The Changing Face of Homebuilding in Ottawa

 Forty years ago, single-family homes made up 70 per cent of the residential construction activity in Ottawa. The other 30 per cent consisted of multi-family buildings, apartments, and condos. Today, those numbers are reversed, with 30 per cent of residential construction activity consisting of single-family homes and 70 per cent involving apartment buildings and condos. This change is having a significant impact on Ottawa’s homebuilding industry and, by extension, its traditional community-building role.

The unintended consequences of intensification

In 2003, the City of Ottawa introduced the intensification policy, encouraging residential growth within the Greenbelt. With intensification, the growth of the supply of land for new homes outside the Greenbelt was held in check and the city supported high-rise development with speedy permitting processes and area specific development charges that are lower inside the Greenbelt than in our growth areas.

Intensification has had a positive impact on Ottawa, bringing vitality and dynamism to neighbourhoods within the Greenbelt (think of Westboro and Hintonburg). However; there are unintended consequences to intensification that, if left unchecked, threaten to outweigh the positives.

Rise of the the small and medium-sized homebuilder

Twenty years ago, Ottawa’s homebuilding industry included a healthy balance of small, medium and large-sized homebuilders. Prior to intensification, large land developers would sell serviced lots to small and medium-sized builders. With intensification, large land developers stopped selling serviced lots – land for homebuilding was too scarce. The result has been the slow decline of the small and medium-sized homebuilder. For consumers this has meant less choice in the Ottawa new home market. For Ottawa’s charitable sector, this has meant the loss of a committed and passionate set of donors and volunteers.

The infill builder and the politicization of development

Infill building, typically involving the tearing down of old single-family homes and their replacement with townhomes or triplexes, has contributed to the revitalization of neighbourhoods throughout Ottawa. Ottawa’s infill builders have won numerous awards and are prized for their innovative and sustainable homes.

The unintended, and unfortunate, consequence of infill building has been the politicization of homebuilding in Ottawa’s established communities. Residents upset with proposed developments in their communities turned to the media, their councillors and to Ottawa’s planning committee for assistance. Infill homebuilders, responding to city policy, found themselves pitted against residents and community associations.

The increasing politicization of homebuilding is the result of an intensification policy that was not accompanied by a comprehensive by-law governing infill development. From 2003 to late 2014, infill builders were caught between a new Official Plan policy that drove intensification and an outdated set zoning bylaws that did not. This situation led to a public backlash. In response to this backlash, the City of Ottawa adopted an infill zoning by-law in the fall of 2014 which has left many wondering about the future of infill development, especially given the imminent approval of a second infill bylaw that will further limit development.

Rise of the out-of-town high-rise builder

Today, 70 per cent of the residential construction activity in Ottawa involves multi-family buildings, such as apartment buildings and condos. The practical implications of this situation are twofold. For one, the homebuilding industry’s focus has moved away from low-rise wood frame construction to high-rise reinforced concrete construction. The second change has been the entrance of the out-of-town high-rise developer into the Ottawa market.

Ottawa’s homebuilding industry is comprised of thousands of suppliers and tradespeople. When an industry changes, these changes have an impact on the people who work in it and the companies that service it. The change from wood-frame low rise construction to high-rise concrete construction is driving many established suppliers and tradespeople out of the homebuilding industry.

The focus of high-rise building has brought many out-of-town developers into the Ottawa market. Unlike Ottawa’s high-rise builders (Claridge, Richcraft and Minto for instance) these out-of-town developers have little attachment to Ottawa and most of the time simply pack up and leave when the job is done. They also don’t participate in the homebuilding association or give back to the community the way our local builders always have.

Hope on the horizon

The challenges facing Ottawa’s homebuilding community, there is hope for Ottawa’s homebuilders in the form of the Ontario Government’s recent approval of six storey wood frame technology. Under the previous building code, wood frame structures could only go as high as four storeys. Allowing builders to use six storey wood frame technology will create new opportunities for wood frame tradesmen and suppliers, promote innovate design and create more affordable housing options in the city’s inner core.

The other hope is that a new City Council and the city’s planning department will begin to appreciate the unintended consequences of its policies and work more closely with Ottawa’s homebuilding industry to restore balance to homebuilding in Ottawa.

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