Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Problem with Boarded Up Houses

On Friday, along with several fellow councillors and some city staff, I went on a tour of boarded up houses.  We saw about thirty properties, places where houses are still standing, in various states of repair, but for whatever reason are not occupied, and in some cases, have been vacant for years.  We saw properties in Wards 1, 2 and 3, which is where most of these properties are located, although there are some boarded up properties in other wards, generally in the older areas of the city.

Boarded up houses are a problem for Prince Albert in several ways.  First, and probably most serious, is that they are places that attract squatters - people who will move in, or use the place for parties - and thus become a risk for fires, as well as being a location for illegal activities.  They affect the neighbourhood, bringing down property values, being a source of noxious weeds, leaving stretches of unshoveled sidewalks after a snow storm, and providing an attractive nuisance to children.

Just as I think we should have a goal of having all streets in the city paved, I think that having a goal of having no abandoned properties anywhere in the city would add immeasurably to the quality of life for all residents.  I can't help but think that if a property were boarded up in some of the newer, higher income areas of the city, the neighbours would raise such holy hell that the situation wouldn't last.  In contrast, in my ward, there is a property that was placarded as being unfit to live in in 2012.  Three years later, bylaw enforcement is only starting to talk about starting the prosecution process - imagine how pleasant it would be to have lived next door to this property for the last few years.

So what's the problem?  Part of it I alluded to in the previous paragraph - bylaw enforcement don't appear to be in any rush to act, and often seem to be extremely lenient with the landlords, rather than thinking of things from the perspective of the neighbours.  As far as I'm concerned, our sympathy should be with the neighbours, not with a landlord, who often doesn't even live in the city, who can't be bothered to bring his property up to a livable standard.  At least the process has improved so that if there's a fire in one of these buildings, the fire department informs bylaw enforcement, so that they can do an inspection immediately to see if the building is salvageable - before they would often wait for a complaint before taking any kind of action.  Rather than being complaint driven, they need to become more proactive, and follow-up quickly and firmly on addresses that are already on their files.

Another problem is that we tax empty lots at a higher rate than lots with derelict buildings on them, so there's actually a disincentive to knocking down these buildings.  I think that a more reasonable approach would be to provide tax incentives to people who build on empty lots, encouraging them to take these buildings down, and build new ones, improving the neighbourhood and adding to the available decent housing in the city.

I think that adding a surcharge to landlords that are repeat offenders - whether they need repeated warnings to take action, or whether the remedial action that they take doesn't last, and the building gets back on the list.  That would show landlords that we take these problems seriously, and they can either fix them or get out of the business.  We have to stop letting things slide.

This is an example of broken window syndrome - where it's been proven that if you take care of the maintenance of buildings in a area, the crime rate goes down as the livability of the area goes up.  As such, I think that abandoned buildings are something that council and administration should put higher on the priority list.  It may seem that it affects only the older, lower income parts of the city, but improving those areas will improve the whole city - and that's the job that we've all signed up for.

"You can't improve a neighbourhood unless you bring everyone along with you" - Marcus Samuelson

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