‘Whack-a-mole’ in the danger zone Police, fire and bylaw-enforcement face frustrating cat-and-mouse cycle with squatters as they work to reduce number of city’s derelict, burned-out, abandoned properties
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/09/2022 (254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Vivian Ketchum sees the city workers pull up to the burned-out husks that used to be homes on William Avenue and walks over from the bus stop across the street to give them a piece of her mind.
Something needs to be done about these vacant buildings, the 58-year-old Anishinaabe community activist tells an assistant fire chief, a police staff sergeant and a bylaw officer on a recent afternoon.
Up above, a pigeon is roosting on a third-storey window frame that’s charred black from multiple recent blazes — five total since June 2017. Now, a real estate agent’s sign announces the property at 509 William is for sale: $69,900.
Ketchum worries young Indigenous girls and women are being exploited in vacant and derelict buildings in her neighbourhood. She’s also concerned about the people who pry off the plywood sheets installed over the doors and window frames so they can live inside.
She walks past the two vacant homes on William Avenue every day, worrying she’ll see a dead body.
Ketchum accompanies the trio as they make their way next door to 511 William. Around back, a discarded couch is surrounded by litter and clothing. Blankets sit near the knocked-over fridge and washing machine at the back entrance.
She worries about the kids who sometimes play in the overgrown grass that hides used needles.
Two weeks ago, the city again boarded up the two houses that once were homes. They’ve been pried off; it’s like the carnival game whack-a-mole, the police staff sergeant says.
“We’re going to make sure these get boarded (up) again, but it’s a struggle to keep it that way,” Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service asst. chief Scott Wilkinson tells Ketchum within earshot of a Free Press reporter and photographer.
“You can board them up, but…” Ketchum says, pausing a beat, “tear them down. Like, what value — structural value — does this place have?”
Amid increasing numbers of fires in vacant structures this year — as many as two or three a week in the spring and early summer — the fire paramedic service, the Winnipeg Police Service and the bylaw enforcement department got together to develop a new approach to deal with unused buildings.
The effort is under the direction of city’s chief administrative officer, revamping an existing committee dealing with problem properties. The team wants to reduce the number of worrisome spots, making them less dangerous for first responders who might have to enter and, ultimately, dissuade owners from letting buildings rot in the first place.
The three city services are working together in teams that go from property to property on a list, clearing them of squatters and identifying hazards such as holes in the floor and trash piled up. A contractor follows behind to board up the structures that have been broken into.
Previously, the three departments worked in silos; police would clear a building, but bylaw services wouldn’t necessarily be there to immediately board it back up.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of these buildings that are problematic — they’re not being maintained, they’re boarded up, they’re sources of arson, fire, criminal activity and they’re not getting dealt with, they’re not moving through the system enough,” says the fire department’s Wilkinson.
“It’s a huge amount for community bylaw to keep track of and try to manage…. We need to find solutions to either have them rehabilitated for affordable housing or get them torn (down) and remove the risk — that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The team has identified 50 buildings to focus on and are using the three service’s existing resources to do so, but will look for potential funding in future budgets to lessen the demands for city services and reduce emergency response calls, fire paramedic service spokeswoman Erin Madden says.
”We need to find solutions to either have them rehabilitated for affordable housing or get them torn (down) and remove the risk — that’s what we’re trying to do.”–WFPS asst. chief Scott Wilkinson
The officials say the committee is examining the potential of bringing the province into the fold, and talking about amending the existing bylaw to assist them.
Bylaw services is enforcing its vacant building directive, which requires entries and windows be boarded up and includes fees that increase yearly on 622 properties city-wide; residential or commercial building owners are charged $2,517 for a boarding permit, which increases yearly by $1,880. A provision, which is a last resort and a difficult one to undertake, is to seize a property without compensating the owner.
Inner-city neighbourhoods have the most vacant properties — 88 in William Whyte, 32 in Daniel McIntyre and 29 in Dufferin, for example — but the issue exists across the city, data shows; there’s a vacant home on Wellington Crescent and one each in suburban Waverley Heights and Island Lakes.
Number of vacant properties, per neighbourhood
Recently, the fire department invited the Free Press to watch the new team in action as the officials checked out six addresses in various states of disrepair — from a half-demolished pile of burned rubble to an apartment block that’s likely a candidate for rehabilitation.
Most vacant buildings
Winnipeg neighbourhoods with the most vacant properties, as of Sept. 20, 2022:
• William Whyte: 88
• St. John’s: 41
• Daniel McIntyre: 32
• Dufferin: 29
• St. Matthews: 23
• Spence: 21
• Chalmers: 20
• Centennial: 18
• North Point Douglas: 17
• West Alexander: 17
-City of Winnipeg
On the corner of Anderson Avenue and Salter Street, a two-storey beige brick apartment block — the Viceroy, reads the placard above the door — sits empty, its windows and doors shuttered behind whitewashed plywood screwed tight. The fire department has doused two blazes at the property recently: a fire inside in January 2021 and one outside three months later.
Around the side, in the alley, someone dumped an unwanted love seat; discarded furniture is a common sight on vacant properties, and an arson risk.
Apart from the boards and gang tags and trash littered on the property that’s spread to neighbouring, occupied homes, this old walk-up is something that could — with some elbow grease — be transformed into suitable and affordable housing, police Staff Sgt. Rob Duttchen says.
“We have probably 12 suites here that’s underutilized square footage, that’s a way better alternative to squatting in an unsafe building, heating that building with combustible material, or setting up an encampment where you have all other manners of risk,” he says.
On Austin Avenue in North Point Douglas, there are three vacant homes on one block alone — in addition to the derelict property the team initially intended to visit on this afternoon.
Inside the front bay window, peering from the steps where an empty can of Scooby-Doo spaghetti sits, the staff sergeant notices a loaf of bread sitting inside.
Fires inside these homes are a waste of emergency service resources — and potentially, a needless risk to the lives of people illegally resting their heads.
“For something that’s preventable, that seems like a tragic loss of life when, really, what the person deserves is affordable housing, substance-use treatment — let’s deal with the root causes, as opposed to simply allowing them to reside in squalid conditions at a danger to themselves and the public,” says Duttchen.
They make note the house needs to be boarded up, the grass cut and the hydro disabled, before moving on to William Avenue near Isabel Street, where the team meets Ketchum and her concerns.
The William houses will again be boarded up. Duttchen calls for a squad car to sit outside until a contractor arrives with plywood and screws.
On Mayfair Avenue, on the thin point of land between the Assiniboine and Red rivers to the southwest of The Forks, the Penguin House apartment block is a half-demolished shell of beams and piled bricks. The last fire there in late May left it in its current condition. The rest needs to be torn down now, Wilkinson says.
Down the road at 123 Mayfair, what was long ago a nursing home sits with graffiti covering its boarded-up front façade after six fires on the property and inside the building since April 2018. The owner wants to demolish it, but can’t because he doesn’t have a development plan — the usual bylaw requirement obstacle.
“A piece of green property is much safer,” Wilkinson says.
On the lush riverfront property behind the dilapidated building, the team members insist the city is making some headway, but John Bernuy of community bylaw enforcement services says that requires help from the community.
“If we don’t have community engagement, that’s when we end up with more neglect, because complacency falls in place,” Bernuy says.
The fire department’s Wilkinson is pointed in his message to property owners.
“Just fix the building — don’t make us have to enforce you into doing something, fix the building or take the effort to clear it up, take it down, sell it,” he says. “If you’re not going to do something with a property, you’re going to go to neglect. Try to sell it to someone who will.”
Erik Pindera reports for the city desk, with a particular focus on crime and justice.