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Empty houses drawing squatters across Vancouver’s Cambie Corridor

WATCH:  It’s a nasty consequence of Vancouver’s rush to re-develop aging neighbourhoods. Squatters are taking over vacant homes. Elaine Yong reports.

VANCOUVER – In a rush to develop aging areas of Vancouver, pockets of the city are left with empty houses that are morphing neighbourhoods into slums for squatters.

Todd Constant, a resident of W. 26th Avenue, feels he is watching his neighbourhood transform into a ghost town. His old neighbours, who moved out after selling to developers, are being quickly replaced by squatters and thieves who come and go as they please, taking with them whatever they can grab from the vacant properties.

“I am arms up in the air, what are we supposed to do?” said Constant. “I can’t stop them from stealing things from someone else’s property.”

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According to Constant, the thieving in his nearly empty neighbourhood has gotten so bad, he doesn’t even bother calling the police any more, even if the theft occurs in broad daylight. He says he’s so used to hearing the sound of breaking glass that these days he doesn’t even react to the noise.

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“It’s gotten to the point where if I ask someone whether they have permission to be on the premises, they answer very honestly that they don’t.”

The Cambie Corridor is being transformed from an area of single-family homes to higher-density developments of up to six storeys. But, as the houses await demolition, entire neighbourhoods are left desolate.

Standards of maintenance

According to the city, owners are responsible for maintaining their properties, and that includes developers.

The standards for maintenance are the same as if the property was being lived in. The grass needs to be mowed, no garbage accumulated, no graffiti, and houses that are fenced need to have windows and doors boarded up.

So far this year, officials have issued 78 orders for actions on 38 vacant buildings. Inspectors are often seen in the Cambie Corridor as neighbours call to file complaints about the vacant homes.

“We are sending inspectors up the entire corridor to see where we may have problems,” said Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnston.

“Ultimately this is their responsibility, and we are redoubling efforts to make sure that developers are being held accountable.”

Neighborhood in transition

While most people would hate to have their neighbourhood turned into a huge construction zone, Constant can’t wait for it to begin.

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“It will be really disruptive, but I think I’d still prefer that over what I have now,” says Constant.

As the Cambie Corridor transforms, what Constant misses more than anything is the security in knowing you have actual neighbours. He laments the destruction of community in his neighbourhood.

Surrounded by squatters and made to witness thievery in the properties around him, Constant worries about the security of his home and family. Concerned about the traffic in and out of the homes, he doesn’t even want his wife walking their dog down the lane.

“It’s been four years of living hell,” he said. “This honestly could be part of a zombie movie.”

Constant believes the squatting and vandalism could easily be addressed if homes were rented out until demolition was scheduled. According to him, using them as low-cost rental housing would be an ideal solution.

A widespread problem

The problem of vacant homes is not isolated to Cambie street. Vacant homes are on the rise along almost every major arterial road in Vancouver.

Architect and planning consultant Michael Geller can’t stress enough the need for proper upkeep of vacant properties.

“It’s important to keep these sites looked after, because otherwise you really do change the complexion of a neighbourhood – just with one or two houses that are…a mess.”

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