Sunday 30th July, 2006

Denzil Mohammed
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Not any place will do

“The Men, the young and the clever ones, find it a house with intellectual elbow room, with freedom of talk.”
The Awkward Age, Henry James

Demand on campus is high for everything from caffeine and nicotine to meals and medicals, but none is more prized than a domicile. And, despite a student-driver population augmenting exponentially every year, free tertiary education and increasing admission quotas guarantee that the student accommodation currently on the UWI market will never be sufficient.

Even as you read this column, scores of freshers are crawling around St Augustine and Curepe, peering through car windows in search of any sign that intimates an apartment for rent.

“Good morning. Good morning. Hello! Good morning.”

It’s annoying. I usually hide.

But I went through the same routine four years ago, and my sister and brother before me, my parents finely attuned to the student-come-to-rent ritual.

It’s an eye-opener, for sure. Fresh out of A-levels, house hunting is when teens finally realise that they’re going to be on their own—for some a good thing, for others, horrifying.

And horrifying ably describes with what they are often met in their house-hunting excursions.

Curepe is a rum shop town overrun with rodents and strays—dogs and people. The bulk of student accommodation takes the form of refugee-style rooms with shared bathrooms, foam mattresses and chain-link fences behind somebody’s house.

I once entered a yard on Bushe Street that was shared by pitbulls and full-grown turkeys. The rooms were so dusty that I left shoe prints. The landlord, gracious as he was, looked old and kind of puffy. It was only upon leaving that I realised he was wearing a diaper.

Wet awakening

The place I eventually got in first year was an ancient structure on Carmody Road. It was all that was left, and I quickly found out why.

At first it seemed quaint and endearing: a stout, wide building with old-world charm. It also had old-world concrete floors, cabinets, piping and cockroaches.

“Nah, don’t worry about cold water. The tank does heat up in the morning time.”

Eh heh. Not in rainy season. My first day of school, and the pump didn’t even work, so I went to school stink. Stink, I say, because the heat and humidity that suffused the house was staggering. I used to sweat myself to sleep every night and wake up in a puddle.

But the Carmody fire truck was palatial compared to other places. Every time it rained in Spongy’s Dookiesingh Street apartment, water would cascade down the wall behind her bed. In Creep’s apartment on Old Tim, the kitchen had no windows and the toilet was in his bedroom. And when I later moved across the highway, there was a ceaseless supply of zaboca-sized bugs and cane dust.

Today, fours years after I sat at Student Advisory Services (SAS) and sifted through manila folder after manila folder of places as far as Mt Lambert that were either too far, far too costly or already taken, there’s a beacon of hope.

SAS director Deirdre Charles has lived up to her progressive promises of student-centredness, creating an accommodation accreditation association and hiring an accommodation officer. Now, there’s an updated electronic database of rentals, and students who have problems with their landlords can seek recourse through the office, once their landlords are members of the association.

Housing gold mine

But there is only so much SAS can do. Any lawful authority is limited at best, with discussion and compromise being the only option available to the officer.

It was only two months ago that the headlines said: “Government takes on rent control.” Off campus, landlords, with no experience in real estate other than painting “for rent” signs to hang in their front porches, do as they please.

A significant number of landlords raise their rents every year. They are permitted to construct apartments without parking spaces, resulting in theft and traffic. They violate every fire and building code violation by fitting the greatest number of students in the smallest possible crevices. And some have the most asinine rules, like $50 a night for any visitor, gates locked at 8 pm, and “no black music.”

And they get away with it. Well, until now, one hopes.

It does boggle the mind, however, that construction companies have not yet exploited the veritable off-campus housing gold mine. There are thousands of students who need to be near their classes and their sources of research, but can’t because there simply isn’t enough accommodation. Despite the Milner Hall expansion and the proposed hall on St John’s Road, on-campus housing is limited and caters mostly to foreign nationals.

The few, new complexes, like DJ Lalo’s House of Love, Dhal Hall and Bushe Hall are good models to follow: a series of modern, secure rooms with self-contained amenities on a single compound. Throw in a security guard, since the volume of vulnerable people makes it at high risk, and you’ll have the place at which everybody wants to live.

Until then, students will be cooking in kitchens without windows, dodging pitbulls and turkeys and waking up hot and wet in a puddle.

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