Jason Burggraaf is no stranger to the homebuilding industry.
The 39-year-old Newfoundland native, who came to Ottawa to study political science at Carleton University, spent nearly 15 years in a variety of roles at the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, culminating in a five-year stint as the organization’s government relations and policy adviser.
In late May, Burggraaf took over as the executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association after the group’s longtime leader, John Herbert, retired.
OBJ recently spoke with Burggraaf about the challenges he faces in his new role, what his top priorities will be and why he thinks Ottawa’s residential real estate sector is on solid ground.
What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
OBJ: So how did someone who came to Ottawa to study politics end up working for homebuilding industry associations?
JB: I did come to Ottawa strictly for the politics really. And then as I kind of jumped into it, then I really kind of became (caught up in) the passion of it overall – especially once I became the assistant to the chief operating officer (at the Canadian Home Builders’ Association) and got a chance to really kind of get my feet wet, because in that position, you basically have your fingers in every pie. Every little thing that’s being done, you know about. That’s really kind of when I developed the passion for, if not homebuilding, at least representing the interests of homebuilding.
Really, what I’ve come to discover is it’s not even really representing homebuilders. A lot of it is representing homebuyers and potential homebuyers who don’t really have a very co-ordinated voice of their own. You’re only a potential homebuyer for such a short amount of time in your life. And once you become a homeowner, even if you buy another house down the road, you’re in a very different position overall. A big focus of the association overall is kind of trying to look at those first-time buyers and ensuring that they get the chance to fulfil their dream.
OBJ: How would you characterize your role at the GOHBA?
JB: It’s really about what municipal issues are there that inhibit people from getting into homes and living in the kind of communities that are best for them – the ones that kind of achieve that work, life, play balance. Not everyone wants to live downtown, but not everyone wants to live out in Barrhaven either. There’s got to be a good mix of homes of different types. Some want to live in medium- to highrises and close to transit, and others want a bit of green space for themselves. The city and the industry have to kind of come together and deliver that to Ottawa in a responsible manner.
OBJ: What are your top priorities right now?
JB: On the association side, right now I’m just working on the value of membership and that proposition of value, ensuring that the experience that members have right now is a good one and the association is delivering what they want. There are a number of different constituencies; there are homebuilders, but there are also renovators, and then there’s contractors, suppliers, associates – people who are providing all the services to those builders and renovators. And each of those individual groups come on for a different reason, and I feel we have a role to support all of them. Actually, just as you called what I was doing was our first member survey in well over a decade. Part of that is to reach out and kind of get a better idea of how members perceive what they’re getting out of the association, depending on what group they’re coming from, and then what we can do to enhance it.
OBJ: Your association has about 400 members. Have you experienced any challenges trying to cater to such a diverse membership?
JB: Not so far. I think the vast majority of the members, especially the ones providing business-to-business services, they understand the main thrust. The association is dealing with development issues and applications and what have you. They see it as, if builders have a good business, then they’ll have a good business too. I don’t perceive any real issue in that way.
OBJ: What’s your take on what impact the new federal mortgage rules – for example, the financial “stress test” – have had on the local homebuilding industry?
JB: You can see it in sales in some of the bigger (cities) – you know, in Toronto and Vancouver, you can see the impact in terms of the amount of activity that’s gone down. Ottawa’s a bit isolated in terms of the housing market – it’s kind of its own bubble in terms of being a heavy government town and sort of being a bit separated physically from any other competing city of about the same size. The business environment here is pretty stable overall, which is why you haven’t seen house prices climb to unbelievable heights as they have in some other big cities.
I think also what’s contributed to the steadiness of the housing market here is we’re still producing a lot of ground-oriented homes, not necessarily single-family, but semi-detached townhomes, stacked townhomes – kind of the things that survey after survey of homebuyers have said that’s the kind of housing (buyers) want to live in.
Overall, in Ottawa we’ve got a nice mix. There are some highrises, but there’s still a lot of lowrises. If you look at other big centres – especially, say, Toronto and Vancouver – the vast majority of those are highrises now, which is why you see such competition and price escalation for the lowrise stuff because, frankly, that’s where people want to live. Right now, Ottawa is still kind of experiencing a slight uptick in price for sure versus other parts of the country.
OBJ: The condo boom of a few years back has cooled off, and now there’s been a shift in the last year or so towards rental construction. Do you see that trend continuing for a while?
JB: Rental is an interesting case. Part of the reason why rental had sort of dried up – not just in Ottawa, but really across the country – a decade ago was the financing structure wasn’t conducive (to investment) anymore. The vast majority of people who build those highrises aren’t the ones who own and operate them after the fact. So much of that investment money in terms of those owner-operators had gone into commercial properties instead, like you see with REITs and what have you. Eventually, what we saw a couple of years ago is that commercial market was essentially tapped out, and REITs started to move into rentals. Rental provides exactly the nice investment and continual seven, 10 per cent return year over year for them. So that’s exactly the type of setup that they want. So REITs came back into rental in a big way, and you’ve seen that in Ottawa now.
OBJ: You’re also seeing other developers that have traditionally been known more as homebuilders – for example, Claridge – getting into the rental market.
JB: It’s kind of coming from both ends. Builders and developers are kind of diversifying. You do see more companies that both build and renovate or are building and owning and managing rental properties. That’s a bit of a change in terms of the industry. But it’s also a big reflection on the economic situation that the renters themselves find themselves in. There are so many people now who are on contracts versus permanent jobs or what have you and their situation can change more rapidly than it used to. When you’re in that kind of (situation), rental works for you because the commitment (required) is not the same.
OBJ: Do you see a bounceback coming in the condo market any time soon?
JB: If there is, it will be all driven by transit-oriented development. What we’re seeing is those highrises being built around transit corridors and around (LRT) stations. At Blair, there will be a couple of towers around that train station. That’s where the heaviest development and the heaviest density really should be. That helps ensure ridership for the train so that transit is also equally viable. They feed off each other.
OBJ: What issues are keeping you up at night these days?
JB: (Laughs.) I don’t know if I’d put it quite that way, but some of the long-standing issues are always delays in the (municipal) development process and applications approvals. Timelines tend to be stretching out. Everything seems to be taking longer. Part of that is there’s sort of a lack of benchmarking (in Ottawa) compared to other municipalities. There’s no kind of idea of what is the ideal timeline to get a site approval done, what is the timeline then to subdivide the lots and that kind of thing. When you’re looking at regulations, they tend to just kind of pile on as opposed to looking at what the impact is on the timeframe or the cost. While all those individual regulations are certainly (created) with good intent, all of them overall add to the red tape burden that takes (housing projects) to get to completion and therefore adds to the costs.
OBJ: What’s your sense of where the industry is headed in Ottawa?
JB: It’s pretty good. Ottawa had its best year in terms of housing starts last year. It’s not just about housing either – spending on renovation has outpaced (spending on) housing for close to a decade now. It might not hit 7,400 starts or whatever it was last year, but I think we’ll still trend above the long-term average here in the region, and renovation is only going to continue on. When you look at people getting older and needing accommodative renovations, the push on for energy efficiency from the various levels of government, renovations have lots of growth potential yet.
OBJ: What about the state of affordable housing in Ottawa?
JB: There’s always a distinct and immediate need for supportive housing. One of the things we really like at the federal level is the government’s new portable housing benefit. Essentially, it’s tied to the person and not so much subsidizing the unit. That’s the sort of innovative funding structure we think is really going to help people to kind of progress along the housing continuum as opposed to tying them to a unit and they can’t really leave that unit because they’ve waited so long to get into it.
OBJ: No matter what industry I talk to, everyone says one of their biggest constant challenges is finding enough skilled labour. Are you seeing that in the homebuilding world too?
JB: That’s starting to be a really burgeoning issue here, as it’s been across the country. Part of (addressing) that is working with the colleges – and Algonquin has a great construction trades institute now – but I think the real key is actually reaching back into high school and maybe even a little bit earlier than that to introduce trades and frankly (inform students) how good of a career option that really is. We’ve gone through many decades where everyone was kind of pushed into university and what have you, but in fact tradework is very lucrative and something you can get going on right (out of high school) if you have the will to learn a craft.
There’s plenty of opportunity and jobs out there. That’ll be one of our next steps, to really start reaching out to high schools or even (junior high schools) and try to get that option into the minds of kids and parents. Where that idea really penetrates is at the local level, where it’s associations or individual builders or renovators really starting programs to teach kids about trades. That’s definitely where it needs to happen.
Jason Burggraaf’s path to GOHBA
June 2013 - May 2018
Government relations and policy adviser
Canadian Home Builders’ Association
August 2004 - June 2013
Executive assistant to the chief operating officer
Canadian Home Builders’ Association
March 2003 - August 2004
Secretary to the national co-ordinators for education and training and membership services
Canadian Home Builders’ Association