Councillors move vacant-building fire-response fees a step closer

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A proposal to make vacant-building owners pay the cost to battle fires on their properties is now one step closer to reality, as some advocates push the city to take further action.

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A proposal to make vacant-building owners pay the cost to battle fires on their properties is now one step closer to reality, as some advocates push the city to take further action.

Longtime anti-crime advocate Sel Burrows welcomed the proposed vacant-building bylaw changes, while urging councillors for more action to combat the risk of empty structures.

“The present situation of vacant houses in Winnipeg is disgusting. It’s an insult to the inner city…. There (are) streets… where there are 20 vacant houses, there are blocks (with) four or five vacant houses. (What) does that say to the people that are living on that street?” Burrows said during a property and development committee meeting Monday.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Longtime anti-crime advocate Sel Burrows welcomed the proposed vacant-building bylaw changes, while urging councillors for more action to combat the risk of empty structures.

“What is needed is a whole series of… actions by the various (city) departments so that vacant houses do not haunt the inner city.”

Concerns about vacant homes burning have grown in recent years, with Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service noting the city could have charged property owners about $1.4 million for firefighting if the proposed charges were in place from 2019 to 2021. The property and development committee unanimously approved the proposal, which still awaits a final council vote.

On Sunday, a vacant two-storey home in the 600 block of Furby Street was destroyed by fire, forcing neighbouring homes to be evacuated. The cause is under investigation.

On top of charging fees to extinguish fires at vacant and derelict structures, Burrows urged the city to publicly list the addresses of all vacant homes and the key reasons for any vacant home to be exempt from meeting the city’s vacant-building requirements. He said that can happen at a bylaw official’s discretion without explanation to concerned community members.

“Confidentiality is the enemy of improvement. It protects the bureaucracy from people knowing whether they’re doing a good job or not… I’m a strong supporter of our bylaw enforcement department, they do a great job. But the more public it is (the better),” Burrows said afterward.

He also urged the city to speed up its process to seize the titles of abandoned buildings with unpaid taxes and lobby the province to do the same. Burrows noted the current process includes multiple appeal options and a court proceeding, which can collectively take about five years or more to complete.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

On Sunday, a vacant two-storey home in the 600 block of Furby Street was destroyed by fire, forcing neighbouring homes to be evacuated.

If council gives final approval, owners of properties that have received at least one vacant-building bylaw inspection would be charged for fire responses. A city brochure notes such inspections are conducted “at least once per year.” Fires caused by natural disasters or vehicle collisions, as well as those that started at another property, would be exempt.

Under the new rules, a two-hour residential fire response could spark a $15,000 bill, depending which equipment and officials respond.

Coun. Sherri Rollins, chairwoman of the property and development committee, said many Winnipeggers are welcoming efforts to reduce the risk of vacant buildings, which have been blamed for attracting arson, vandalism and other threats.

Rollins said she agrees the addresses of roughly 665 local vacant structures should be made public, as well as reasons why bylaws may not be immediately enforced at some sites.

“Given the scope of the problem, I do think it is important to be transparent,” she said.

Rollins noted privacy laws could limit the amount of information the city can share about specific properties but she expects those details could be carefully “codified” to help citizens learn more about problem properties in their neighbourhoods.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Coun. Sherri Rollins, chairwoman of the property and development committee, said many Winnipeggers are welcoming efforts to reduce the risk of vacant buildings, which have been blamed for attracting arson, vandalism and other threats.

Winston Yee, the city’s manager of community bylaw services, told the property and development committee privacy concerns have kept that information confidential so far but his department is open to exploring the change.

Meanwhile, multiple public delegates welcomed the new fire-response fees. Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, said she’s hopeful the change will create a financial incentive for vacant-building owners to promptly utilize empty heritage properties.

“We really want to push them to make a decision to sell the property or to rehabilitate and have them reused,” said Tugwell.

St. Johns resident Natalie Smith urged the city committee to do all it can to get vacant homes converted into usable ones.

“Empty homes are an indication of societal failure. We have over 1,000 residents in our city who are (currently) homeless and (thousands more who) are living in a precarious situation. So, it’s really important that we are doing more to ensure that empty homes are quickly being turned into living situations,” said Smith.

Council is expected to cast the final vote on the proposed fees on Jan. 26.

joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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