OTTAWA — If you think so many of Ottawa’s vacant buildings have decayed because the city just didn’t bother chasing their owners into fixing them up, its chief bylaw officer has something to tell you: You’re right.
“We have not proactively required vacant buildings to be maintained at the same standard as habitated buildings,” said Linda Anderson, the city’s head of bylaw and regulatory services. “We’re just getting all the list together and starting to get the owners to do the exterior work that needs to be done.”
Last week, Mayor Jim Watson and three councillors declared war on owners who let vacant buildings fall apart, beginning with Claude Lauzon. Lauzon owns numerous properties in the ByWard Market, Lowertown, New Edinburgh and Vanier and the city has a list of seven that Watson called derelict eyesores — buildings with windows boarded up for so long the wood is disintegrating, with bowing walls and open roofs, with graffiti on the paint and with stoops either crumbling or just gone.
Till then, Anderson acknowledged, the city hadn’t cared. Or at least not enough to do anything.
“Now that we have obvious political support for this initiative, we can take it on,” she said.
Before amalgamation the smaller city of Ottawa — in whose historic precincts most of the capital’s derelict buildings slouch — had few bylaw officers assigned to enforcing property standards. Even in 2003, after amalgamation, there were only nine of them, dealing with properties from Fitzroy Harbour to Burritts Rapids to Cumberland Village. Now the number is up to 25 and they’re still among the busiest in the province, Anderson said, handling an average of 500 complaints a year each. They’ve had to prioritize.
The city’s property-standards bylaw is detailed, though most of it is about conditions inside buildings where, presumably, people will be living or working. But it does demand that the outsides of all buildings be kept in decent shape: yards free of garbage, with trimmed lawns or other ground cover, trees and shrubs that aren’t overgrown or dying, exterior walls that are waterproof and painted if need be, roofs that are weathertight, and so on. The bylaw doesn’t care whether a building is occupied or not.
Several of Lauzon’s buildings visibly don’t meet the standard and, of course, his aren’t the only ones.
Once Watson and Councillor Mathieu Fleury, whose Rideau-Vanier ward includes a number of derelict buildings, got serious about the problem about three weeks ago, Anderson said, she assigned two bylaw officers to it full-time.
Well, nearly: they’re also working with anti-poverty group ACORN on inspections of rental apartments, checking on common areas, attending to problems in individual units when ACORN can convince tenants to let them in, and inspecting rooming houses as well.
“We want to keep it to two officers so we can be sure of consistency,” Anderson said. It can also be difficult to earn the trust of tenants in low-rent buildings (especially if bylaw officers just knock on the door and ask to look around), so she’s hoping the duo can build up a reputation for competence and decency with a steady approach.
The property-standards rules, elaborate as they are, are largely superficial, especially when it comes to building exteriors. It’s a whole different part of the city administration that deals with safety: the building-code department, which answers to a different deputy city manager. Bureaucratically, it and Anderson’s department are like third cousins, though she said they talk to one another a lot.
“If we think that there’s a safety issue, we will call them in,” she said. It happens about once a month, under the current system, that a bylaw officer encounters a decrepit porch or bowing wall or a roof that’s in danger of caving in and asks for a building inspector to get involved. That’s what’s happened with Lauzon’s most notorious building, a former schoolhouse on Cumberland Street near King Edward Avenue, which both he and the city agree is a threat to public safety. The city says Lauzon has to fix it up, Lauzon has an engineering report that says demolition is the only option, and they’re going to court next month to sort it out.
In some cases, it’s not vacant buildings but construction sites that are eyesores. These are actually a lot tougher to deal with because provincial laws give owners a lot of leeway in finishing projects at their own pace. The city can cancel a building permit but only if nothing’s been done on a construction project for a whole year, for instance, which can be hard to monitor and even harder to prove.
But most property-standards complaints aren’t that complicated, Anderson said, just a matter of ordering that a yard be cleaned up, a broken door fixed, or a roof repaired. If the owner won’t do it, the city will hire a contractor and send the owner the bill. If that fails, the cost can be tacked onto the owner’s property taxes or, in extreme cases, sought from the owner directly in a court claim.
The next step is to comb through other cities’ laws to see what Ottawa can copy from those with tougher standards, such as Hamilton and London. Winnipeg has a famously harsh system of fees for leaving buildings unused. Ottawa’s lawyers are examining it to see if it would even be legal in Ontario.
Anderson emphasizes that although it’s downtown properties that have had all the attention, the officers will be just as interested in derelict farmhouses and roadside motels as in Lowertown rowhouses.
With new and clear marching orders, Anderson said, her department is now on the move. She even sounds like she’s looking forward to it a little: “We’re going to shift gears and we’re going to do it,” she said.
By David Reevely for the Ottawa Citizen