Inspirah Rental Management Ltd. was mentioned in the Guelph Mercury over the weekend. Missed it? Read the article below about how the City’s student market is changing, for better or worse.
GUELPH—This fall and winter the student-geared downtown nightclub Trappers Alley/The Palace has hosted “Solstice Saturdays.”
A promotional video set to a booming house music track shows a crush of exhilarated undergraduates wearing glow sticks and throwing beach balls into the air as the screen changes to stills of apartments and the words “modern features” and “spacious living” flash across the screen.
But Solstice is not an energy drink or new flavoured vodka; it’s a place to live.
It’s a student-targeted residence, slated to open its first development, with around 600 beds, this fall.
The quickly-taking-shape six-storey structure at Edinburgh Road South and Gordon Street is hard to miss. And whether you are an aspiring resident or an already grumpy neighbour, it’s clear this new kind of student living is set to shake up the housing market, for undergraduates and their landlords.
Solstice is one of two new large, student-focused residences slated for occupancy this fall. Students are also set to move into the 100-bed Gordon Terrace, also on south Gordon Street, in September. It’s not clear when Solstice 2, also slated for Gordon Street, will open.
As manager of off-campus living at the University of Guelph, Kathryn Hofer is something of an expert on where about 13,500 students live off campus.
“Definitely I would say we’ve seen a shift to rental housing geared to students in the south end in general over the past 10 years as development has happened, but with these units, this is new to Guelph,” she said in a recent phone interview.
It’s called “purpose-built housing,” built to cater to student needs. Sometimes referred to as luxury student housing, it features comforts such as bathrooms for every bedroom and shiny new appliances.
Waterloo has had “purpose built” for years now, with properties such as The Luxe, which offers tanning beds as an amenity.
But it’s new for Guelph. Hofer said she’s already hearing about the impact the upcoming developments are having from local landlords, who have rented out single-family homes for years and who this season are finding it’s taking a little longer than usual, with fewer students responding to ads.
Mark Roberts, the president of Inspirah Rental Management Ltd., has also noticed owners “pushing the panic button a little bit,” and calling his company because they haven’t rented student houses yet this season.
“The winds of change are coming through Guelph,” he said, over mocha, at a local coffee shop one afternoon this month.
“We’re already feeling it this year because this year’s a big year.”
Roberts, who is also an investor, bought one-third of the units of the new Gordon Terrace development with his business partner. All of the 27, three- and four-bedroom units in that building have been sold to Guelph investors, he said.
Although change is certain, Roberts is not sure exactly how it is all going to shake out.
The competition is already “fierce” here because there are so many investors who want to get into the local student-rental housing game. This drives prices up for such properties, he said.
He believes the ones who will be left behind are the places that are already in less-desirable condition for renters.
“I say to every owner, drive down Gordon once and really open your eyes and understand what’s going on in this city,” he said.
As a property manager, he said he tries to engage with his student tenants and provide them with a positive experience, not “create animal house.”
Roberts said he agrees with the luxury label.
“We have a lot of parents come and sign leases with their kids, a lot of them say, ‘this is nicer than my house.'”
Hofer said there’s been a “surplus” of student housing in Guelph for years now.
Edinburgh Village, also known as Chancellor’s Way, was built near Stone Road Mall about a decade ago to meet the swelling demand of the student population at the time.
“Right now, we don’t have a growing student population, but we have more and more purpose-built housing coming on line. So we definitely see a changing landscape and it will definitely have an effect on people who have rentals geared to students. The surplus is growing and it will be a more competitive market for sure,” Hofer said.
Whether the infrastructure exists to support such high-density student areas is definitely a concern. With 600 students living in one building who may all be trying to get on the same bus for 9:30 a.m. class, these sorts of things can be a live issue, Hofer added.
Brittany Skelton, local affairs commissioner at the university’s Central Student Association, has questions about that too. She said she’s also worried the newer, upscale units will push up rental costs and price some students out of the market into poorly maintained units, where they are vulnerable to precarious living situations with bad landlords.
Skelton said she fears students may feel isolated, from both the community and from the other students around them in large purpose-built developments.
“They’re essentially like dormitories without a RA (residence adviser), so there isn’t anyone checking in on you anymore,” she said, adding that she’s heard about an increase in mental health issues in some student-geared housing in Waterloo
Solstice, with its free swag, promotional photos of good-looking young women, and marketing via student bar nights, is selling a lifestyle that’s not for everyone, she added.
“I think it’s a lifestyle that doesn’t necessarily speak to the average Guelph student and I don’t think really encompasses what we value as students at all.”
The idea of the hard-partying student who doesn’t care about their community is something she rejects as an unfair stereotype and sees student houses integrated within neighbourhoods as a better model.
There have already been rumbles in the community about how some of the new developments will fit in.
Last December, at an open house for Solstice 3, on its proposed site at the former St. Matthias Anglican Church building on Kortright Road West at Edinburgh, Ward 5 Councillor Cathy Downer heard concerns from neighbours about everything from the shadow the six-storey building would cast, to parking, loss of community space, and the supervision of all those students.
She said she’s left wondering if we have “the policies in place to effectively deal with these types of development. Is there something more that we could be doing?”
Solstice’s third instalment is yet to go before city council for approval.
There’s also a planned development at Stone Road and Gordon Street, just across from campus where the Best Western Hotel sits. Developer Abode Varsity Living took the city to the Ontario Municipal Board over the property. In April 2013, the board ruled Abode could build a student-housing development of up to 11 storeys on the site, but there’s no sign of construction yet.
The Solstice units will be owned by investors and rented out to students, according to their promotional literature. A property management firm will take care of the daily needs of student tenants.
For Downer this also raises questions about who exactly the investors will be, how many units they can buy and how much oversight they will have over the property.
That dual profile is reflected on Solstice’s website. The homepage, available in English, French, Chinese, German, Hungarian and Korean, showcases a 3D drawing of the Solstice 2 property and links to information about investing in a unit.
A pop-up of a smiling young woman, one eye peeking out from behind hands shielding her face, invites younger visitors to continue to rentsolstice.ca.
A blonde woman in a zip-up sweatshirt looking fresh out of the stands from a football game is waiting on that site, which has a University of Guelph-esque colour scheme and links to a Facebook page, asking “what’s your favourite way to unwind after a long day of classes?”
Multiple attempts to contact Solstice’s HIP developments for comment were unsuccessful.
The firm’s promotional literature, regularly available at the U of G’s University Centre, indicates the suites will feature fibre-optic Internet, an outdoor sun terrace “to soak up the rays after a long day of exams,” a video-game den, stainless steel fridges and quartz countertops.
For students like Brenna MacNeil, a second-year marketing management student from Oakville, that sounds ideal.
The 19-year-old was seriously considering leaving the townhouse she shares with three other students to move into Solstice with a friend, but found it hard to get a third or fourth housemate so late in the season. The Solstice website indicates it only rents to groups of three or four students. Still, she said she’d think about it for next year.
“Honestly, it’s a great thing because it’s kind of like living in res(idence) again, you’re surrounded by students. You don’t feel bad making a lot of noise on weekends,” she said during a break from classes.
She calls finding a place off-campus “a very stressful experience, trying to find something that everybody likes and everybody’s OK with.”
Solstice and Gordon Terrace are also offering something relatively novel for the market, an eight-month lease.
“The eight-month lease is really a great thing because we don’t live here during the summer, we go back home, so it seems like a waste to be paying for a space that you’re not living in,” MacNeil said.
Lincoln Farrell, a real estate agent who also owns and manages properties in Guelph, said he hasn’t seen a Solstice effect yet, but anticipates one.
He said he sees a split in his business between investors buying to rent to students, and parents buying to rent to their kids while they study.
Like Roberts, Farrell thinks the nicer places will always be rented out and the ones that will suffer will be the houses that are rundown.
Either way, the student housing saturation point could be near.
“If I were to venture a guess, I think after Solstice 1 and 2. That might be it,” Farrell said.