Community activists are urging the City of Winnipeg to take action on derelict and abandoned homes, which are causing growing safety concerns.
According to a new report, more than 120 vacant buildings are not registered under the city’s vacancy bylaw — on top of the 500-plus that are properly documented — and around 60 vacant buildings went up in flames in 2021.
Beyond that, many are an eyesore for the community.
“There’s houses there where you can’t even get up to the front door, because of the garbage that’s there,” Point Douglas activist Sel Burrows told 680 CJOB’s The Start. “You’ve got houses that have a few two-by-fours nailed across them.
“Continually we’re having to phone the police to tell them there’s people inside these vacant houses.
“You can’t believe the piles of rotting garbage and the ugly graffiti — some of it is really quite gross. I’ve talked to some people, mostly Indigenous women who live near this, and they find it really scary.”
Burrows said city bylaws are very specific when it comes to securing vacant homes — demanding that windows and doors be covered by a certain size of plywood to ensure no one is breaking in.
The report’s five recommendations include allocating more city staff to eliminate the backlog of unsecured buildings.
Burrows said there are plenty of former firefighters or police now on light duty due to conditions like PTSD who would likely be able to tackle the challenge.
“They would love to be able to get out and drive around and report these places,” he said.
Other recommendations include implementing a one-month deadline for vacant buildings to be secured, conducting regular inspections of registered vacant buildings, and giving priority to buildings near schools and social agencies.
United Firefighters of Winnipeg president Tom Bilous says the issue of vacant buildings isn’t a new one for city fire crews, although the term ‘vacant’ gets applied to a broad spectrum of structures, and the worst cases are the ones that need to be dealt with swiftly.
“I would suggest the bigger issue is the truly derelict structures — that is a big concern for firefighters,” Bilous told 680 CJOB, adding that it has been a “banner year” for firefighters taking on these types of blazes.
“Fatigue sets in. You’re fighting the elements and you’re fighting surprises in these buildings — there’s holes in the floor, there’s needles, there’s all kinds of junk…. It’s very hazardous.”
A major concern, Bilous said, is the potential presence of squatters in these buildings, leaving firefighters unclear when they arrive whether there could be people trapped in a burning structure.
Burrows’ call for a time-sensitive deadline for vacant buildings to be secured is a good one, Bilous said, as is the idea of having more staff involved in dealing with these problems.
“As people responding to these places and these fires, I would suggest there needs to be more staff to support planning and development,” he said.