People who live in highrise buildings face challenges that didn't exist when much of the current legislation was put in place. The Consumers Council of Canada has drafted a list of rights and responsibilities for them, with the help of a panel of experts.
On March 15, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, "If a consumer is offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant…if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened and national interest suffers."
Kennedy gave consumers four basic rights that day, which were later expanded into eight globally recognized consumer rights and responsibilities. The Consumers Council of Canada added a ninth element and recently tied these rights and responsibilities to housing issues in a report addressing issues related to residential intensification.
"The consumer marketplace for housing has rapidly shifted in major Canadian cities from suburban to urban, from low density to high," says Aubrey LeBlanc, the council's president. As builders have responded with unprecedented levels of highrise construction in Canada's major cities, "not surprisingly some challenges have emerged for consumers, builders and the real estate marketplace," says the council.
It formed a panel of consumers, developers and building experts to discuss the impacts of rising housing densities, resulting in a new report by Marshall Leslie, chair of the council's Housing and Energy Committee. It includes 24 recommendations of actions needed to address concerns for those living in highrise buildings and high density areas. It also outlines how the International Rights and Responsibilities of Consumers relate to Canadian housing and suggests that a new list of condominium owner rights and responsibilities should be introduced.
The first consumer right is for basic needs -- the right to goods and services to ensure survival. Consumers have the responsibility to ensure that these goods and services are used properly. The Consumer's Council of Canada says affordable housing, rental options and units appropriate for families are now becoming recognized as basic needs for Canadians.
The right to safety is being protected from goods or services that are hazardous to your health. It's the responsibility of consumers to read instructions and use products as instructed and to teach safety to children. The council says, "Building maintenance and property standards are of real concern in highrise living. Failing utilities or loss of service due to lack of maintenance are unacceptable."
Consumers have the right to be informed and to be protected against misleading advertising and labelling, and they have the responsibility to use available information and keep themselves informed.
"For 10 years, British Columbia's Real Estate Development Marketing Act (REDMA) has set an example for disclosure during construction and prior to closing that doesn't exist in any other province," says the council. In addition, "Tenants and owners would both be able to better evaluate a building's condition if energy benchmarking were introduced."
Next is the right to choose products and services at competitive prices. Consumers must make responsible choices. The council says there are few three and four bedroom apartment units available for families, and consumers should also have more information about the performance of buildings.
Consumers have the right to express an opinion and the responsibility to make their opinions known. In Ontario, with more investors buying condos and renting them out, it has added "a new level of complexity to the landlord-tenant mix and condominium governance," says the report.
The right to be compensated for misrepresentation, shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services is next. Consumers must refuse to accept poor products and bad service. The report says in Ontario, consumers should have their voices heard when land-use planning and reviews of the Condominium Act and other legislation are conducted.
People have the right to education to be informed consumers, and the responsibility to take advantage of educational opportunities. In B.C., the Condominium Home Owners Association has a partnership with the government and the private sector to provide educational materials to condo residents.
A healthy environment is the last of the international rights and responsibilities. Both suppliers and consumers must work to reduce waste and choose building materials and systems that will minimize damage to the environment. The report says Ontario has an aging stock of high rise buildings that need retrofitting.
The Consumers Association of Canada has added the right to privacy to the list, as it applies to personal information. Consumers have the responsibility to divulge personal information only when appropriate. In housing, privacy issues are "revealed in simple ways like sound transmission through the walls of a high-rise unit, or in more complicated fashion like the use of confidential personal information in the possession of a condo board or property management company."
The council report recommends that the Ontario government create a new list of condo owner rights and responsibilities.
Marshall writes that during a recent review of Ontario's Condominium Act, "there was a discussion about new rights: safety, security, access to information (such as depreciation reports), requirements for insurance coverage, permission to own pets and a smoke-free environment."
The panel recommends that the current list be expanded to "reflect changed realities like expanded reporting requirements, the large number of tenants occupying investor-owned units and the effects of secondary smoke; and the experience of some residents during ice storms and power failures who were left isolated and vulnerable."
It also suggests that Ontario incorporate requirements for information disclosure like those in REMDA, which protects buyers of pre-sale condo projects against changes made by the developers prior to completion.
"The whole purpose of REMDA is to dispel the ‘buyer beware' attitude from the purchase process -- made more important because the predominance of condominium pre-sales prevents inspection of the unit and building," says the report. "A seven-day opt-out clause and a disclosure statement are key protections."