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Who lives beside you never meant more than in this age of pricey realty and home obsession
Anne Kingston – Macleans
Bad-neighbour stories typically involve noise, parking, property-line disputes, unkempt yards, sofas on the front porch. But residents of an affluent north Toronto enclave, tell the tale of a more recent neighbour-from-hell variation: the administrative terrorist. The conflict began in 2008 between a prominent businessman and the owner of the construction company that built his house—a $400,000-plus project—who also lives in the area.
The businessman accused the builder of substituting inferior materials and not following plans or honouring his warranties. “He was a shoddy builder,” he alleges. One frustration, he says, was that the exterior window surround was built with six-inch stones, not 10-inch stones. Another was the builder had been slow to fix an outdoor tap that topped up the swimming pool.
The builder tells a different story: “[The client] spent more than he intended; he asked for things that weren’t part of the contract, and he manufactured deficiencies.” The matter went to court, resulting in suits and countersuits; issues remain before the courts, which is why none of the parties agreed to be named.
A few months into the fight, witnesses report, the businessman turned into a neighbourhood building-code vigilante, calling in inspectors to check other houses the builder had constructed in the area, even reporting hedges that were mere inches higher than code allowed.
“He would get up at 6 a.m. every morning to move his car three houses to block access to a building site,” the builder claims. The businessman counters that the builder blocked his car and spewed obscenities one morning when he was driving his children to school.
When the businessman saw the builder’s name associated with the annual fair for the local school, which his children attended, he threatened to pull his own sponsorship. “He told the principal, ‘I’ll bury you in policy,’ ” says a neighbour.
The businessman says he reviewed the school bylaws and noticed the school was in flagrant violation of many of them. One casualty was a lottery for the daycare centre, which was shut down for lack of a proper licence. “They lost 40% of their funding,” says his neighbour. He even tried to ban cotton candy at the fair because it didn’t comply with the school’s healthy-eating policy.
“The nitpicking was unbelievable,” says one resident. “He could have cured cancer with the time he put into creating problems in the community.” The businessman’s vigilance “created total paranoia,” says a neighbour, so much so residents were afraid he’d report their annual Canada Day fireworks display, which didn’t have a licence.
And so when he ran for school PTA, neighbours rallied to provide babysitting service and carpooling so people could get out to vote to block his bid. “We’d joke about putting a sign on his lawn that said ‘For sale by neighbours,’ ” says another neighbour. The builder doubts his foe will ever move: “He’ll be with me for life, like a cancer.”
Like most stories involving neighbourhood disputes, the conflict lacked the extreme or criminal angle required to make headlines. Nor was it posted on the growing spate of blogs like The Stupid Neighbour that allow people to vent about the “idiot” living next door. But it’s a modern urban parable revealing a changing neighbourhood dynamic in an age where “community” exists online and “social network” is a virtual construct.
With the advent of two-income families, the workplace has replaced neighbourhood as the hub of social interaction. TV is a lagging indicator of the trend, as Three’s Company and Seinfeld have been replaced by The Office and House. When neighbourhood does serve as a setting, it’s a seething pit of dysfunction, à la Desperate Housewives and Jersey Shore.
Disciples of the great neighbourhood activists Jane Jacobs and Robert Putnam—people who talk of the “social capital” created by strong neighbourhoods—are alarmed by what they see as a weakening of community ties. “For many people, neighbourhoods are just the place they sleep,” says Mark Cajab, an executive director at Tamarack, a Waterloo, Ont.-based institute that promotes community engagement.
We’re a culture disproportionately invested in the lives of strangers, Cajab points out: “We’ll grieve for Princess Diana but not know our neighbour has terminal cancer.” And that’s a big problem, he says. “We know from research that the less or weaker the social capital, the lower the quality of life in terms of safety, health, everything.”
A 2009 study by British housing provider Circle Anglia suggests disengagement from neighbours is destined to rise: almost all (96%) of people over age 65 knew their neighbour’s names; only 66% of people under 25 did. It’s a problem here, too, according to a 2005 StatsCan study that revealed that between 61% of rural residents knew all of their neighbours, but only 16% of those living in major urban centres did. (Quebecers were least likely to know their neighbours and Montrealers the least likely to trust them.)
The situation is at such a crisis point that police in Peel, Ont., launched a “Know Your Neighbour” program to encourage residents to gather names and contact information of at least five neighbours in an attempt to strengthen neighbourhood surveillance.
It’s a plight highlighted by the CBC show All For One, in which designer Debbie Travis criss-crosses the country bringing communities together by renovating the house of a deserving local—the modern-day version of a barn raising.
There’s decided irony in the fact neighbourhood fabric is fraying in an HGTV-obsessed society. The fact that one’s house is one’s biggest financial investment and greatest source of happiness and self-expression, requiring noise-producing, neighbour-alienating remodelling, is a recipe for conflict.
Paying more than half a million dollars for the privilege of living cheek-to-jowl, tenement style, can create a near-absurd focus on territorial boundaries. “You wouldn’t believe the sorts of calls we get, says Todd Hall, a detective on the Toronto Police Service. “People complain about a neighbour watering his lawn who got their lawn wet or who shovelled snow on their property or a tree limb that’s over the property line.”
Often, such complaints reflect other grievances, says the businessman in North York, who found himself sued by his two immediate neighbours for property encroachments, battles he won. “I know [the builder] put them up to it,” he says.
The growing number of people living alone and migrating to condos also inevitably yields conflict, even at the swankiest addresses. In 2009, Madonna’s neighbour Karen George sued the manager of their New York apartment building for failing to stop the singer from using her apartment as a rehearsal studio; “noise and vibration poured through the walls,” George alleged.
Heightened modern sensitivities only magnify the problem, as revealed in a recent social etiquette column in the New York Times: the writer was upset because her neighbour on the other side of a shared wall—whom she’d never met—used perfumed air freshener; she had a “severe fragrance allergy” and didn’t know what to do.
The paradox of singular condo life is that it requires greater socialization and community-building skills, says Misha Feldmann, a Toronto criminal lawyer who used to practise real estate law, where he routinely witnessed “bizarre, egregious, anti-social behaviour” and residents ganging up in high-school-style cliques.
In one instance, residents targeted someone whose dog was three pounds over the weight limit. Another case involved a resident who ran a “very, very smelly” tofu-making operation in his unit that violated a noxious fuels law. “It’s hugely expensive for everybody,” says Feldmann. “Even residents who are uninvolved shoulder the costs.”
But where laws exist to warn prospective buyers of the presence of urea formaldehyde foam insulation, there’s no obligation to tell them about toxic neighbours. A couple who lived in an east end Toronto duplex, renting out the second floor, tell the story of a new neighbour who moved in and started a renovation project that began every night after midnight.
One night, he wilfully took a sledgehammer through an upstairs wall, standing face to face with their petrified tenant. Police were called; they sued for damages, and won, but realized they had to sell. They felt some guilt about not informing the next owner about what they were getting into, says the husband. “But we made $250,000, so that helped soften it.”
Slowly, however, the spectre of bad neighbours is influencing policy. In the U.K., there’s an attempt to table a law that will make it easier to evict people convicted of anti-social behaviour. “For too long, too many tenants have lived in fear of neighbours from hell,” British Housing Minister Grant Shapps said.
“Neighbourhood” has also become a fashionable mantra in municipal and provincial governments, to the point where millions are being earmarked to build stronger communities. Edmonton has launched the $50-million “Great Neighbourhoods Initiative.” Manitoba has “Neighbourhood Alive.” Calgary, London, Ottawa, Toronto all have similar programs on the go.
But as the north Toronto example proves, nothing unites a community like a common enemy. “We were a tight community before,” says a resident. “Now we’re even tighter.” The businessman definitely felt “ostracized,” he says. “But there’s enough other people to hang out with; those people think they own the community.”
The builder says he feels sorry for the children, now enrolled in private school, who’ve been left out of birthday parties and sleepovers. But the businessman says the conflict has provided a learning experience. “They’ve seen how important it is to stand up for principles and not give in to a bully,” he says. As for his house, he loves living there. “It’s a great house. And now that we’ve learned so much, we would definitely build again.”
Contact the Jeffrey Team for more information – 416−388−1960
Laurin & Natalie Jeffrey are Toronto Realtors with Century 21 Regal Realty.
They did not write these articles, they just reproduce them here for people
who are interested in Toronto real estate. They do not work for any builders.
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