Why rush? It’s a renter’s market

With eleven months before the beginning of the next school year, and just five months since most current leases came into effect, Mount Allison students are already scrambling to secure off-campus housing for next year.

The housing rush, an annual event Sackville’s students, brings house showings, lease signings and calls from the landlord. While a number of landlords say the rush to sign leases benefits students by allowing some to secure the best rental units early in the year, many students find the date unreasonable.

Sackville landlord Drew Fraser, whose properties include the popular King Street townhouses known as The Commons, says the early time frame is beneficial to all parties.

“It prevents the last minute rush … It’s beneficial to us in that we know our buildings are full and we don’t have to continually show them. [Showing them is] the disadvantage because if somebody calls us and says, ‘We’d like to see your apartment,’ we do it at one open house,” said Fraser. “Students can all come in at one time, and it’s less of a disruption to the existing tenants. I think it’s beneficial to everybody.“

Not all students agree with Fraser’s assessment.

“It’s really stressful,” said Janan Assaly, a second-year student currently living in Windsor Hall. “We found a place, but basically we had to fight tooth and nail to get it.”

If the housing rush occurred later in the year, Assaly said she would likely already be living off-campus.

“First semester you’re trying to figure out who you are, what you wanna do,” said Assaly. “And by second semester I realized a little more what I was more comfortable doing and I was moving out on my own for the summer, so I was more ready for it.”

One of Sackville’s most propertied landlords, John Lafford, says landlords are not going to turn away prospective tenants when they contact them to rent a place. “We wouldn’t want to say ‘Don’t sign the lease’ if [students] want to sign the lease. You know, if you go into a shoe shop and ask the owner to sell you some shoes he isn’t going to say, ‘No, not right now,’ said Lafford.

Six of the seven landlords interviewed said they were happy to have their units rented for the next year as early as possible. All but one landlord said it was very beneficial for them to have the lease signing process take place early in the year.

Fraser encourages students to re-sign by imposing a deadline for resigning before the leases are made public to those who are not already tenants. This is because his Commons properties are in high demand and are reliably filled as soon as they are available. “Our tenants that are in the buildings, it’s right in their lease that they have until Oct. 1 to tell us whether they’re staying or going,” said Fraser, who also owns other properties specially adapted to student living. “On Oct. 2, we release the leases that we have for the available units.”

Lafford begins inquiring about his current tenants plans around Thanksgiving.

Other landlords are in less of rush to have their tenants resign, preferring to have the process unfold as it will.

Dave Ritchie, owner of Starship Enterprises, a property management company in Sackville, was the dissenting opinion among landlords. “It’s a bit of a juggling act, because you’re trying to forecast 12 to 18 months in advance,” he said of the conventional time for lease signing. “If anything, it’s a bit more of a challenge for the property owners than for the students.”

Landlords, students, and students’ union representatives alike are all unsure about the origins of the rental rush. Most, however, speculated that students drive the rush by hurrying to beat others to the most desirable properties. It also seems as if this rush has been going on for at least a decade.

 Lafford, one of the longest-serving landlords interviewed, said the leases were being signed as early as September and October ten years ago when he began renting in Sackville.

“That’s always kind of been the trend at Mount Allison,” said Ritchie, who began renting properties in Sackville in 2006. “I kind of attribute that to students’ being on top of their game and trying to get ready for the next year. It’s kind of controlled by the student body; they are the ones who are starting early so we as landlords are trying to accommodate them.”

“When I first got into the market I automatically assumed that I would get calls in July and August for September, and I missed the wave the first year because everyone kind of knows where they want to stay almost a year in advance,” said Ritchie.

“The students actually have always driven [the rush],” said Fraser. “They’ve always started in September. They come back to school, and then they talk to their friends, and then they go visit their friends’ apartments, and if they have an awesome apartment, they start contacting landlords.”

Even students reluctant to start looking for housing are beginning their search early.

“The reason I’m looking for a house right now is because this is the time everyone else is starting to look,” said Jen Frail, a second-year fine arts and biology student and a resident of Harper Hall. “I assume everyone is starting to look for the same reason—to get the good houses—and it’s kind of ridiculous because this is so early in the year. It doesn’t really give the first years a chance to make a decision because they pretty much have to know by October,” said Frail.

For their part, some students have said the early beginning to the signing process can be very stressful. Vince Casey, a second-year psychology student, was put off by the rush by students to sign leases for the next year.

“It was definitely more overwhelming than I thought it would be, as it is soon after the semester begins,” said Casey of the rush to sign leases. “We’ve only seriously started talking about [living off-campus] in the last two weeks.”

Casey attended the Mount Allison Students’ Union landlord fair and found it useful. “I’m surprised there weren’t more landlords and students, but the landlords that were there were very helpful, because I don’t know how else I would’ve found them,” he said.

Other students, like first year Emma Brown, are finding ways to get around the early renting time in Sackville. Brown said, “My parents are going to buy [a house] and whoever is roommates with me will rent from us and I’ll be living in the house too.”

While the rush to rent may take the most popular units off the market early, it’s possible to wait. For the past three years, the Sackville Tribune-Post has reported a steady increase in vacancy rates for multi-unit dwellings in Sackville. The research, which was conducted by the Altus Group, shows the vacancy rate doubling from 3.18 percent two years ago to 7.41 percent this year.

Mt. A’s lease signing culture is an outlier, said Annie Sherry, vice president external for MASU, basing her comments on conversations with other students’ unions in Canada.

“I’m not sure where or when that culture started. Even in big cities, after talking to other members of [the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations] about the topic, nobody is close to signing as early as we do in Sackville,” said Sherry. “I think there’s an assumption in Sackville that because it’s so small people won’t be able to find a good place to live.”

In response to the rush, MASU held their second annual landlord fair on Sept. 27. Although MASU prohibited the signing of actual leases at the fair, students got a chance to see a few of housing options they had available for the next year.

“The idea surrounding the housing fair is that as time goes on this will be the first time that students meet with landlords,” said Sherry. “Hopefully as the years go on, we can push the date back further and further in order to give students time to make appropriate decision when it comes to off-campus housing.”

“At the same time, we need to be a part of the culture of signing leases in September and october,“ said Sherry.

The attendance of the fair was relatively low on the part of both students and landlords. Approximately 60 students got the opportunity to meet six landlords.

Sackville’s rental market and the student rush to find housing is comparable to that of Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. But at  the larger St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., students sign leases at their own pace, and apartment-style residences remove some of the incentive to move off-campus.

Using the university’s projected numbers from the 2014-2015 budget, the Argosy calculated that the average Mt. A student pays $5,779 for eight months of residence. This includes the mandatory fees students pay for their time in residence, but excludes the mandatory meal hall fees that all students in residence are required to pay.

This amounts to students paying  $722 a month for accommodations, if the nearly month-long winter break during which students are not allowed to live in residence is included.

Mandatory meal hall fees amount to $4,378 a year. Students pay more than $136 a week to eat at the meal hall during the school year.

“It is not that much more money to live on campus when you compare actual costs of rent, food and utilities, set up costs (buying dishes, furniture, etc) and the value of convenience and more time to spend on homework and extra-curricular activities rather than shopping, cooking and cleaning up,” said Michelle Strain, director of administrative services for Mt. A.

Based on 94 entries on the MASU housing directory, the average rent in Sackville is approximately $430 per month.  A lease term lasting from May to May for 94 of these entries translates into an annual cost of $5164. Most leases include utilities.

The majority of lease terms in Sackville are year by year, locking the tenant and the landlord in a binding agreement for a full year. In most cases, this yearly term begins is from May to May.

Landlords are under no obligation to offer the current tenants the right of first refusal to resign the lease on the property. Landlords also have no obligation to wait a set amount of time before either asking tenants to resign for the next year, or offering the lease to another tenant.

Kevin Levangie is News Editor, Cameron McIntyre is Senior News Editor, and Sam Moore is Online Editor for the Argosy. With files from Editor-in-Chief Richard Kent, Politics Reporter Willa McCaffrey-Noviss, News Reporters Tyler Stuart and Jean-Sébastien Comeau, and  Brendan Carroll.

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