way of educating students about tenant rights locally, Aitchison and others at the Students’ Union have been conducting “House Hunting 101” campaigns for first-year residences.

“They should definitely do their homework and ensure that they know what they’re getting themselves into before it happens,” he said.

“Housing is one of the biggest issues facing students in Waterloo right now. I am happy to see support on this matter from our local politicians, and I’m glad that Colin and I have had the opportunity to work together on this issue,” said Wiley.

“Housing issues will not go away unless the provincial government takes action.”

Note: The Cord reached out for a statement from ICON, but they declined to do so.

 

 

 

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