With Winnipeg’s municipal election mere weeks away, candidates for the city’s top job are discussing and debating the issues — including the current crisis of derelict housing, which has caused concerns for Winnipeggers in terms of safety and crime.
Candidate Shaun Loney says the city needs to take a different approach when it comes to these abandoned buildings.
“I just see these buildings as being a great opportunity for creating some employment and training,” Loney said.
“We could see as a result of that, a reduction in police workload, so police could respond more quickly.
“We first have to really increase the charges that are applied to the owners for keeping them vacant. Most of the owners are just sitting on them. Make it really financially difficult for them to continue to be vacant. We can also make an offer to them to purchase the properties.”
Loney said he’s announced a $100-million land trust that he says will help repurpose these buildings.
Kevin Klein, a mayoral hopeful currently representing the Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood ward on city council, says he’s been taking action on the issue in his current role, with a proposal for an increasing fee structure for owners of empty homes.
The idea, Klein said, is to motivate owners to move on if they have no further plans for the plot.
“You can put in all the bylaws you want, but as long as people pay the property tax, you can’t take the building,” he said.
“If you (add) fees, those get applied to the property tax, and as soon as they don’t pay it, we can start to actually take that property.”
Klein said he would make it an easier process to allow property owners to demolish the building on their land — but the fee would remain until they build anew, or work with the city on a solution.
“Within 30 days of the time that you apply, your permit to demolish will be there — we don’t need all the other information,” Klein said.
“However, the fee culling that vacant property remains, so we’re not going to let you just keep it as a grassy or weed field either. We’re going to make sure that you build, or that you work with the city or other people to get rid of it.”
Rick Shone also says he’d charge higher fees to deal with the issue and says it could net the city more cash and push the owners to make the necessary changes.
“Right now the fee could be 1 per cent assessed value of property tax. My plan is to double that and also shorten the timeframe,” Shone said. “If your house is derelict for six months, the fee automatically kicks in.”
Scott Gillingham, another current city councillor (St. James) running for mayor, said he doesn’t see a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem.
“I think different houses need different solutions…. They’re not all the same,” he said.
“It’s a complicated legal process but some could be seized, some need to be knocked down, some need other bylaw enforcement … and some of them, we can continue to work with owners to see these houses transformed for change.”
Gillingham said while going out and seizing derelict houses may seem like an obvious answer, it’s not an easy thing for the city to do under current regulations.
Like Klein, he said he would like to see a change allowing for some buildings to be demolished more quickly.
“It will require a change, but I think we can take a look to do that, because an empty lot is safer than a boarded-up building.”
Gillingham said he also wants to develop a community safety plan that would tackle the issue of crime in and around abandoned buildings.
Rana Bokhari’s campaign outlined a plan Tuesday morning to crack down on derelict buildings and work with local non-profit housing groups to turn the abandoned structures into affordable housing options.
“We have to be much more aggressive, much more assertive, and start imposing and using the mechanisms and tools that we have in place to take title of these homes that are being abandoned by their owner,” Bokhari said.
“There will always be a discussion about whether you refurbish, whether you demolish.
“I think if we’re going to demolish these … we have to follow the process that’s in place … but upon evaluation of it, my goal is to turn those into affordable rent-geared-to-income housing.”
Glen Murray says adequate funding to lower the amount of abandoned properties. He says there’s not enough money going to certain areas.
“The William Whyte neighbourhood has 54 abandoned houses right now and they get $120,000 for housing renewal. Let’s get back up to the level of housing funding and let’s get back to supporting neighbourhood development groups.”
Murray says there are proper by-laws in place to deal with derelict buildings, but not enough enforcement.
“We don’t have good by-law enforcement, we don’t have the resources because when we abandon these programs, people at City Council the last 10-15 years thinking we’re saving money,” Murray said.
“If they saved any money on enforcement and cutting housing funding, they ended up having to spend it on fire, police, ambulance and the cost of trying to clean up the housing mess.”
Murray says the city’s current budget for the planning department is 40 percent of what the Canadian average is.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette says it’s time for the politicians to show courage against owners, who he says are often people with political influence.
“If you’re not going to do anything with it, we’re going to issue fines to make sure they’re kept up to code, that you don’t let the building degrade, that you look after it,” said Ouellette. “If you refuse to do any of these things, then we’re going to seize it.”
Jenny Motkaluk wants to auction off the abandoned properties across the city and says they’d be better off being used for affordable housing.
She says if she becomes mayor, she will sell them to private landlords who promise to refurbish them and create housing for the 1100 homeless people in Winnipeg.
“The best thing we can do is actually exercise the authority the city already has which is something called take title without compensation,” Motkaluk said. “And as mayor, I would expedite doing that and I intend to seize every single one of the derelict properties regardless of what neighbourhood they’re in.”