A grassroots organization wants municipalities to seize “abandoned, neglected, and derelict properties”.
In its proposed action plan for civic politicians running in the election next month, the Social Housing Alliance also recommends the preservation of these properties for “senior government housing programs in the future”.
Organizer Ivan Drury acknowledged that this may easily be the most controversial of the measures his group will outline in a “town-hall rally” at the Bonsor Recreation Complex in Burnaby on Thursday (October 16), starting at 7 p.m. “Buildings should be seen as places where people can live and not as investment or development-potential sites for a very small minority of people to make a lot of money,” Drury told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
The Social Housing Alliance is proposing several courses of action for municipalities across B.C. These are grouped into two strategies: preserve low-income and affordable housing, and work with communities in addressing the housing problem in the province.
Recommendations include refusing to issue renovation or demolition permits that would lead to the eviction of tenants. The group also suggests shifting city funds away from “policing and other over-funded budget priorities” to housing programs. It calls for a stop to gentrification, and one measure is for cities to turn down applications for “business licenses for shops that will harm communities vulnerable to displacement”.
The call for city governments to take control of vacant and rundown buildings is another manifestation of the interest in unused properties, particularly in Vancouver, during the campaigns for the November 15 election.
The online site Beautiful Empty Homes of Vancouver is documenting unoccupied houses. It suggests that if enough people squat in them, the city may be compelled to act, for instance by charging owners a punitive property tax. The left-leaning Coalition of Progressive Electors wants to track Vancouver’s housing stock and impose a tax on homes unused for one year. And the OneCity party is recommending a flipping levy on speculators, especially those who purchase properties and leave them empty to sell.
The right-of-centre Non-Partisan Association acknowledges that a lot of people are concerned about one aspect of the perceived problem: that of nonresident or foreign investors. It has pledged to initiate a study on foreign investments if it wins back city hall.
In the 2008 election campaign, then mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson floated the idea of taxing empty condos. The now two-term Vision Vancouver mayor has since stopped talking about it.
In its proposed action, the Social Housing Alliance notes that cities can take vacant and derelict buildings away from their owners through bylaw fines.
According to Drury, the Downtown Eastside’s Wonder Rooms and Palace Hotel, both of which were previously owned by notorious landlord George Wolsey, could have been good examples of how cities can increase their housing stock.
Drury had organized tenants in the two single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, which were infamous for their conditions. In 2011, the City of Vancouver found several bylaw violations by the Wonder Rooms; Drury said the situation was believed to have been no different in the previous years, and that went for the Palace Hotel as well.
He noted that each violation carries a maximum fine of $2,000 per day. He said that Wolsey walked away without paying a penny and that the city could have taken the buildings instead. According to the community activist, two subsidiaries of a local property and development interest ended up acquiring the Wonder Rooms and Palace Hotel.
Drury also pointed to the Dunsmuir Hotel as another example of why cities should think about doing something regarding unused buildings. Located at the corner of Dunsmuir and Richards streets in downtown Vancouver, the 166-unit hotel was leased by the private owner to B.C. Housing to shelter homeless people. Drury said that after the lease ended, the residents were told to leave.
“The building is now sitting empty for two years,” Drury stated. “So is this an abandoned property or is this a property awaiting development? In my opinion, it’s an abandoned property.”