Housing at a Crossroads
By: Marc Huminilowycz, Sideroad Communications
The housing crisis, a skilled trades gap, increased industry regulation – with a dynamic new leader at the helm, the Ontario Home Builders Association (OHBA) assembles to prepare for immediate and long-term challenges.
Ontario home builders need to construct 1.5 million new homes by 2031, according to a target set by the provincial government to meet the increasing demand for housing. At the same time, the province’s housing industry is facing other challenges including a shortage of skilled trades, new building regulations, rising interest rates, and increasing construction costs.
In September, the annual OHBA Conference was held in The Blue Mountains, Ontario. The Opening Breakfast featured a panel of experts discussing the current and future state of Ontario’s housing industry from an economic and political perspective. Anthony Passarelli, Senior Analyst, Economics, at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation noted that while housing starts in Ontario as a whole are steady, the Greater Toronto Area is experiencing a decline, due primarily to much longer project approval times caused by the building of homes based on demand four to five years ago.
Passarelli noted that current affordability challenges have led to lower sales activity. “Families with $200,000 in income can’t afford a condo,” he said. As to future housing demand, he predicted that lower mortgage rates and an economic recovery in 2024-25, combined with increased international immigration, would help to improve the housing market.
On the political side, OHBA Vice President and Counsel Johanna Chevalier stated that Ontario’s builders and developers are currently under intense scrutiny, with more pressure to deliver their product. “Faced with the burdens of transportation, housing, and cost of living, more than half of Ontarians are heading in the wrong direction,” she said. “Add to this the negative perception of the Ontario government due primarily to its handling of the Greenbelt issue, and you run the risk of changing the narrative to “corrupt” or “corruptible”, with major damage to the brand.”
Chevalier concluded her observations with advice to builders: get ready for more scrutiny; develop your social license; be active and support issues beyond housing, such as green energy and policy, to secure your place as a thought leader; and partner with municipalities, aligning with their strategic plans relating to the More Homes Built Faster Act. Offering final thoughts in the breakfast plenary session, the moderator cited two primary challenges for builders and developers moving forward: the need to build 1.5 million homes by 2031, requiring innovation in construction technology and financing; and “the tough one” – hiring and maintaining a workforce.
An afternoon session titled “How to Attract and Retain Tomorrow’s Talent” dealt specifically with the issue of the skilled trades gap. In the next ten years, it is estimated that 92,000 skilled tradespeople will be retiring, requiring the recruitment of 160,000 workers. To respond to the urgent need, the OHBA has been the Planned Sponsor of Job Ready, a program initiated three years ago through the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s Skills Development Fund. Job Ready matches unskilled labourers with qualifying homebuilding organizations across Ontario, managing all aspects of employee recruitment to provide builders with pre-qualified, screened, safety-trained, and onboarded candidates.
“The skilled trades gap is the challenge of our time,” said moderator Michael Lio, President of buildABILITY Corporation, whose company is acting as the employer component of Job Ready. “We’re in a ‘silver tsunami’ because of retiring trades, with no good system of replacing them, until now.”
From a builder/employer perspective, Dwayne Butler of Master Edge Homes offered some valuable tips on retaining employees: develop strong mission and value statements and share them with employees; create a positive work environment; offer competitive compensation; initiate a continuous growth program; be a leader/mentor; encourage the team to get involved in the community; promote flexible work options; create a workplace where staff cultivate new hires; have fun with team activities.
Besides conventional construction roles such as carpentry, electrical, and plumbing, Klayton Goncalves, Senior Economist and Head of Intelligence at Build Force Canada identified the upcoming need, with federal emissions reduction targets and energy-efficient retrofits on the horizon, for more heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) trades. “The demand for skilled tradespeople in refrigeration, ventilation and air conditioning, including electricians, plumbers, gas fitters and sheet metal workers needs to increase significantly,” he said.
The changing building code environment and its impact on how builders construct the next generation of housing in Ontario was the focus of an important panel discussion during an afternoon session of the conference. Moderator Andy Oding, Vice President of Building Knowledge Canada, noted that the U.S. is far ahead of Canada in building regulations related to climate change and climate resiliency, stating that nine of ten builders there have an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) policy.
“Building science is vital now in Canada, with a need to focus on climate resiliency, grid interoperability, embodied carbon, water penetration, and overheating of dwellings,” he said. Mike Memme, Operations Manager with Mountainview Building Group, concurred with Oding, adding that, along with radon, overheating due to hotter summers and the need for better mechanical systems should urgently be discussed at a national level.
Frank Lohman, Director of Building Science with the Canadian Home Builders Association outlined changes coming in Canada’s 2025 National Building Code, including: Alteration to Existing Buildings; Operational Greenhouse Gas Emissions (from space conditioning and domestic hot water, with a focus on thermal bridges, energy use metrics and air tightness); Climate Change Adaptation (overheating of dwellings, projected climate change data); and Housing/Small Buildings (lateral loads, accessible dwelling units, radon).
Down the road, the national code will look at Embodied Greenhouse Gas Emissions (from construction material manufacturing, transportation, disposal) by 2030, followed by Waste Reduction (sustainable use of resources), the Circular Economy (construction process, deconstruction, re-use materials), and Climate-Adapted/Climate-Resilient Buildings. Participants were encouraged by the panel to get involved in the 2025 code process, conduct blower door tests on their buildings, and adopt an Integrated Design Process such as Savings by Design from Enbridge Gas. “We want to become an industry that new recruits want to work in,” said Oding.
Another session in the conference covered the topic of planning for the future of carbon reduction. Stressing that more and more consumers today value sustainability in their home buying decisions, the panel discussed the importance for builders to adopt ESG and set decarbonization plans to pull carbon out of their materials and operations.
“As an industry, we can choose to be pushed or to lead. We need to claim the high ground,” said Ryan Rizzo, founder and CEO of Mantle Developments.
Chris Magwood, Director of Research, Builders for Climate Action, encouraged builders to examine their embodied carbon impact. “Don’t be scared of this. The data, such as EPD (Environmental Product Disclosure), is available. There’s lots you can do and it’s not that difficult,” he said. As an example, Magwood pointed to concrete, a significant source of embodied carbon. “You can try to minimize concrete in your projects, talk to your concrete supplier about a lower carbon alternative, or choose low-carbon concrete in your procurement process.”
Other conference sessions included innovation and design to create attainable multi-family housing, moisture management in building envelopes, cultivating a leadership culture, the next generation of industry principals, and harnessing the power of social media. In the evening at the Presidents’ Gala, OHBA members were introduced to their new Board Chair and President Dave Depencier, who started his building career as a general labourer, became a skilled framer and is now a successful custom home builder in Chatham-Kent, Ontario .
In his speech, Depencier highlighted the need for members to embrace the Job Ready program in order to meet the government’s target of 1.5 million new homes by 2031. “This target underscores the significance of our industry in Ontario’s economy,” he said. “In addition to the skilled trades gap, we face a challenging policy environment with many obstacles including increasing regulation, construction costs and interest rates threatening our ability to provide the supply that’s needed.”
“Our mission is clear,” Depencier added. “We must continue to build communities that meet the needs of current and future Ontarians. We’re not merely an association. We’re architects of the future, shapers of the landscape and the heartbeat of our province’s housing industry. Yes we have a lot of work ahead of us along the path, and we will undoubtedly encounter challenges and adversity. It’s something that we as an industry are no stranger to. I have no doubt that we will not only endure, but we will thrive.”