Toronto’s waterfront has been undergoing a revitalization for quite some time. However, on the west side of the Toronto shoreline, there’s been a series of rental apartment buildings that have remained neglected; that is, until recently.
Prime property a short streetcar ride from downtown, Shoreline Towers was a diamond in the rough. The buildings were in need of major repairs. One of the roofs was about to collapse, it was not up to fire code, the units were poorly insulated and many were sitting vacant. With a little time and effort, Briarlane Rental Property Management Inc. made Shoreline Towers a profitable investment, with rents 30 per cent higher, no vacancy and added apartment units.
“My client became aware these buildings might be available,” explains Brad Smith, Briarlane’s president. “The first thing they did was ask us to see what they looked like, what kind of condition they were in, and if there was potential for increasing the rent and improving the quality of the buildings and tenants. So that’s what we did.”
Smith explains that Briarlane inspected the properties and the lakefront buildings were in pretty good shape; however, repairs were needed.
“We quantified how much (the repairs would cost) and then we did what we call ‘our wish list.’ If we had lots of money, what would we do to improve things?”
Smith says the list was 75 items long and included the necessities as well as other items that would make the building more attractive to tenants, including bringing the corridor lighting up to code with attractive fixtures, changing the floor tiles in the corridors and renovating the lobby. These updates have had a big impact on the residents.
In addition, Briarlane introduced security cameras, which reduced vandalism while saving money previously budgeted for manned security. Discreet cameras, though not omniscient, were useful in investigating thefts and deterring vandals.
Briarlane also took efforts to improve the residents’ comfort level in their apartments while reducing the buildings’ heating costs.
“We did a Novitherm reflective panel system in these buildings where we take off the panels for the radiated heating and we put a second panel behind that, (which) pushes more heat into the apartment,” explains Smith. “When we took the panels off, we discovered gaping holes in the walls. So the buildings were, in those areas, poorly insulated. We fixed that at the same time, so a lot more heat actually comes into the building and energy costs came down.”
Other changes were made to make the building more efficient and attractive to tenants. The mailbox system was modernized, new entry phones installed, storage space was transformed into a gym for residents and televised media information boards were added to the lobbies. These include advertising, which generates income for the building.
Briarlane’s property managers were amazed the former management company had allowed the buildings to fall into such a state of disrepair. The fire code was ignored, alarms were questionable, rents were very low for the neighbourhood and location, and there were several apartments that were left vacant. The previous owners were based in Europe and didn’t keep tabs on the management company that was run by one of the owners himself.
“Management was asleep. Basically, the former owners were rent collectors but there’s a lot more to property management than doing that,” says Smith. “We create value. We look at something that is underperforming, and our clients have made millions of dollars just by changing management and investing a fraction of that.”
The Briarlane management team takes the time to study a building’s expenses to understand where savings can be made. As property managers that represent many apartment buildings, they’re able to get preferential deals on utilities.
“We study hydro consumption and gas consumption,” says Smith. “We then negotiate our own deals to purchase gas and we arrange for all our buildings to participate in a huge purchase of natural gas, which we acquire at a reduced rate. “
Briarlane also has a deal with a local telecommunications company that shares proceeds with the building owner.
Tackling waste diversion
Briarlane has had success with waste diversion at their buildings. According to Andrus Kung, vice-president in charge of commercial properties and operations, the key is to make it easy for tenants. To do that, management needs to have all members of staff on board. Once arrangements are made, convincing residents to do the right thing is easy.
But finding the right solution takes thought and effort. The garbage bins must be placed in an area that is accessible to garbage trucks and the best spot for the pick-up may not be the most convenient location for residents. For some buildings, like Shoreline Towers, bins are located at the front of the building, which residents regularly pass on their way to their vehicles.
“What we were able to do at another building was put recycling containers in the garbage chute rooms,” says Kung. “It is more labour intensive for the superintendent, who has to go up there daily and take the (containers) down to recycling, but we brought the recycling closer to the tenant, which has increased recycling tenfold in that building.”
Recycling is just one method of diversion. The City of Toronto recently introduced a green bin program to apartment buildings that collect organics. One of Briarlane’s buildings took part in the project in the early stages and management was surprised at how successful it turned out to be.
Pat Brawn, Briarlane’s vice-president and general manager, remembers the introduction of the green bin program and how successful it turned out to be.
“I think the more public knowledge that’s out there on organics, the better it is,” she says.
Looking to the future
The Briarlane management team has high hopes for Shoreline Towers and its neighbourhood. The City is investing a lot of money and effort in the waterfront and it believes the owners of other apartment buildings in the vicinity will follow Briarlane’s example.
“I think we’re at the forefront,” says Smith.
He expects other investors will purchase nearby buildings and once the area has been rejuvenated, renters will flock to the neighbourhood, which is well-served by public transit.
Amie Silverwood is editor-in-chief of Canadian Apartment Magazine.