Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun
A Vancouver woman has a cautionary tale for anyone living next to an abandoned house after she battled city authorities for months to stop strangers from partying on the decaying back porch of a rundown house across her lane.
Laura De Munain moved into her family’s Oak Street house on the outskirts of the tony Shaughnessy neighbourhood in April. While working from home, the pregnant lawyer soon noticed groups of two or three people regularly stumbling around her back alley in a daze.
She went to check out the house. After walking through the rubbish-strewn carport, she climbed a rotting back staircase and found a large porch littered with aerosol cans, garbage and a camping stove. Above, a mouldy piece of drywall drooped down from the ceiling, exposing the rafters. With its back door unlocked and kitchen windows open, anyone could, and did, easily slip in.
Police answered her first call to their non-emergency line and toured the property, but they “said they didn’t see any evidence of consistent living here,” according to De Munain. She says city staff referred her back to the police when she complained about drug users and squatters in June and asked the city to force the owner to board the home up properly.
Eventually someone boarded up the patio’s back door, but over the next three months, De Munain and her husband regularly cleaned their alley of broken glass and discarded aerosol cans as she feared for the safety of their three-year-old daughter when walking to their parked car. Several more calls to the police and the city yielded little action, De Munain says.
“The gist of it is: you can have someone purchase property in your neighbourhood, they don’t start constructing, they leave it abandoned, they don’t secure it and suddenly this is your neighbourhood,” De Munain said while giving The Sun a tour of the back patio and adjoining carport. “It’s an unsafe environment and no one will help you. Because you call the police and you call the city — each will point to the other and say it’s not their problem.
“It’s your problem.”
In the weeks leading up to this month’s civic election, a blog showcasing “beautiful empty homes” of the west side and a proposal from COPE mayoral candidate Meena Wong for a vacant home tax gained support from residents simmering with anger over Vancouver becoming a “hedge city” for foreign real estate investors. A poll last month showed 72 per cent of respondents thought such a tax a “very good” or “good” proposal, and only 18 per cent deemed it “very bad” or “bad.”
Vision Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs said he, like many, finds it offensive when a perfectly good home is held empty for speculative reasons, but he doesn’t know that such a tax is “legally possible or even desirable.”
“There’s also been a concern on my part and many others that the enforcement of such a (tax) program would create an intrusive new bureaucracy that would be peering through keyholes to make sure people were telling the truth about whether a place was being used or not,” Meggs said.
This summer, two vacant homes in Strathcona burned down reportedly after a squatter lit a fire in one of them.
City inspectors went out 79 times last year to investigate squatters or other problems at 36 vacant addresses, according to a city official. The year before, inspectors were sent out 107 times to 47 addresses, which was about same as in 2010 and 2011.
There are no figures available yet for this year, when the issue began touching a nerve in this increasingly overpriced city. Meggs said Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Agency is researching how many properties are vacant and will report back to council some time “in the new year.”
In the most extreme cases of owner neglect, neighbours’ complaints can spur city council to order demolition.
That’s what happened on Marshall Street, near east Vancouver’s Trout Lake Park, almost two years ago.
Next-door neighbour Kora Small remembers how the rotting home blighted the neighbourhood, with nesting raccoons scaring the area’s many young children. She and her husband also worried they would be liable for any damage to their place if a fire broke out because the empty home’s mercurial owner didn’t have home insurance.
Once, they phoned the VPD’s non-emergency line after noticing the front door had been open three days, Small says.
Police arrived and, after going in, told Small “it was one of the scariest buildings to enter because it was so decrepit.”
“It’s a hard situation — I feel for him, but it also is pretty ridiculous to have an empty lot for so long and an unusable lot,” Small said. “Other neighbours have said (it has been uninhabited) 15 to 20 years — so that’s a long time.”
At the time, neighbour Zoe LeGood told The Sun she was dissatisfied with the city’s drawn-out response, initiated in 2009 by complaints from neighbours.
She and other neighbours complained regularly to the city, which charged the owner three separate times for cleaning up his overgrown yard, Small says.
Eventually staff passed the problem over to council for a vote on the home’s demolition. City councillors were “very responsive” to the concerns of Small and four other neighbours who showed up to the hearing, but she wonders if the demolition process really needs to be lengthened by going to council.
“It doesn’t seem like something that is necessarily a good use of their time, when someone can just check it out and see that this is clearly a house that can’t be restored,” Small said.
The owner has held onto the property since the home was demolished in January 2013, and some enterprising members of the community have seeded a verdant lawn and started a guerrilla garden.
“The neighbourhood just wanted to make it a nice space,” Small said.
In De Munain’s case, at the end of September the city had only registered one formal complaint about the property, which is worth $2.2 million according to its 2014 assessment. Eventually, city staff boarded up the kitchen door and windows and in September gave the owner 14 days to cut the lawn or else a city work crew would clean it up and the bill would be added to the owner’s property tax.
In the first week of November, the owner put yellow fencing around most of the property to try to block access to the abandoned home, De Munain says. But the barrier didn’t cover a decaying clapboard fence that people kicked in to create a new entrance from the alley, she says.
Now, those holes have been patched with scraps of plywood, but De Munain says people are still hopping over that part of the fence. Two weeks ago, her husband chased off a man who parked his trailer and began dumping asbestos tiles over the fence — a problem she’s worried might continue.
VPD spokesman Const. Brian Montague confirmed officers have visited the property a “handful” of times in recent months, but “in most cases officers searched the home and found no one.”
He said even if anyone was caught “loitering” or “prowling” at night near a dwelling on private property it would be hard for police to recommend charges because the Criminal Code defines a house as “the whole or any part of a building or structure that is kept or occupied as a permanent or temporary residence.”
“The question then arises … is an abandoned house kept as a permanent or temporary residence?” Montague wrote in an email. “One could argue no, depending on the state of the property, how long it has been unoccupied and if it is abandoned or merely unoccupied.”
Carli Edwards, Vancouver’s assistant director of inspection services, said any neighbour with a problem involving a vacant property can register a complaint by calling 311. The city then sends inspectors to investigate and it can impose a 14-day notice forcing the landlord to resolve the issue, as it did with the property behind De Munain.
The owners — listed as Toyo Developments Ltd. — applied late last year to redevelop the house, a city spokeswoman confirmed. Toyo’s directors are Chien Cheng Peng and Wen Li Peng, according to corporate records. Their home address is listed as a multi-million dollar mansion on Shaughnessy’s famed Crescent, not far from the property that De Munain and her husband have been complaining about. The owners did not return repeated calls.
De Munain says she just wanted the property and back porch “boarded up” properly and access to the property secured.
“I empathize with the property owner. If he’s stuck in permitting, fine, but just be respectful of your neighbours and realize if you have an abandoned property it is going to attract all sorts,” De Munain said. “This is pretty bad, but it could be a lot worse.
“And it’s not safe, it really could start a fire.”