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Combating Student Housing NIMBYism

Combating Student Housing NIMBYism

NIMBY [nim-bee]: An acronym standing for not in my backyard. It’s commonly used to express opposition by a group of people towards the development of a residential, commercial or civic project, such as student housing. In such a circumstance, the group believes that the project will have adverse effects on the surrounding community, often leading to decreased property values. In many cases, these community members identify the need for such a project, but prefer it be developed outside of their neighborhood.


So how does NIMBYism relate to student housing? To start, it’s a relatively common occurrence for local or neighborhood collectives to voice opposition towards the development of major student housing projects, citing reasons such as increased noise, decreased property values and vandalism. Many groups often paint a pretty negative portrayal of student housing.


This sense of NIMBYism is often echoed through media channels, as these stories are picked up because they stir up a lot of controversy and attention. Almost every other week there is a story about student housing being opposed or rejected. Here are just a few examples:


While scanning student housing news, it quickly becomes clear that NIMBYism is a big problem in this sector.


One of the most troublesome things about NIMBYism in student housing is how the opinions of few, feel they should trump the needs of many. What we mean by this is that small groups often protest student housing, when it would benefit a significantly larger population of students. For example, in Guelph, Ontario, Adobe Varsity Living wanted to build a high-density purpose-built student housing residence for 1,600 students from the University of Guelph. A group of 20 residents from a local neighborhood fiercely protested this development, claiming it was “simply too big.” The University of Guelph was growing and in dire need of more housing for its increasing enrolment. These 20 residents felt that their interests trumped the interests of not only these 1,600 potential residents, but also the interest of the broader university community.

Greg Romundt from Centurion Apartments captured the argument in favor of doing away with NIMBYism by stating, “There is a perception that putting lots of students in concentrated towers will bring a number of negative elements into these communities… A large student building benefits everyone. Students get top quality accommodation with services, including security. Neighborhoods see better management of these communities, cities ensure the buildings are to code and the students are safe.” Romundt highlights some of the key arguments on why purpose-built student housing isn’t a bad thing for all involved and actually has benefits for each party.


  • Neighborhood & Community Members: Purpose-built student housing will cause more students to move out of lower density residential zones that are often occupied by families. This helps centralize students in a specific geographic region surrounding the campus and takes students away from the neighborhoods that are often filled with NIMBYism supporters. One common fear from this group is that neighborhoods will be overrun with students and turn into a student ghetto. High-density buildings can house more students and prevent family-oriented neighborhoods from turning into student ghettos.
  • Students: There are countless benefits for students, but the most important ones are superior accommodations and safety. These new purpose-built student housing complexes are built exclusively with students in mind and cater to their needs. Furthermore, as Romundt pointed out, “It’s easier for a fire inspector to visit a 400 unit student high-rise, than it is to monitor 100 widely-spaced four-bedroom houses”. In other words, it’s easier to ensure and monitor student safety in larger buildings.
  • The City: It’s easier for the cities to patrol and police student housing when it’s centralized in larger purpose-built student complexes. Cities have a much more difficult time policing student housing when students live primarily in single-family homes. This is especially true in cities that have student housing ordinances or regulations that are enforced, as it eases the workload
  • The School: The vast majority of schools across North America continue to see an increase in their enrolment, which creates a higher demand for student housing. In many cases, these schools simply cannot accommodate all of their students on-campus. Purpose-built off-campus housing complexes help alleviate concerns about housing students for the schools, and in some cases, the schools may even enter public-private partnerships with firms to develop both on and off-campus housing for their students. 


The question arises, how do we combat NIMBYism in student housing?


Perhaps the most important thing is to educate the groups who oppose student housing and illustrate that it’s actually a good thing; not only for their groups, but for the broader community. There are countless economic and community benefits that are associated with student housing.

In addition to educating NIMBYism supporters, it also helps to show that implementing restrictive student housing policies is not the answer to their problems. Consider a few years ago in Waterloo when there was a severe student housing shortage, but there were major concerns from local groups about the student housing ghettos that were developing in order to house these students. In response to this and other concerns, the city imposed new and more restrictive policies, which actually led to an Ontario Human Rights Commission inquiry that found these policies discriminated against students. Eventually, the city changed its stance on these policies and allowed for developers to construct new purpose-built high-rise student housing, which solved many of the problems the city was experiencing. Restrictive student housing policies are not the answer, as it will often create accommodation problems for schools and their students.


Unfortunately, many communities still resort to restrictive student housing policies without understanding the consequences of doing so. For example, just recently the town of Hamden where Quinnipiac University is located passed some extremely restrictive student housing regulations. The new regulations state that landlords will be required to live in the house they rent to students. While the regulation aims to limit absentee landlords, which is a good thing, it will also likely create a student housing shortage in the future.


While there is often negative stigma associated with student housing, in many cases it is unwarranted. Most often, new student housing developments pose benefits for all stakeholders involved.

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It doesn't just happen for student housing projects, it is also prevalent in the affordable housing sector. In the South Bend, IN area, uninvolved and absentee landlords allowed many noise, party, and property destruction issues to go unchecked several years ago forcing local laws to become restrictive. However, once management companies came in to handle the properties, all those issues pretty much disappeared altogether.

  Mindy Sharp

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