For Justin Van Leeuwen, his wife Mel Jacques, and their three sons, it all began with a rumble.
“It was like the snow was coming off our roof,” recalls Justin. But it wasn’t snow — it was the foundation of their house, crumbing inward. The freeze-thaw cycles of the 2018 winter had proven too much for the 100-year-old concrete. When he went down to the unfinished basement of his Hintonburg duplex to investigate, he found a pile of rocks spilling out from the shared wall, clearly not doing the job.
It was the kind of problem you can’t ignore. Sure, you could sell the place, but the foundation issue would devastate the resale value. They knew house prices in the trendy ’hood were on the rise, and they didn’t want to lose their investment. Plus, they liked their home — after 10 years there, they had laid down roots and loved the fact they could walk to school and the Dollar Store and Giant Tiger.
So they decided to play the long game, borrowing upwards of $150,000 to cover the cost of a new foundation for their side of the duplex. They hoped that a finished basement could one day serve as quasi-independent living for their eldest son, who is autistic and would otherwise be looking at life in a group home. They got the permits, and in June 2018, construction crews began to dig.
Though the project was a big one, they had no plans of working with the neighbour on the other side of the shared wall. In the past year, their live-and-let-live relationship had taken a turn; they say he had made it difficult for them to access the shared utilities located on his side of the building. They know him as Frank, a long-time tenant who seemed to want to be left alone.
Interestingly, the city required notice be given to people in surrounding residences, but not the person living in the adjoining house, so there was no legal reason to let him know about the project.
While jackhammers were used for the initial work, Justin says much was done with sledgehammers, pickaxes, and wheelbarrows. But it was a busy summer on the property and its surroundings, with trucks and equipment on-site five days a week.
Mel knew the noise and chaos of the foundation work would agitate her and their middle son, so she rented a trailer and parked it at Mariposa Farm in Plantagenet, feeding the chickens and enjoying a summer of country living.
That left Justin to oversee the work. The freelance photographer says he spent most of that summer on the third floor — the one place that has air conditioning — often with his headphones on. He set up a bedroom that he shared with their youngest child, who often visited his grandparents during the day. Construction crews arrived in the morning and left at night, and Justin insists their hours and machine noise stayed within bylaw limits. Those crews shored up their house, blasted out the old foundation, and poured fresh concrete. While jackhammers were used for the initial work, Justin says much was done with sledgehammers, pickaxes, and wheelbarrows. But it was a busy summer on the property and its surroundings, with trucks and equipment on-site five days a week.
He says he noticed the music blaring from his neighbour’s unit but thought, Hey, it’s the summer. In late August, Justin bought himself new speakers, embracing the season.
Labour Day weekend brought the return of Mel, who was shocked at the consistently loud music coming from their neighbour’s side of the building.
“The dishes in our cupboard were vibrating. We had to move things so they wouldn’t clang together,” she recalls.
Justin tried what Mel calls the “passive-aggressive approach,” asking the neighbour if there was a party planned and sidestepping around what they really wanted to say: turn down the music.
“He’s never been pleasant to deal with, so it made me really nervous,” says Mel. But eventually they did confront him. On September 6, Justin recorded an interaction with Frank, who looks like a laid-back guy you might make small talk with at the beach: shades, board shorts, ball hat. The video begins with a conversation about accessing the plumbing through Frank’s side of the house; eventually Justin asks him to turn down his music. He simply says, “Nope,” shrugs, and walks away.
They called bylaw almost every day to complain about the music, and learned to wait at least 45 minutes for an officer to show up. By this time, Justin and Mel believe, the speakers were positioned against the shared wall on the neighbour’s side, which meant the music was loudest in their kitchen; this demanded that someone stay up to greet the cops and bring them into the back of the house. Justin began recording every time his neighbour played music — by date, time, song title, and decibel level — meticulously organizing files in a massive Dropbox folder.
“I started to have the feeling that it was on purpose. And I thought, We have to do something,” says Mel.
Frustrated and feeling that the neighbour’s behaviour was verging on harassment, Mel visited the Ottawa Police Service location at the Hintonburg Community Centre and met with an officer about alternate solutions to their dispute.
Another video, marked September 20, shows Justin approaching his neighbour on the sidewalk in front of their house. It’s blurry and upside down, but the audio is clear.
Justin: “Is the problem you have with us with our noise? Because right now it’s quite obvious we have a conflict of noise.”
Frank responds: “Yes, that’s been forever. It’s … I can’t talk about it.” He walks away.
Justin pushes, insists he’s open to discussion.
Frank: “I want you to move.”
Justin: “What about an amicable situation where we can live as neighbours?”
Frank: “Nope. Can’t happen anymore.”
Justin: “You’ve never even tried!”
Frank: “You should have thought of that before declaring war.”
It’s not clear what war Frank is referring to — in late October, Franco Marrocco was charged with criminal mischief to property. Given that the case was still in front of the courts at press time, he declined to comment on this article.
But still, they say, the music continued. The kids who sleep on the second floor struggled to fall asleep — it’s hard to find earplugs that fit a 10-year-old — and then fell asleep in class. Mel works at home and had to make phone calls from the third-floor bathroom — shower running — to drown out the classic rock pulsating through the main and second floors. The foundation work is done; the cost has ballooned to nearly $250,000.
Then, in mid-January, Justin says, he heard their neighbour’s door slam, followed by banging on their shared wall and screams of “I’ll never leave!” and loud music. Scared about the escalation in tone, Justin and Mel called the police. Later that week, the OPS officer Mel had met with earlier told them that Frank’s outburst constituted a breach of his initial release (specifically, that there should be no contact with Justin and his family). They learn that their neighbour spent a night in jail and was released under the same conditions: no contact with the neighbours, which means no electronic noise over 20 decibels.
For him, that building is affordable housing; for Justin and his family, it’s an investment worth borrowing six figures for. Such changes in a dense urban area mean people of very different demographics are living side by side.
In looking back, the conflict seems to have been sparked by the foundation work. In the previous year, complaints about residential construction in the ward made headlines and caused plenty of social media clashes. Kitchissippi councillor Jeff Leiper posted a lengthy message entitled “Enough is enough on infill construction woes,” listing a rise in complaints to his office about such things as noise, blocked driveways, and equipment stored on neighbouring properties. Leiper’s top frustration: the city’s “graduated enforcement” approach, which relies on the courts to get to the bottom of bylaw infractions.
Justin and Mel’s situation is a classic example: even after the criminal charges were laid, they claim, the noise continued throughout the fall and into the winter while Frank awaited his January court date; it was the court system that brought about the no-contact restriction.
In the bigger picture, the story could be seen as an example of troubled relations in gentrifying areas. In March 2019, a semi-detached in Hintonburg was listed at $700,000. In contrast, property records show Frank’s place was bought for $42,000 in 1982. One of those Dropbox videos shows him saying he has lived there for over 30 years. For him, that building is affordable housing; for Justin and his family, it’s an investment worth borrowing six figures for. Such changes in a dense urban area mean people of very different demographics are living side by side.
But that doesn’t mean residents are powerless. Beyond bylaw, which aims to protect the welfare of residents, the Criminal Code of Canada protects Justin and his family against “mischief,” making it unlawful for their neighbour to “obstruct, interrupt or interfere with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property.”
Justin has been subpoenaed to appear as a witness in support of the mischief charges. While they await the outcome of Frank’s trial, Justin and Mel are torn about what to do next. It doesn’t feel good living so close to a person with whom they’ve had such a history.
“I feel really bad that it had to get to that,” says Mel.