Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Profits and loss

So I've opinions.. economics would suggest they are motivated by profit and loss. So cards on the table; where do I stand to profit -- where do I stand to loose. Well I profit if you make residential rental accomodation more difficult to find. I have no problem currently renting my properties but economics says that removing my competition can't possibly hurt. So I stood to gain by the draconian suggestion that every licensed lodging house in Waterloo ceased to be one upon sale. I opposed this proposal not because it was bad for me but because it was !!NUTS!!.

Increase in the number of bedrooms I'm permitted to rent .. hasn't happened yet. The number is still 3 despite all the claims that the city change it to 4 on Monday. Why, because to have 4 I'd have to also be 150 meters away from the nearest licensed lodging house. Houses in Waterloo actually able to enjoy the benefits of the change as it currently stands are zero.. most certainly none in the prime areas where students might wish to live -- close to the university. And those that are could have obtained license for 4 or more, prior to change of by-law anyway.

But yes, the increase from 3 to 4 is eminently sensible. In a community which would like to live in residential neighbourhoods I've had accomodation I've been forced to leave vacant, year after year due to the cities by-laws. In a country that recognises the need for more affordable housing, I live in a city which has denied the poorest a bedroom I could have given them for a song.

Removal of the minimum distance separation rules. Would I benefit.. No except in that I'd now be able to rent to 4 rather than the current 3. I'm not planning on
buying up property, and I am certainly not planning or running a bording house, or accomodation for obscene numbers in a residential neighbourhood. But the city would benefit. People would then be able to believe that they rented on a level playing field. Communities would benefit if instead of large lodging houses packed with students the one in four within our community who were students, lived a lifestyle no different from the one in four within our community who are blond.

Grandfathering. Technically I might be labelled profiting here, though that is not at all clear. Our newest property is a legal-non-conforming duplex, converted from a single residence when the powers that be last thought it would be a great idea to encourage intensification by permitting second units to be constructed in a single home. We paid what seemed at the time a small fortune for what physically would be a very cheap house if not located on the north side of Columbia. Following rezoning of the south side of Columbia rumour has it that those houses sold for $450,000 or more. We could have purchased a nice home for the price of the property at 44 Columbia. We then promptly added a further 10% to our costs by completely renovating the basement area. Yes it was a duplex, but you had to wash dishes in a laundry tube, had a kitchen which consisted little more than stove in a shared laundry room area, and washing facilities were a very small shower. We've brought this property up to fire code; replaced all the electrics; put in dual fuse panels; converted bedrooms that were into larger bedrooms that are; added a full bathroom with bath, and a full fitted kitchen. This work was all done by professionals, and inspected and approved. But with the uncertainty about what would be permitted following the passing of the new by-law; yes we have concerns and would be almost certainly considering legal action if having done everything with approval of the city to improve the quality of accomodation at 44 Columbia, they had then turned round and told us that we could put no more than 3 in a legal non-conforming duplex, because as of this date it was no longer a legal duplex.

The right way -- the wrong way

So what do I think of what the city has achieved with its newly revised rental by-laws. And what do I think they might have instead achieved.

Personally I am very skeptical about the revisions to the bylaw. I support the notion that those who rent should be licensed to do so.. always have. I'd have been happy to be given a license to rent to the numbers I do, but the city made that not an option. Why.. because no way am I the required distance from another house that has a license to rent. I'm two doors from such a house. I support the notion that the city should police accomodation for fire and safety -- all houses.. mine and everyone elses. While it may be financially painful I support all reasonable modifications I might be required to make to my own home or others to make it safe. I've had a fire at my house.. I now respect fire in a way that those who haven't perhaps do not.

That I now have to give particulars of all my tenants and how much I'm charging them; that troubles me. Personally I'm in now way ashamed of what I charge students; as said we are more likely subsidising them than they supporting us. But I worry about providing particulars of my tenants to the city for two reasons. The first is that it might make me liable to charges that I am abusing a confidence. I want to remain on the right side of my tenants. And politically I worry that it is the thin edge of the wedge. There have been a lot of accusations of fascism bouncing around -- I hear the word and I wonder if people know what fascism is -- but yes, the fascist movement gained its power from precisely what the city is now asking me for -- the identification of a visible (though I would argue it less visible than most) minority. On principle I do not want to aid any movement by Canada that involves it becoming more of a police state. If I got to push it would be to push Canada away from being the police state that it is becoming.. G20 comes to mind.

Criminal back ground check -- covered that. Increase in rental costs for landlords, and students, sad. Down grading of Waterloo so that it is now considered a worse place to invest in than either Kitchener or Cambridge when we were #1... enacting legislation which the Ontario Human Rights commissioner takes issue with.. all indications that the City of Waterloo imagines itself smarter than in reality it is.

But missed opportunities -- tragic. The city got it completely backwards. They always get it completely backwards; if I were a betting man I'd be betting that it is no different next time. And let me be clear -- I don't think we've a bad council in place right now. I like and would vote again for Mayor Halloran, I like and follow Karen Scian's bloggs -- she deserved to be re-elected unapposed. And I like and respect Jeff Henry. I think Ward 6 will be well served by him. But I distrust the abilities of our city to plan, or create improvement. What they touch does not as a rule turn to gold. I've seen what they are capable of; and that worries me. The desert which is Columbia St south is their mess. The inability to enforce by-laws is their mess. Northdale is their mess. The ad-hoc way in which residential cresents such as Cardill get trashed by changes to zoning is the cities fault. But the people who are at the top. They don't build the plane they fly -- they just get dumped with the responsibility of trying to land it; with as few fatalities as possible.

The city to my mind wants to remove the visible minority from the residential areas when they should if they were my sort of Canadians I imagine myself to be, be wanting to integrate those very same visible minorities into the very same communities. Instead of making their focus the minority of students who abuse police, could they not instead have focused on the vast majority who do not. Could they not have seen students as their own children, and not as some alien creature invading protected areas. This city needs intensification. It has to become more dense it can no longer solve the need for more accomodation by creating more sprawl. It's legislation should have been focused on increasing the availability of rental accomodation in residential neighbourhoods because a significant proportion of "people" like living in residential neighbourhoods. That after all is why residential neighbourhoods exist -- to be lived in.

The city also wants to address health and safety and the terrible state of some rental accomodation. I walked every street in Ward 6 and there are places I'd not want to live in. Ergo, I agree we should be trying to provide opportunity for students to avoid living in such conditions. How do you solve that problem.. the city seems to think it is solved by firstly trying to rewrite the rules as to who may rent by initially unilaterally declaring that a rental property ceased to be legally rentable when sold, and any license attached to that property null and void on sale, and in backing off on that insane strategy, is now pretty much back to the status quo. The strategy was insane because it would have jeopardised the market value of a huge swath of property in Waterloo. This would have trashed peoples savings, and futures of retirement and would have had consequences beyond those I think the city intended. On High Street every third property would have at the stroke of a pen lost probably half its market value. The risk was that banks would refuse to renew morgages on those properties, and you'd have a US style, abandonment of properties on streets that would have impacted not just on rental property values but all property values. It also could have resulted in lawsuits that I and every other resident of Waterloo would have ended up indirectly paying, and we have enough problems with funding our existing legal issues, without creating new ones. It was a sledge hammer to crack a nut that wasn't even capable of even hitting the nut. And as such it was !!NUTS!!.

My solution which I genuinely believe would have had more chance of success. Encourage additional residential owners in Waterloo to rent. Let the students move out of the bad accomodation to better accomodation. Don't remove the right of bad landlords to rent.. remove their ability to rent. For a landlord inability to rent is for a pilot what loosing wings is. We don't just loose income, we pay for the priviledge of loosing that income because we have to make mortgage payments on empty houses as well as full ones. The city tried to remove the shirts of all who own licensed properties in Waterloo (I don't). They should instead have been seeking to leave those landlords at the lower ends of the health and safety spectrum, standing utterly naked.. with crappy properties that no student would consider paying for the right to live in.

Put simply, to the extent that the city targetted the actual problem, they might then get lucky and hit upon an actual solution. But if you don't even know what the target is, chances of hitting it by luck seem pretty slim.

And in a world that needs more accomodation, my city has just enacted legislation that will discourage my neighbours from considering doing what we have done. I seriously doubt that even we would have contemplated becoming landlords if we had been confronted with -- you have to face a beauracracy to become a landlord, you have to pay fees to provide rental accomodation to even a single other person, you have to have periodic police checks, etc. etc. The tragedy of the newly enacted by laws is that they are regressive; when one might hope for progressive policies. The city has tried to make a bad situation better; almost certainly has managed to do so with its requirement that all must have a license; but has simultaneously made things worse, by promoting policies which will discourage the creation of new rental accomodation in residential areas.

Certainly some residents of Waterloo will applaud a reduction of availability of rental accomodation in Waterloo. Please to those I say reflect on the reality that one in four in Ward 6 will be directly affected by your choice to exclude them from your communities. They are the poorest, they are the most vulnerable, and least you forget they gave you your jobs at RIM, at OpenText, at Sybase.. history will say Waterloo was built by immigrants. North Waterloo would not be the North Waterloo it is if not for students.. they are our future and we are too dumb to even get it.

My tenants have started here as students and many have stayed to become valuable members of this community. Do you think those will stay who we effectively tell when they are students -- not wanted. Doubt it -- doubt it a lot.

Wearing the title criminal until I prove otherwise

It's a small thing, its a silly thing, no larger than a piece of yellow cloth, cut to become a star of David. But it hurts and the hurt isn't going away. Yes I wear the brand.. and short of selling up and moving which has been at least mentioned to me as an option, I'm stuck with the branding.. you see, I'm one of (and I can see now already the stigmatising) those Landlords, Land Baron even, that the city has decided need blaming for the actions of a minority of students who it seems the city has been incapable of effectively policing the behaviour of the last many years.

I moved here in 1981. I was a resident of this community raised children here, all at 41 High Street. I saw my neighbours come and I saw them leave... no lets be more factual. I saw two of my neighbours leave.. I saw two of my other neighbours die. The neighbour beside me, was son of the mother behind me. And also behind me was an elderly croat couple.. it is a strange thing. One remembers the young and one remembers the old. Well, they moved on or passed on. The neighbour most recently behind me decided to call it quits living north side of Columbia and is now more comfortable living in an apartment. Doesn't miss at all the problem of living here.

So where is here.. High Street is one street north of Columbia, just outside Northdale, and in Sugarbush. It is a little like being a frog in a vat of water living here. Most of the time not much happens.. but occasionally the heat gets turned up. There has over the years I've been living here been a migration of residents out of my community. We are one of the last few left standing here.

So some background. The city "officially" has minimum separation rules for students, and stipulates that licensed lodging houses be 75 meters or even 150 meters minimum distance apart. The official doesn't really apply where I live, because the official didn't become official until after unofficial was already defacto official. Here one in every three residential house on High Street has a license to provide lodging to students, and the same is true north side of Columbia.

Now, either as a frog in a very hot bowl, I've just not sense to grasp the temperature, or the fact that one in three houses on my street is licensed doesn't in and of itself affect me as a resident. I don't really know who lives in every house on my street. And when I greet those who live here, I don't know this is an owner, this is a worker at RIM, this is a student. Bit crazy but to me they are all just people.. with names I don't know mostly.

But the uncertainty about who people are, what they are likely to do, who will replace them when they move, and the type of turnover one has when one in four of all those who live in Ward 6 are students, creates identifiable risk for me. The reality of that risk, is that I've never had to live beside a lunatic, and that if I did they probably wouldn't be here long, while I've friends who live in normal places like London England, who have lunatics living beside them, whose idea of getting rid of the weeks rubbish is to dump it over the fence regularly onto my friends garden but that's another story.

Strangely given the cities concern about students, they are not my primary risk. My primary risk is development on the North Side of Columbia. Its ugly but it happens. You buy a property, plant trees see it age along with you, and one day those nice similar properties behind you get torn down and up go the apartment blocks. Where once one had light for a garden one now has row upon row of windows staring out of you. Time to move, and at that point past time to move. You are not permitted to have your home torn down (painful like loosing a friend that would be) to be replaced by similar apartment buildings. And when you find it time to thus move out, you won't find others thinking it therefore time to move in. Your property will sell for a loss, and you'll be left without a shirt to wear.

The smart move perhaps is just to turn out the lights and move on when one realises that the above is essentially inevitable. But there is an alternative and we bought into that alternative. You minimise the risk by taking ownership of the threat. We purchased the house beside us when it came up for sale, because simply it was very likely to be purchased by an absentee landlord, and it was no trouble for us to instead be that landlord. And with the stroke of a pen we became that ugly creature.. a landlord.

You have to be one to really know what it is like. Wear the shoes so to speak. Bit of a learning experience. Strangely ones tenants mostly seem to like you. They try to stay on your good side.. and as a landlord, if one no more than objects to something one is heard. If one of my neighbours told one of my tenants, its against the by-law to have a fire in a backyard, they'd likely be told to mind their own business. But if as was the informal arrangement, they instead called me -- I'd go over there.. object to the fire, and it would be promptly put out.. no questions asked.

The group which doesn't seem to like me (or not be very sympathetic to me anyway) is the greater society. Legislation is drafted which gives greater powers to my tenants than to me. I've friends who purchased a property and got damned unlucky off the bat.. they got a tenant who wrecked the air conditioning unit by running it on high but never removing its winter protection; who wrecked stuff in the house, and refused to pay damages. You'd think that a landlord would bit their tongue, take the lost and find a new tenant.. not easily done if the tenant also refuses to leave. The costs, the lengthy court case, the emotional trauma.. the friends up and left here and now live in North Bay.. and no, they'd not again consider being landlords. It's a risk, and it is a known.. the system wants to protect the disadvantaged.. and the presumption is that it is the tenant who is disadvantaged not the landlord.

Its not widely grasped but we are far move vulnerable to abuse than likely to abuse. The City of Waterloo just this monday admitted that there was not one recorded incident in Waterloo of a Landlord every abusing a tenant. But stories about tenants abusing landlords are common. We've been lucky.. did have a jerk, move his girlfriend in with him which I'd not much have cared to know, since as Trudeau famously said government doesn't belong in the bedrooms of the nation, but this individual was one of three sharing the lifestyle of having their own home next door to me. The other two objected to the fact that girlfriend was using the lions share of the facilities and paying nothing towards the utilities, and took the issue to the court of last appeal -- the Landlord. They felt the utility costs should be divided four ways not three, and we agreed completely with the reasonabless of this. But he refused.. he also refused to move girlfriend out -- we did ask him to. We waiting this one out and thankfully he moved out at the end of the tenancy agreement a few months later. Otherwise we would really have been in deep waters. A problem got rid of is a problem at least behind one.

In the only other contentious case we had a tenant move home for the summer, and refuse to pay those months of her lease. She claimed that another tenant had used her room in her absence, and so she no longer felt required to pay her rent for that same room. Annoying to say the least, particularly since we have no ability to be policeman of what happens in a property we rent. We need technically to give 24 hours notice, before even being permitted to enter these properties. This came close to being taken to small claims court. Fortunately the other tenant was more on our side than hers when she grasped she was pawn in a game of lies and shared with us the email in which she'd been told by the tenant she could use her larger bedroom for the summer, and the later email saying the other tenant had decided not to return because she'd found somewhere cheaper. But I hope it rams home the point. We Landlords within a modern society are at the mercy of being abused by our tenants in ways that we can't anticipate and can't reasonably be expected to avoid.

Long trek forward. We now own the houses behind us on Columbia too. So hopefully the feared apartment building cannot now go up behind us, as long as we choose to remain guarding our own fortress. So with three properties adjacent to us, and our own home does that make us Land Barons. Guess so.

So back to the Star of David issue. I'm no longer just a Land Baron, I'm also a suspected criminal, at least until I prove otherwise. I must according to new city rules have a police check done once every five years, in order to continue to be the ugly Landlord that they obviously imagine me to be. The city as far as I know doesn't conduct police checks on our councillors who manage the cities money, make the rules, and have the power if not the desire to be corrupt, but it does require that these checks be done on me.

This is insulting and demeaning.. it has alienated me from the very city I've done so much for. And why -- because a tiny minority of students in residential accomodation have for the last many years proved beyond reasonable doubt that the city is utterly incapable of enforcing any reasonable set of standards for behaviour in residential zones. This boggles my mind but it is the story I'm told. A bunch of very drunk students tell the arriving by law-enforcement official come to quell a rock band at 2am that they are all Father Christmas or whatever.. and the poor by-law officer doesn't know who to believe. He/She doesn't think to photograph the offenders, to lock them up, to demand id, or to contact the landlord to seek information about the renters of the house where large party is occurring.. they make it simple for themselves by issuing a warning to the air and leave. And ergo I as the landlord potentially kilometers from the offence am now to be labelled a criminal until I prove that I am not. I who have policed the houses I rent for as long as I've rented them. I who've kept my street what it is; a largely quiet peaceful one. I who routinely have to pick up the litter which those others now dump on Columbia. I who try to keep the sidewalks clear in the winter. I who've called noise enforcement to protest for a second time in two nights a rock band clearly heard two blocks away at 2 am at 45 Columbia.. in order to protect my own tenants from such behaviour.. I whose offered to be backup to a female police officer if she had qualms about the group of drunks at 45 Columbia. I'm now the criminal.

But wait.. maybe I'm more than a landlord.. maybe I'm a slum landlord.. maybe it is the environment I run that is criminal. Go ask to be shown round the places I rent. The quality of property offered is no different from my own. The houses are after all next door to my own. And we fix things properly and promptly.. we keep up our properties as well as our neighbourhood.. and though we might by most landlords be labelled insane, when we replace a rotting deck that is small we replace it by one three times larger.. we don't have a problem renting.. almost invariably as one student leaves a friend of theirs is invited to have their place. The tenants who now live in our recent aquisition -- friends of the tenants behind us. For we don't just keep up the properties.. we also offer probably below market rates for accomodation at our properties.. we don't want to be ripping off students.. we want to protect our initial investment here, and if we profit, it will be that while most are leveraging the fact that one house rises in value over time, we are leveraging the fact that in this case so do four.

Star of David.. criminal background check.. it hurts, it offends, it demeans.. I say this and people don't quite get it. One of my students at the university asked me, if I actually had anything to hide.. was I actually a criminal. Ok.. so the questions out there.. the simple answer is no, never have been, never will be. The long form answer. I did once do 80kph going down Lexington, find out too late that it was a 50kph zone and risk loosing points. But I fought the issue, and got it reduced to a charge of being 20kph over.. and accepted that charge. And I did once show up in court as a witness.. but that is as close as I've ever come to being the wrong side of the law. I wouldn't mind if everyone got to wear the same star, but I object when I consider who is excluded. I don't rent other things, but I imagine if I rented out my tent trailer so someone could use it for a vacation I'd not need to have a criminal check done on me first. If I owned the apartment buildings on the south side of Columbia I'd not need it done. The ones who decided that I must have this check done routinely are not themselves so checked (as far as I know). But rent the properties beside me and I do.

So bend over and take your medicine Ian.

Why a new blog

This blog is to post commentary on where Waterloo is at, where it is heading, and what I as a resident of Waterloo feel about my changing community. I hope that it doesn't degenerate into a forum for personal attacks or for unfair or misleading observations. I care about a city I've lived in 30 years, and I just need a means of expressing that.