Town beats gown

Supreme court rules against Oshawa students

It’s after midnight on a Friday in November and two people are sitting on the porch of a house in a college town in Pennsylvania, waiting. They don’t have to wait long. After five minutes a group of loud drunk students stumble by, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are passing bedroom windows long after most people’s bedtime. Five minutes later another group passes, and a student throws a pizza plate onto a front lawn. A little later, at the sound of a noisy crash, our observers rush to the back alley and find two students dropkicking metal trashcans.

The observers have just returned to the porch when a loud scraping begins coming from the alley, a sound which one observer—who lives in the house—immediately identifies as someone dragging a street sign. Sure enough, upon investigation, they discover two men with a seven-foot stop sign. When they return to the front yard, three young women are crouched in a bush, their skirts hiked up, peeing. From the moment the two people began their observation to when they chased the pissing students away, only 35 minutes have passed.

To most people living in most neighbourhoods, this scene probably seems exceptional. Radio producers Sarah Koenig, who lives in the house, and Ira Glass, recorded and broadcast their encounters with drunken students on the show This American Life (which happens to be my favourite podcast), which took place in a town called State College where Pennsylvania State University is located. And while Penn State was voted America’s number one party school this year in online surveys conducted by the Princeton Review, residents living near university campuses from Kamloops to Antigonish deal with similar late night philandering and “town-and-gown” conflicts, a term coined by academics. These conflicts have been plaguing communities all over the world as long as universities have existed—one of the earliest documented when a three-day riot broke out in Oxford in 1355 over a dispute about beer, and left 62 people dead.

Canada, of course, has its fair share of town-and-gown conflicts. Perhaps the most famous party school north of the 49th is Queen’s University, where in 2005 the annual homecoming party turned into a full-scale riot; outnumbered police were pelted with beer bottles, a car was flipped and set on fire and there was extensive vandalism. This year, the homecoming party was cancelled.

During the first two weekends of the 2008 academic year, nearly 600 charges were laid against students and non-students in London, Ontario near Fanshawe College, where revelers were reported to have assaulted police officers and firefighters, set old furniture on fire and, in one case, fatally abused a cat. Largely because of partying, battles between students and residents have been fought out in the editorial pages of local newspapers from Hamilton to Edmonton.

How communities and universities should deal with town-and-gown conflicts is a matter of debate, and no community has taken a more controversial approach than Oshawa, Ontario. Earlier this month the Supreme Court of Canada sided with the City of Oshawa when it ruled that the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner couldn’t intervene in a dispute between Oshawa homeowners, backed by the city, and landlords renting to students.

The dispute began when homeowners in a neighbourhood near Durham College and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology pushed city council to take action against landlords who were running what were essentially rooming houses that lodged up to nine students each. In 2007, after months of tension between students and residents, police raided 17 houses rented to students, looking for leases and rental agreements. Students were given no warning of the surprise searches and one student reported being awakened from a nap by nine uniformed officers searching through her bedroom. At the time, the student newspaper at UOIT accused the city of discriminating against students with the raids, as well as parking ticket and noise complaint blitzes in the neighbourhood.

The move by the city and police against student partying in the neighbourhood led to a controversial bylaw passed last year. The new bylaw imposes sweeping regulations on student housing much stricter than in other parts of Oshawa. The number of bedrooms within rental houses in the area surrounding the university was limited to four, regardless of the size of the house. Landlords were required to pay a $250 per bedroom annual licensing fee and carry increased insurance. The policy changes were designed to answer resident complaints about noise from student rental housing, among other concerns. None of the recommendations from students or landlords were included in the proposed changes, according to critics. Most residents praised the bylaw, but some worried that it would force students into substandard housing. At a meeting about the bylaw, Jeff Gauthier, a resident in the area, called the bylaw “yet another example of a knee-jerk reaction with no consideration for the consequences.”

After the bylaw was passed, students struck back. The student association representing students at the UOIT and Durham encouraged students to file human rights complaints against the City of Oshawa. “Mayor Gray and the Oshawa City Council haven’t listened to a word that students have said. Now they have declared student renters to be second-class community members and we will have to follow by-law regulations that other Oshawa citizens do not,” Fraser McArthur, then-president of Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology Students’ Association, said at the time.

The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario backed him up. “Imposing unreasonable restrictions will result in fewer affordable rental units available and new landlord fees and inspection costs will be downloaded onto student renters,” said Jen Hassum, then-chairperson of the CFS-O. “By driving up the rental costs and reducing housing options in student neighbourhoods, it looks like the Oshawa City Council is trying to run students out of town. From where students stand, this looks like blatant discrimination.”

But with this month’s decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, those charges of discrimination won’t be moving forward. The Supreme Court ruled that Ontario Human Rights Commission chief Barbara Hall couldn’t intervene in the dispute, effectively bringing an end to the legal battle between the city and 30 landlords who rented these houses to students. The Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Ontario Superior Court that found that most of the 30 properties were operating as illegal rooming houses. Justice Peter Howden wrote that accurate neighbourhood planning would be impossible “if the definition of ‘single housekeeping establishment’ could include any number of persons, each independent from each other, coming together for temporary short-term economic reasons to share the cost of accommodation,” according to the National Post.

It seems that the Supreme Court is not the only body in agreement with Oshawa about how to combat town-and-gown conflicts. Although the city’s attack on public drinking, noise and parking violations attracted criticism back in 2007, there is new research that supports targeted police crackdowns. Robert Saltz, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, is about to release a report, according to This American Life, that shows that aggressive regulation of drinking laws is effective in cutting down student alcohol-fuelled mayhem in residential neighbourhoods.

After studying 14 universities in California, he found that reducing students’ access to alcohol with police crackdowns, and the perception of police crackdowns, led to less students drinking. Seven campuses that employed aggressive strategies reported 6,000 fewer students returning to campus drunk from off-campus parties and 4,000 fewer coming from off-campus bars. Also, Saltz says the crackdown did not lead to the problem being relocated to another part of town. He believes that universities are hesitant to use such strategies because they are tied up dealing with the worst of the over-consumers. “It seems somehow wrong to impose a strategy that is universal because of this holdover that we should really only be focusing on the heavy drinkers,” he said.Yet, the aggressive approach is certainly not the only idea out there.

Back at Queen’s, some officials turned to an unlikely source to find a solution to town-and-gown tensions: students. The city of Kingston asked graduate students in Queen’s School of Urban and Regional Planning to prepare a report of recommendations, which was presented to council in early December. The students looked to other university towns, such as Syracuse, N. Y., where students and residents engaged in activities such as planting trees, maintaining community gardens and holding barbecues to improve neighbourhood relations, according to The Kingston Whig Standard.

In the report, the students recommended that Kingston and Queen’s create a permanent town-and-gown committee and appoint “block ambassadors” to facilitate discussion between students and non-students living in the same neighbourhood. They also urged them to purchase ailing buildings to be refurbished and sold to responsible landlords and to closely regulate new building and renovations to ensure units have an appropriate number of bedrooms.