SU tackles affordable housing

By Sarelle Azuelos

Tensions continue to rise as vacancy rates within the city force students to pay huge sums for a place to
stay. The University of Calgary Student’s Union is in the process of putting together a paper entitled Working Together: Finding Solutions to Affordable Accommodations for Students that will outline the SU’s
goals for exactly what each level of
government, as well as U of C administration, should accomplish in order to ease
housing pressures for students.

SU vice-president external Mike Selnes described students’ current living conditions as difficult given their fixed incomes and hoped this project will result in action. Previous attempts at approaching government officials only resulted in the SU being directed to different levels of government. The paper will be presented Oct. 3 to all major media outlets and government in the hopes of direct communication instead of passing on responsibility. A forum consisting of the SU, U of C representative and various
government officials will be held in the
Terrace Lounge, between That Empty Space and the Coffee Company, from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Students are encouraged
to attend and voice their concerns.

“Over the summer we made a call out to the community,” said Selnes. “There were a couple hundred responses in a couple days.”

The university residence waiting list still contained 775 students at the beginning of the fall, however. Selnes explained the numbers may have even been artificially low
considering returning residence students had a one month opening to apply.

Second-year science student David Knowlton commutes several hours to
avoid rental costs.

“Driving in from Strathmore every day is very time-consuming,” said Knowlton.
“I spend three hours every day just travelling. Taking public transit is overcrowded so I can’t study on that either.
The reason I’m living at home is because
the cost of rent is so high in Calgary.”

Some of the key recommendations for the university itself include increasing the
number of residence spaces to accommodate 11.5 per cent of students by 2009, a number that would bring the university on par with other major schools in the country.
A 1,000-bed facility would be sufficient to provide for these students, but more would be necessary for their
long-term goal of 15 per cent. Predictable fee increases that would allow students
to plan their finances over a longer
period of time are also being requested.

“Rez is a positive environment for
students,” said Selnes.

“I hope the university, with the money that they’ve received in the last year or two from the province, proceeds with some student housing projects,” said ward one alderman Dale Hodges.

Vice-Provost Students Ann Tierney sympathized with students’ concerns.

“We are working right now on a plan that involves reviewing the current buildings we have with the needs of ongoing maintenance and facility improvement,” said Tierney. “At the same time, [we’re] putting together a business plan and a proposal for a new residence building that we’d like to have by 2009.”

Tierney said she’s hoping to complete the proposal for a 350-bed unit by the end of the term.

“It’ll have to go through both internal board process and then, of course, it would have to get government support and approval to build,” she said.

The SU is lobbying for the City of Calgary to legalize secondary suites–which include any residence that is physically separate from a main home and has its own entrance, kitchen, bathroom and living quarters. A bylaw was passed Jul. 24, allowing these suites to be built into new developments after news that the new SAIT residence building was not going to open in time for the current school year. Selnes would like to see the city legalize these suites throughout the entire city, especially near major transportation routes. The SU is also asking the city to provide land near these transit lines for inter- institutional student residences.

Hodges found flaws in this recommendation.

“The province can buy land or give land or do whatever, that’s the province’s preview,” said Hodges. “But under the Municipal Government Act, the city is required to [buy and sell] our land at fair market value, not just to give it away. The LRT park and ride sites or anything near the LRT stations would be quite expensive.”

Selnes pointed out legalizing the suites would allow the city to regulate the suites and keep them up to code.

“There are about 15,000 to 18,000 illegal suites in the city,” said Selnes.

Secondary suites would put more spaces on the rental market appropriate for students with fixed incomes. Calgary’s 2006 vacancy rates were at 0.5 per cent according to a Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation rental market report. Currently communities are skeptical of increasing their student population because they believe they will add too much stress to their infrastructure claimed Selnes.

“Students add vibrancy to a community,” he said. “They are the volunteers. People need to be willing to accept them.”

The SU is approaching this topic of suites with the province as well. They are hoping the government will provide one-time grants or forgivable loans of $15,000 to people interested in converting space to accommodate students. Their policy states that the suites should be rented at below-market value in order to ensure students could afford them. It also points out that this will only be possible if both levels of municipal and provincial government work together in the hopes that one level of government won’t simply criticise the other for lack of action. Other requests include a removal of the municipal property taxes on residence buildings–a responsibility held by few other universities–and a provincial task force recommendation for temporary “rent stability guidelines.” Property taxes alone cost residence services roughly $350,000 a year.

Provincial Municipal Affairs and Housing communications director Robert Storrier’s response to the demand of more funding was exactly what the SU feared.

“Under new funding arrangements, municipalities decide where funding is applied,” said Storrier. “A developer would work with the University of Calgary and city and would make a decision if they want to proceed. New facilities now go through the City of Calgary.”

Knowlton noted that Alberta’s $400 rebate cheques could have gone towards housing and post-secondary education.

“All provincial government programs are universal,” said Storrier.

Some students may qualify for programs such as the Rent Supplement Program, but there are no other programs especially designed for stundent housing aid. Provincially, $285 million had been set aside for affordable housing as part of a five-year plan to have 11,000 new housing units according to Storrier.

Affordable housing programs within the city are also not student-specific.

“Calgary Housing Company handles about 4,000 housing units for low income families,” said Hodges. “They either bought existing buildings or helped some organization build, but it was just general, it wasn’t for student housing.”

Tierney explained the need of having the government involved to fund a residence building.

Federally, the SU currently has only one recommendation. They would like to see the Rental Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program Secondary and Garden Suite Initiative widened to encompass homeowners that would build or improve secondary suites for students. The RRAP currently distributes forgivable loans to landlords that are planning to rent out to seniors or adults with disabilities.

The SU is holding a Political Action Week to focus on affordable student housing Oct. 2-3 complete with a tent city. The hope is to increase awareness for affordable housing in the upcoming municipal election.

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