Constructing a College Town: Displacement in a Student Housing Building Boom

Waterloo, Ontario, a city of about 100,000 people in a metropolitan area of roughly half a million, is home to both the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University. Substantial increases in enrollment at these institutions over the 2000s and early 2010s have contributed to a recent building boom in privately-developed, off-campus, purpose-built student apartments centred on the Northdale neighbourhood, located between the two universities (Figures 1, 2). While the formerly middle-class postwar suburban neighbourhood dominated by single-detached bungalows had previously been increasingly occupied by student renters, the municipality has since acted as an enabler by rezoning much of the area to accommodate high-rise residential towers—in some cases up to 25 storeys (Figure 3). These drastic urban changes engender displacement in a number of forms across spatial scales ranging from the local to the transnational and at various temporal moments.

Figure 1: The location of Northdale and adjacent universities. Numbers indicate the locations of photos in this essay. Map Source: © 2016 Google

Figure 1: The location of Northdale and adjacent universities. Numbers indicate the locations of photos in this essay. Map Source: © 2016 Google

Figure 2: Combined enrollment increases at Waterloo’s two universities, from less than 25,000 in 2000 to approximately 40,000 in 2015, have led to a boom in private student housing construction in the Northdale neighbourhood, located between the two institutions. Note the house to the right is for sale. Photo: Author

Figure 2: Combined enrollment increases at Waterloo’s two universities, from less than 25,000 in 2000 to approximately 40,000 in 2015, have led to a boom in private student housing construction in the Northdale neighbourhood, located between the two institutions. Note the house to the right is for sale. Photo: Author

Figure 3: Student housing towers, some up to 25 storeys, now dominate what was previously a low-density suburban neighbourhood characterized by single-family homes and strip malls. Photo: Author

Figure 3: Student housing towers, some up to 25 storeys, now dominate what was previously a low-density suburban neighbourhood characterized by single-family homes and strip malls. Photo: Author

The first form of displacement unfolding in Northdale is direct displacement. Here, student housing development aligns most closely with conventional understandings of new-build gentrification and property-led urban redevelopment. Relatively affordable market-rate apartment buildings are boarded up, torn down, and replaced with student suites only months later, their former inhabitants forced to live elsewhere (Figure 4). New mid- and high-rise student buildings also physically take the place of the post-war bungalow homes that were there before (Figure 5).

Figure 4: On the left, a relatively low-rent apartment building is boarded up prior to demolition in February, 2016. On the right is the same site in October, with student housing development well underway. Photo: Author

Figure 4: On the left, a relatively low-rent apartment building is boarded up prior to demolition in February, 2016. On the right is the same site in October, with student housing development well underway. Photo: Author

Figure 5: Bungalow homes such as these are typical of Northdale’s original development. Photo: Author

Figure 5: Bungalow homes such as these are typical of Northdale’s original development. Photo: Author

One might counterclaim that since some of these houses were owner-occupied, this is not truly displacement as owners were well-compensated for selling their properties to developers, which—presumably—they did of their own volition. This perspective overlooks the actual sequence of events: as high-rise developments took hold on the edge of the blocks along arterial roads and houses mid-block were leased to students, the character and morphology of the neighbourhood itself changed. The change is partly social: student neighbourhoods are notorious for rowdy behaviour, unkempt properties, and parking issues, and Northdale is no different (Figure 6). It is also physical: new buildings remake the streetscape, and quite literally cast shadows across the institutions of the neighbourhood (Figure 7). This portends a second form of displacement, or rather, displacement, whereby a neighbourhood’s initial inhabitants no longer find themselves belonging in the area through a loss of sense of place (see "New-build gentrification: its histories, trajectories, and critical geographies" by Davidson and Lees), especially, in this case, elderly residents wishing to age in place. They are out-of-place; in a word, displaced. Many are thus coerced to sell out. As these homes are rented or redeveloped to house more students, a vicious cycle is perpetuated. Displacement begets displacement begets displacement….

Figure 6: Couches on the lawn and waste and recycling bins in disarray (at right) form common complaints against student tenants in areas such as Northdale. Photo: Author

Figure 6: Couches on the lawn and waste and recycling bins in disarray (at right) form common complaints against student tenants in areas such as Northdale. Photo: Author

Figure 7: A modest Ukrainian Orthodox church is overshadowed by new buildings near Wilfred Laurier University, just outside the Northdale neighbourhood. While this particular development is not marketed specifically to students, its proximity to the university means it will likely be heavily occupied by students and young professionals. Photo: Author

Figure 7: A modest Ukrainian Orthodox church is overshadowed by new buildings near Wilfred Laurier University, just outside the Northdale neighbourhood. While this particular development is not marketed specifically to students, its proximity to the university means it will likely be heavily occupied by students and young professionals. Photo: Author

A third form of displacement is that of exclusionary displacement. That is, households who might otherwise move into this area are prevented from doing so. In theory, landlords cannot discriminate against non-students. But in practice, the student housing developments are marketed uniquely and aggressively to students. Agents of larger rental companies allegedly distribute fliers to freshman students (who typically reside on-campus for their first year) as early as the first day of orientation week. These campaigns are designed to instill a sense of urgency to find accommodation for the second year right away. Of course, the panic is manufactured. The oversupply of bed spaces in student housing is estimated to be approximately 1200 units.

Yet these surplus student units are unlikely to be occupied by non-student households (with perhaps the not-insignificant exception of recently graduated students). Indeed, it is hard to imagine a family with young children or a couple of elderly pensioners eagerly signing a lease to an apartment in a building otherwise full of undergraduate students. Furthermore, landlords are able to charge more by renting individual rooms within a unit to students than they are renting the whole unit to, say, a family. Rents are thus priced to be unconducive to non-student tenants. Many suites would be far too large for all but the largest families to fill anyway. The student housing neighbourhood thereby becomes an exclusive one.

These forms of displacement are problematic for a number of reasons. Not only are direct displacement and displacement incredibly disruptive to the everyday lives of (former) neighbourhood residents, but all of these types of displacement serve to exclude non-students from important locational qualities, many of which are especially valuable to more marginal sectors of the population, including those with lower incomes or the elderly who are unable to drive. The neighbourhood is one of the best-served by transit in the city, with bus routes to all corners of the region, including three rapid bus routes (one of which will soon be replaced with light rail rapid transit). It is relatively proximate to shopping, services, and employment opportunities in Uptown Waterloo (the city’s historic centre), as well as to Waterloo Park, a major urban green space. The city’s Northdale Community Improvement Plan of 2012 calls for further quality of life improvements including streetscaping, active transport infrastructure, and mixed-use developments. The irony is that despite a professed vision to create an “inclusive” community in Northdale, the current reality suggests that the benefits of these improvements will accrue to an exclusive segment of the population, namely middle-class students (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Plans for Northdale call for improved urban amenities and the creation of a mixed-use district. Rather than foster an inclusive and diverse community, many new businesses—such as the smoothie bar and marijuana paraphernalia shop in this recent development—serve primarily the young student population. Photo: Author

Figure 8: Plans for Northdale call for improved urban amenities and the creation of a mixed-use district. Rather than foster an inclusive and diverse community, many new businesses—such as the smoothie bar and marijuana paraphernalia shop in this recent development—serve primarily the young student population. Photo: Author

Underlying these three tendencies is a fourth form of displacement associated with the transnational migration of students to Waterloo’s universities. In fact, as overall enrollment has increased, international students have accounted for an increasing share of the total, even offsetting modest declines in the number of domestic students in recent years, forming an important target market for student housing developers (Figure 9). Our intent is certainly not to pin local displacements upon the actions of foreign students. Rather, we would like to point out that even apparently voluntary decisions to study abroad are heavily influenced by global neocolonial power relations that generally (though not universally) position “Western” universities as—at least discursively—higher quality institutions. For many, studying abroad is a mark of social or cultural distinction viewed as necessary to get ahead, or as an alternative source of prestige for those not admitted to top institutions in their home country. So while these transnational movements are not a form of forced displacement in any strict sense, neither are they completely neutral, structured as they are by the globally uneven geographies of higher education and power relations of neo-imperialism. It is also worth noting that many (but certainly not all) international students may feel socially and culturally marginalized—symptoms remarkably parallel to those of displacement.

Figure 9: Signs in Mandarin advertising fast-food delivery in the food court of a student housing complex speak to the targeting of growing numbers of transnational students as an important market for developers. Photo: Author

Figure 9: Signs in Mandarin advertising fast-food delivery in the food court of a student housing complex speak to the targeting of growing numbers of transnational students as an important market for developers. Photo: Author

There is a temporal dimension to these displacements, each of which can be placed on a continuum from having already occurred to being currently underway. Direct displacement is nearly (but not entirely) complete, except perhaps around the edges of the neighbourhood. Indeed, it was largely complete even in advance of the Northdale plan, which cites the presence of very little owner-occupied housing at that time; much of the rental market was geared to students.

Displacement has followed a parallel trajectory as redevelopment has fostered both a changing landscape and sense of place, while encouraging direct displacement. In some ways, however, displacement may lie closer to the current end of our continuum, as early direct displacement did not entail large-scale re-workings of the built environment as do recent and ongoing developments. Contemporary concern exists for the preservation of important cultural and historical landmarks including the commemorative Veterans’ Green and one of Ontario’s first projects to house returning soldiers in 1946, later complemented by small homes constructed in 1948 for the same purpose (Figure 10). While the heritage value of these small homes is recognized in the Northdale plan, it offers few substantial protections. However, they do remain largely physically intact to date.

Figure 10: Small houses such as this one were built in the late 1940s to house soldiers returning from World War II, and are considered by many to be an important part of Waterloo’s built heritage. The sign in the window, advertising a popular bar, is a common mark of student occupancy. Photo: Author

Figure 10: Small houses such as this one were built in the late 1940s to house soldiers returning from World War II, and are considered by many to be an important part of Waterloo’s built heritage. The sign in the window, advertising a popular bar, is a common mark of student occupancy. Photo: Author

Exclusionary displacement and the transnational displacements of students, meanwhile, are better characterized as ongoing phenomena. Unless more forceful measures are put in place to encourage affordable housing options for non-student residents, it is unlikely that exclusionary displacement can be reversed in Northdale. There is something of a feedback loop at play, where high concentrations of students dissuade non-students from locating there, regardless of the urban amenities on offer. The UK experience suggests that policies to undo student concentrations within particular neighbourhoods range from ineffective (hoping students can be syphoned out of the neighbourhood by purpose-built developments) to deeply problematic (draconian and discriminatory restrictions on student rentals above some threshold). Transnational student mobility is likely to continue as long as global power structures continue to exist, whether these construct Western institutions as “superior,” valuate the cultural and symbolic capital of elites’ study abroad, or incentivize schools to increase foreign student enrollment to maintain growth.

Many of these issues are recognized locally. In September, 2016, the city—along with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation—held a forum to discuss repurposing surplus student housing to address shortages of affordable housing and other needs. Time will tell if planners are able to reverse the negative effects of displacement and fulfil the Northdale plan’s promise of creating an inclusive community.

 

Evelyn Hofmann is a master’s student in the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo. Her thesis research is focused on the relation between contemporary border space in France and virtual utopian forces of migration. 

Nick Revington is a doctoral candidate in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo. His research interests include housing, urban change, and the role of capital therein.