It looks as though the city is about to take an interesting step in its zoning regulations. Worrying about the potential emergence of student ghettos in Sandy Hill, the Glebe and Old Ottawa South, city council has before it a motion to put a temporary moratorium on the conversion of houses into apartments. The motion was presented by Alta Vista Councillor Peter Hume and will be voted on tomorrow (Wednesday).
It’s noteworthy that Mr. Hume dubbed his own motion “draconian”. This is, perhaps, a tad hyperbolic, but his characterization demonstrates the severity of the measure and, thus, the apparent degree to which the threat of student ghettos is perceived.
It is, without a doubt, generally a bad idea for city councils to begin declaring, willy nilly, what people may do with their property. City Council and the bureaucrats at City Hall are unable to process all the information that the housing market is able to collectively analyze and express in terms of prices and product offerings. Cities that meddle greatly in the housing market – for whatever noble intentions – are more likely to harm its citizens and completely skewer the housing market. See New York City.
But, at the same time, market mechanisms and corrections can be brutal. Rapid change can cause severe displacement and lead to sub-optimal outcomes. Not everyone with a stake in the housing market are actually market players. Not every resident is a consumer of residential housing. Many are simply residents. Further, the market and the price mechanism, without some form of oversight, cannot always account for the negative externalities produced. The damage to the wealth of others, and the damage to community are not accounted for within the rent charged to four undergrads looking for a place to crash.
Further, property rights are mere conventions. They’re necessary guidelines for personal security and prosperity, but they are closer to imaginary than gospel. Property rights only exist as long as others respect them. It’s reasonable for those negatively affected by the choices you make on your property to have some say in what we allow ourselves to do.
This does, of course, smack of NIMBYism (generally a scourge on development, progress and personal freedom). As bad as NIMBYism can be, it does have an upside. Those who so value their backyards and their communities are those who are working to make our communities stronger. Yes, the melodramatic lamentations over the removal of a few trees may be hard to take, but the opposite – living in a purely atomized city where you do not feel a connection to the community in which you live – is worse.
It seems odd that this measure would be applied to Sandy Hill, the Glebe and Old Ottawa South. These are three separate communities, and it is doubtful that all three would benefit from the exact same policy. It’s also interesting the Golden Triangle would be overlooked. It is closer to the University of Ottawa than the Glebe is to Carleton University. However, the proposal is for this to be a temporary measure, so it should provide time for city planners to review the development patterns of the three areas to determine what would be the most prudent path forward. Such lessons could, no doubt, be applied to other neighbourhoods that may be affected by the influx of students.
The increase of student housing is thought to be a result of the city’s intensification policy. Even with these negative side effects, intensification is a worthwhile goal for the city. But intensification is only sound policy if it is done properly. Urban living thrives on diversity. It thrives on diversity of housing (single family homes, apartments, condos), diversity of land use (residential, commercial, parks) and demographic diversity. And if you are seeking a homogeneous neighbourhood, I would suggest that a central urban community is not what you should be looking at. And trying to turn urban living into an artificially constricted suburban existence is superlative foolishness.
In the end, the motion is likely prudent, as long as the moratorium is for a short time. Sandy Hill is loud, and the level of disruption to the neighbourhood is directly related to the student population (frosh week is a particularly bad time to try to sleep in that neighbourhood). It is reasonable to think that the neighbourhood has reached its saturation point for the type of housing generally attractive to students. The Glebe, meanwhile, is still remarkably quiet for a central neighbourhood with a large rental market and student population. It is silly to think that any student ghetto problem in the Glebe is at par with Sandy Hill.
As prudent as this move is, there is a worry (beyond destroying Ottawa’s rental market). It is quite easy to foresee different rules being created for different neighbourhoods – not based on actual circumstances, but on the squeakiness of the wheels. It is not hard to foresee the city permanently limiting development in the Glebe, but no in Sandy Hill. Such a move, rather than stopping student ghettos, would most certainly create them.