The hunt for residences

The hunt for residences McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 7, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 10
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > February 7, 2002 > The hunt for residences

The hunt for residences

McGill needs more student residences and it needs them yesterday.

In his most recent report to the Board of Governors, Principal Bernard Shapiro identified student residences as a major source of concern for the University.

McGill currently offers 1,740 spaces in residence for new students. To meet the demands of new first-year students alone, Director of Residences Flo Tracy estimates that McGill would need to accommodate at least 300 more beds.

But McGill will likely need even more new spaces than that.

In his report to the board, the principal wrote, "My belief is, over time, at least twice as many rooms will be needed as I expect there will be an increased demand not only from first-year students but, especially as [McGill Ghetto] rentals rise, also from upper year and graduate students.

"There is no doubt that our current lack of residence space makes recruitment of excellent students much more difficult than it would otherwise be and there is a high price to be paid each year we give so many of the students we would like to attract a reason to enrol elsewhere," he added.

Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Morty Yalovsky is the man heading up McGill's quest for more student residence spaces. It isn't an easy task, says Yalovsky, especially since the University's first preference is to find or construct a building in the downtown area close to the main campus.

Downtown real estate tends to be pricey -- especially if the seller knows that McGill is buying. "Once [owners] realize that the University is looking for property, the bill tends to go up," says Yalovsky. That's one of the reasons why McGill has outsourced its search to agents who will be quietly scouting around on the University's behalf.

Even when buildings do become available downtown, things get complicated. McGill isn't really interested in inheriting tenants who are already living in apartment buildings that go on the market. The University has made offers on two hotels only to be rebuffed.

"With hotels, we're only interested in the building and the land. The hotels say, 'We're a going concern. You're not just buying a building, you're buying a business,'" notes Yalovsky. So the hotels look for a buyer who will pay extra to also take over a business that the University has no interest in running.

McGill is also anxious to do some major renovation work on its student residences but, because of the shortage of spots for students, it can't currently afford to close any of the buildings down long enough to do the work.

"Our buildings are pretty well kept up," says Tracy. McGill has been doing some extensive repair work in recent years. Five million was spent on upgrading the residences' fire safety. Bathrooms have been renovated and roofs repaired.

"If we could close a residence for a while, we could do a lot more," notes Tracy. "We could make more common rooms, get better furnishings, fix all the tiles. The cafeterias really need renovating and you're looking at big bucks for that.

"It would be nice to give the older buildings a face lift and make them more accessible for students with disabilities."

There are a few factors that are making the search for new residence spaces an urgent concern. McGill's success in attracting more students from outside the province means that there are a lot of students coming into the city with few leads on how to find a place to live in Montreal.

The changing nature of the Montreal housing market is also a consideration. Once a renter's paradise for its abundant and inexpensive housing, the occupancy rate for dwellings had risen dramatically in recent years.

"The housing situation in the McGill Ghetto is horrendous right now. Landlords are jacking up the rents because the demand is so high," says Anne Marie Naccarato, a student senator for the Faculty of Arts who worked at the Student Housing Office last summer.

McGill currently runs a lottery for incoming students interested in living in residence. For those who don't fare well in the lottery, Tracy oversees an assistance plan that has McGill staff doing some of the legwork involved in finding them an apartment to live in.

Tracy says most students haven't yet had many problems finding a place to live off campus, but she expects things will become more difficult in the years to come if the housing shortage in Montreal escalates.

Yalovsky is looking at a few options. The Committee on the Reuse of the Existing Buildings of the McGill University Health Centre endorsed the notion that McGill should inherit the women's pavilion of the Royal Victoria Hospital and convert it into a student residence once the hospital's staff are relocated into the yet-to-be-built McGill University Health Centre campus.

But McGill still hasn't received official approval for the plan and even if it did, it wouldn't happen for another six or seven years. The reuse committee also suggested that McGill take over a portion of the Montreal Chest Hospital for residences and Yalovsky says there is a small chance that this might happen more quickly than originally anticipated.

McGill has been recently converting some of its buildings into small student housing units that accommodate about 12 to 15 students each. Yalovsky says this will continue.

As the staff from Development and Alumni Relations move from Martlet House and Rabinovich House into the newly acquired Seagram Building on Peel later this year, the tentative plan is for other McGill units to move into the mansions vacated by Development and Alumni Relations. This, in turn, will free up some more buildings for student housing.

"Whenever we free up a building, the priority is student residences," says Yalovsky.

McGill is also exploring resurrecting an old idea.

Yalovsky notes that McGill made a proposal decades ago to have another student residence built to accompany the McGill residences currently located near the bottom of Mount Royal close to University and Pine. Such a building could house about 365 students.

McGill has proposed the plan to city officials and will be making more pitches to municipal politicians and to citizens groups such as les Amis de la Montagne.

There is ample space for a new building and the structure could be situated in such a way that it would have little impact on Montrealers' ability to view the mountain, says Yalovsky. "We could offer Montrealers even better access to the mountain through a pedestrian path that would cut through the property," Yalovsky suggests.

Naccarato says she is happy that McGill has recognized that the need for more student housing is an important one, but she is uneasy with the principal's suggestion that the rates students pay to live in residence may be going up. She was also pleased to note that Dean of Students Bruce Shore recently suggested that the required length of residence leases will likely be reduced to 11 months from the current 11-and-a-half months. "That helps but it's still not ideal. A lot of students will still be paying rent for three months when they won't be there."

Tracy says one thing that doesn't need to be re-examined is McGill's approach to treating the students who already live in residence.

"We're very responsive to student needs. There are not a lot of layers between the administration and the students and their leaders. It's a very collegial approach," says Tracy. Students have a lot of input on how the residences are run through student advisory committees and through the elected student leaders who sit on the University's residence council.

Unlike some universities that smother students with regulations, "We don't have many rules," says Tracy. "Don't mess with the fire equipment and show respect -- to yourself, to the other people here and to the building."

Residence directors and floor fellows are on hand to lend counsel and help, but the general idea is to give the students in residence as much responsibility as possible in order to equip them with the skills they'll need once they live on their own.

A recent survey of residences at eight universities done by an outside firm indicated that McGill students like the way their residences are run. McGill students gave their university the highest marks for general satisfaction and for helping to foster personal development.

Tracy says some universities offer "theme houses -- places where likes attract and live together. That's not our approach at all. Our students are the ones who tell me not to go that route.

"A Toronto prep boy coming here might be paired with an observant Muslim from another country. People learn to adapt to each other's style."

As for the need for more residences, Yalovsky says things can change swiftly in the real estate market and the University is prepared to move. "If we see an opportunity, we're ready to take advantage of it very quickly."

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