City takes aim at derelict buildings Council to mull new plan to address hundreds of decaying properties across Winnipeg
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With multiple window frames charred by fire, spray paint on its front door and pieces of crumbling brick façade, the former apartment block at 485 Furby St. sticks out.
The building has been vacant for months and is considered an eyesore and a safety hazard in the neighbourhood.
“They tried lighting this building on fire three times now,” said neighbour Dean Lucyshyn, adding the building appears to attract drug use, arson and other safety threats.
Lucyshyn would prefer the property be replaced by a community garden or a playground.
On Tuesday, Mayor Scott Gillingham joined city councillors Sherri Rollins, John Orlikow and Cindy Gilroy in front of the former apartment block to announce new steps to crack down on empty buildings.
“These types of modest apartment buildings were once the backbones of thriving communities. Now they stand as symbols of neglect. Vacant buildings don’t just affect property values, they also pose safety hazards and contribute to a sense of decay within our communities,” said Gillingham.
The mayor said urgent action is needed to address the problem, in part because the number of “problem properties” is growing.
“The problem has grown from 471 buildings in 2018 to 685 such buildings today. The building that we’re standing in front of was declared vacant several months ago and it has been the subject of many property standard complaints and compliance orders,” Gillingham said.
Two reports headed to the June 1 meeting of council’s property and development committee call for a series of changes to address vacant and derelict buildings.
The city is proposing to ramp up security standards for buildings that have been repeatedly set on fire or used by squatters. That could include requirements for stronger boarding materials, security fences, cameras, motion sensor lighting and improved security patrols.
All vacant building owners would be prohibited from storing vehicles and combustible materials at an empty property.
“These types of modest apartment buildings were once the backbones of thriving communities. Now they stand as symbols of neglect.”– Winnipeg Mayor, Scott Gillingham
The city would also add four more bylaw enforcement officers to ensure additional inspections are completed at the structures. Property owners could also be charged inspection fees, which would increase if they don’t properly secure a building after two warnings.
City officials would also reach out to community groups to identify problem buildings and begin listing “non-compliant and problematic” vacant buildings (those deemed to be breaking the rules) on the city’s open data portal.
While the city has stopped short of publicly listing such properties in the past over privacy concerns, Rollins said there is a benefit to alerting the public about the locations of vacant structures.
“I think it’s reasonable, given the trouble we’re having, but I expect there to be a good discussion and maybe some pushback… with respect to the privacy aspects,” she said. “But I think the public benefit outweighs (that) and the privacy aspects can be mitigated.”
Another key change would streamline the residential demolition permit process. The city’s director of planning, property and development would gain the authority to approve more demolition permits at sites without approved building permits. This would remove the need for a public hearing.
“The applications could receive a decision several weeks sooner than under the current public hearing process,” a city report notes.
Gillingham said the work is needed to reduce safety risks linked to vacant buildings, noting one vacant property at 593 William Ave. caught fire for at least the fourth time early Tuesday.
In the past, city officials have expressed concerns that allowing demolitions without approved redevelopment plans could create many unused properties. While he’d prefer to see additional housing, Gillingham said an empty lot is often preferable to an empty building that can attract break-ins and fires.
“Given the two options, it’s better to have a safer, open space,” he said.
Many of the proposed changes come in response to motions raised by Gilroy, who has repeatedly pushed for action to reduce the number of vacant properties, which she says are far too common in her Daniel McIntyre ward.
“Our community really is feeling the negative impacts of these boarded-up buildings and we have to get rid of them… I think we still have some work to do but I think (the proposed changes are) a good start,” said Gilroy.
Gillingham said he hopes the city can start implementing the new measures this summer, pending full council approval. Council is expected to vote on both reports on June 22.
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.
Updated on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 2:45 PM CDT: Updates photo captions.