Student neighbourhood up for sale

The area dubbed by many to be the ‘student ghetto’ has become one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in Kitchener-Waterloo.

On June 17, 31 ‘for sale’ signs popped up in front of houses on Hickory, Balsam, Larch and Hemlock Streets, a large chunk of the Northdale neighbourhood, which occupies the area behind Wilfrid Laurier University’s St. Michael’s Campus. Five days later, eight houses on Hazel Street joined the mass sale, bringing the total to 39 homes and making it a full two blocks that was available for a buyer with deep enough pockets.

“It’s two complete blocks right in the middle of Wilfrid Laurier’s two campuses. It’s an incredible piece of property and the interest in it is spectacular,” said Paul Ellingham, the man who got this organized group sale off the ground.

“There are many parties in discussion [to buy the two blocks] at this point, I can’t say much more because there are so many negotiations going on, but I can only say that I’m really excited about the opportunity of something great.”

Ellingham, a chaplain at both WLU and the University of Waterloo lived in the Northdale for 15 years before he moved in 2010. He still owns a house on Larch Street, which he rents out.

He came up with the idea for the homeowners to sell their houses as a group, rather than individually, after their property values plummeted due to the influx of low-cost student housing in the area.

Those falling property values were combined with ongoing issues with the City of Waterloo and in April of this past month, those issues with the city came to a head when Waterloo City Council passed a new rental bylaw.

The new bylaw, which will come into effect in April of 2012, limits the number of tenants in a rental unit to four, which in Ellingham eyes makes renting out a house in Northdale unfeasible.

“The policy of the city is eliminating a whole level of our more affordable living space,” he said. “There needs to be a variety of housing options… you can’t find anything under $500-600 in the highrise apartments but the city seems to have this desire to see all students forced into highrise buildings.”

So Ellingham went around the neighbourhood asking the owners of the houses if they would be interested in the group sale, with the hopes of attracting a large investment from either a developer or any institution with the money.

And in the end 38 houses were on board, of which about 12 are occupied by their owners and 26 are owned by landlords. For Jim Facey, who has lived in his Larch Street home for 56 years, this sale seemed like his only option.

“Families aren’t going to move in here with their children. There are no [elementary] schools, there are no stores nearby, so a parent coming in with little children is going to have a problem living here,” said Facey. “Now with the restrictions on the new rental bylaw, you can only rent four bedrooms and a bedroom’s worth about $65,000 each… That’s a far cry from the almost $400, 000 [that the house is worth]… It has devastated our property values.”

While problems between students and permanent residents have been a well-documented problem in Northdale, according to Ellingham, they are not the problem.

“The people in Northdale are not against students at all. We wouldn’t have been there for as many decades as we were if the students were the problem,” he said. “The change at this point is the city’s attitude. That’s what causing us the grief.”

Waterloo city councillor Jeff Henry, who has Northdale in his Ward 6, declined to comment, however he did say that the city would continue to work with the neighbourhood in the ongoing community improvement plan study.
As for the students and other tenants who have leases in the area, Ellingham urges that this is nothing to panic about.

“Anything of this magnitude and of this potential will take at least two years for anything to happen,” he said.

The homeowners had originally planned on selling the land at auction, on June 26, however decided to postpone that date.

“We are still on track for the auction,” said Ellingham. “We’re still looking towards that, however, at the same time, other things could happen before we get to the auction.”