Two Edmonton neighbourhoods in the shadow of the city’s downtown have consistently ranked the highest in the city for nuisance property complaints for the past seven years.
According to a Global News analysis, the city routinely receives hundreds of nuisance property complaints calls for Alberta Avenue and McCauley, compared to the single-digit or dozens of calls in the city’s roughly 300 other neighbourhoods, and some residents are reaching a breaking point.
Doug Thompson has lived in the Alberta Avenue neighbourhood for 13 years and said he hasn’t had any major problems until the last two years. He is now thinking about moving out of the neighbourhood for good.
“A lot of problems have been popping up. A lot of drug houses, break-ins. I’ve been broken into a number of times just in the last year,” he said.
“It’s given me a sense of unease because you just never know. You hear a noise and you wonder, ‘What is that? Is that somebody coming in the gate? Is that somebody trying to get into the house?’”
Thompson said he would like to see more boots on the ground and faster, saying he is often told his complaint will get dealt with but isn’t given a time frame. He calls the decision to leave Alberta Avenue bittersweet.
“I’ve always said, ‘No, I’m safe. Everything is good here now.’ And now, it’s starting to go downhill again,” Thompson said.
Complaints over the years
According to the city, nuisance property complaints are made when garbage accumulates around a building, derelict or damaged vehicles are left behind or buildings stay in disrepair, such as graffiti or lack of upkeep. Community advocates said these types of problem properties typically trigger social disorder and crime.
Global News analyzed bylaw complaint numbers in the city’s Open Data database and compared nuisance property complaints across Edmonton neighbourhoods from Jan. 1, 2011 to Nov. 1, 2018. The dataset reveals Alberta Avenue and McCauley have the dubious distinction of receiving the most nuisance property complaints.
City Councillor Scott McKeen said issues such as homelessness and social disorder can grow out of derelict buildings, graffiti and abandoned properties.
“You create a contest or environment where people don’t invest in the community,” he said.
McKeen was not surprised by the title awarded to McCauley, which is in his ward.
“A lot of the nuisance complaints reflect an area that has been beaten down for years by neglect by the rest of the city,” he said.
“I think it reflects dated attitudes towards homelessness and poverty, which are prevalent in our society.”
Alberta Avenue community advocate Christy Morin said the high number of complaints shows residents in the area care.
“Twenty years ago, people didn’t call in the nuisance properties or the complaints because they were afraid to, because there were so many of them and they didn’t know change could actually happen,” she said.
“When you’re living next door to it, after a while, you’re either going to move or you’re going to just start calling that number over and over again saying we need help.”
Nuisance properties an “Achilles heel”
Morin calls the issue a weak spot for the neighbourhood.
“I would say the drug houses and the problem properties are most certainly our Achilles heel for true revitalization and true health,” she said.
“It really brings down the morale of that block of that community. If you have a terrible property full of weeds and neglect and junk, it really perpetuates people going, ‘Do I really need to worry about my yard today?’”
Morin moved to the neighbourhood 25 years ago, drawn to the character and affordability. She soon found herself face-to-face with drug houses and women working the streets. It’s something she has become used to.
“I feel quite safe but I also know the areas that are the corners of crime, I would say, that are magnets of crime and there’s an underbelly of crime that the drug trade pushes as well,” she said.
Councillor Tony Caterina, whose ward covers Alberta Avenue, attributes the high number of calls to the fact Alberta Avenue is an old neighbourhood and also because of the neighbourhood’s recent growth. He also said the city’s hands are often tied on what can be done to a nuisance property if it requires other provincial agencies to be involved.
Impact on business
Joachim Holtz became executive director of the Alberta Avenue Business Association in January 2018. He said the issue of nuisance properties has improved since 2008, but he said optics are critical and that can have an impact of business in the area.
“It’s all perception. People come to the Avenue, of course it’s unsightly. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.
South of Alberta Avenue, similar issues are playing out in McCauley.
Teresa Spinelli, the president of Viva Italia Business Association, said it is hard to bring in new businesses to the area.
“They drive by at night and they see the type of people that these businesses are attracting. If there’s drug houses, it just doesn’t work. Nobody wants to open a business in that kind of area,” she said.
“McCauley is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Edmonton, the inner city, and has always had its issues with abandoned properties and such.”
The neighbourhood is not only where Spinelli’s business, Italian Centre, is located; it is also where she lives with her 11-year-old son.
“Lots of times there are people who drank too much, they’re selling whatever that’s illegal and it makes me feel very uncomfortable,” Spinelli said.
“I don’t want my 11-year-old to see the hooker shooting up outside our house. That does happen. Usually I’ll ask them to move and they’re more than happy to move.”
Spinelli is working with people in the community to improve conditions.
“The community has really come together as a group to fight it with the city together to say, ‘Hey, it’s not just one person in this community who feels this way.’ There’s 50 families that are new to the community that are building new homes in the area that really want to stay in McCauley and if issues like this continue they’re not going to stay in McCauley.”
Back in Alberta Avenue, Morin has endured tenants in slum houses jumping off the house and vehicles being stolen over the years. She considered flipping her house, which was south of drug houses, and moving back to Edmonton’s south side but ultimately decided to stay put.
“We realized that if we moved out of the neighbourhood and weren’t able to find a way to find solutions for the community, it’s just perpetuating the problem,” she said.
But for that to happen, Morin believes the tide needs to turn on bias against Alberta Avenue.
“It’s such a dense community with problem properties that the city at times will look at it and go, ‘Well, that’s Alberta Avenue, what do you expect?’” she said.
McKeen admits there is bias against the neighbourhoods because of their social disorders and said attitudes need to change.
He said he and council are making this issue a top priority and is disheartened to hear some residents are looking at moving to get away from the problems.
“Disappointed and frustrated. Nothing will move fast enough, I understand, but I think it is my mission, the mayor’s mission, this council’s mission to start tipping it the other way.”
McKeen points to city programs meant to improve the health and well-being of challenged neighbourhoods as well as initiatives to create more supportive housing as ways the city is trying to improve the situation, but he said it will likely take a decade for any major differences to be seen.
As for Morin, her ask is simple – she just wants to keep residents in her neighbourhood.
“We need to make this a priority because it’s not keeping people in the inner city, inner core – they’re moving out.”