Intensification and Resident Conflict
Intensification and Resident Conflict
Certain infill builders were recently called to task by the Councillor for Ward 15 (Kitchissippi), Jeff Leiper, for their inappropriate conduct in his ward. The concerns listed were manifold but basically boiled down to a lack of respect shown by these companies towards local residents and abutting neighbours while constructing infill projects. The Councillor’s suggested solution was for the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association (GOHBA) to finance an Ombudsman who would effectively police infill builders whose conduct was not up to standard. This idea quickly gained traction and moved from social to mainstream media with some speed. Clearly these issues resonate with Ottawa residents, as does the idea that something should be done to remedy the situation.
There is no doubt some substance to these concerns. Infill building in and of itself is intrusive and, by definition, you are altering the physical landscape. To do so requires heavy machinery, people to operate it, and multitudes of tradespeople to build the projects, all of whom have cars that they need to travel to the site. Because the nature of the development is infill, it is occurring in an already built up landscape, invariably in older parts of the city, which have narrower rights-of-way and in general less space to operate. So, to actually build an infill project without impacting the neighbourhood in some fashion is next to impossible.
That said, it does not excuse the conduct of certain companies who are clearly disrespectful towards the neighbourhoods in which they are operating. If anything, this physical environment should demand more care and thought as to how the project can be executed, while minimizing the impact on the local community. In some cases that is not happening and the net result is to bring the entire industry into disrepute. Given that GOHBA represents some 400 industry companies, it clearly behooves the organization to become part of the solution to this problem.
However, there are a few facts that are worth noting before focusing on potential solutions. The most important fact is that ‘not all builders are born equal’. There are two very separate groups involved in infill development with the problem players being entrepreneurs whose primary focus is to maximize profit at the expense of all other considerations. These operators are not part of any professional associations and do not need to concern themselves with their company’s reputation. Companies such as this usually build projects on their own account and then sell them on the open market to unsuspecting buyers. We know anecdotally that these buyers often suffer even more pain following occupancy than surrounding residents did during construction because the same dynamics prevail.
The second group are professional builders who are often lifetime or second generation builders and as a result are deeply concerned about maintaining a positive, long term company reputation. They invest a great deal of time, energy, and money to build and protect a reputation because it is their life. They often live with their families in the neighbourhoods in which they work and are part of the fabric of the community. They are usually members of the GOHBA which is a voluntary association for which they pay a significant annual membership fee. Through the GOHBA they receive continuous information such as changes to city bylaws and provincial building codes, new materials, components, and technology.
GOHBA is the voice of residential construction activity in Ottawa and, as such, has a vested interest in the industry being seen in the most positive light possible. Consequently, disrespectful behavior by a handful of independent entrepreneurs is as unacceptable to this organization, as it is to Councillor Leiper and the countless residents who have expressed their concerns in both the social and mainstream media. So there clearly is a problem and GOHBA has as much of a stake in being part of the solution as do elected representatives, community groups, and all others involved in this process.
What then is the solution? To a certain degree, these problems are perennial. They occur across all municipalities in Ontario and likely all municipal jurisdictions across the continent. Anywhere in inner city locations where construction is occurring, conflict between the builder and local residents is going to arise. The issue then is how to separate and deal with the legitimate but annoying construction related activity by professional builders from the irresponsible and unnecessary actions of unprofessional business entities. The solution likely rests in a multi-pronged approach. One initiative could be to establish a two tier approval process where professional, responsible builders are rewarded for their conduct and irresponsible companies are penalized. These ‘rewards’ could take the form of speedier approvals, less financially onerous requirements, and reduced oversight with the opposite approach used for companies that have proven themselves to be unreliable.
Because this is not a new issue, some initiatives have already been taken to try and deal with the problems. One of these was the development of guidelines for building in mature neighbourhoods that were put together by the City in 2016 and widely distributed by the GOHBA. City officials took the time to attend GOHBA Urban Infill Council meetings to discuss the guidelines, identify the most common complaints, and suggest alternative approaches that might assist. These guidelines are still available and can be found on GOHBA’s website – www.gohba.ca. Unfortunately, GOHBA lacks the financial capacity and regulatory authority to act as an Ombudsman and could only sanction members who are not the primary problem builders in this matter.