Published in Fernwood News (Victoria), January 2007
The private real-estate market does not provide adequate housing for low-income people. As the cost of land escalates in Victoria, property owners (like myself) can realize large capital gains, but a growing number of fellow citizens are squeezed into substandard housing and onto the streets.
This is the reality of a neoliberal economy where the right to hold property supersedes many other rights. This reality was revealed on October 23, 2006, when the Victoria Police Department used tear gas to evict a low-income man who had occupied the three-decades vacant Janion Building on Store Street.
For years, civil leaders claimed they lacked the jurisdiction and resources to provide adequate shelter for those in need. For years, the social costs of homelessness spilled over into neighbourhoods like Fernwood. For years, civic officials threw up their hands as the owner of the Janion Building allowed this heritage property to decay.
But within hours of learning that Craig Ballantyne (a 41-year-old man inflicted with terminal cancer) had occupied the Janion, the Victoria Police Department acted with haste and force. Police used tear gas to evict Ballantyne, gassing a large number of bystanders on the street below.
Your tax dollars paid for those tear gas canisters. And your (and my) tax dollars will pay to replace them.
Was justice served in Victoria on October 23, 2006?
From the narrow standpoint of the owner’s right to hold and enjoy property, the answer is yes. But from the broader standpoint of social justice – the belief in equality and human dignity – the answer is no, I believe. Unfortunately, social justice is less of a priority in when tax dollars are allocated than the protection of property rights.
In the City of Victoria, there is no legal protection for the right to shelter.
What Victoria can learn from Winnipeg
In 2004, Winnipeg City Council passed By-law No. 35/2004. This municipal legislation empowered the city to take title to derelict buildings like the Janion Building. Frustrated by decaying neighbourhoods, the city of 600,000 took action against negligent property owners.
Winnipeg By-law No. 35/2004 establishes a process to certify vacant properties as derelict. If the owner refuses repeated requests to maintain their property to established standards, and is convicted of violating the bylaw, the city can apply to the district registrar of titles to transfer ownership to the City. The owner is entitled to no compensation.
To date, Winnipeg has not yet used this power to take title to vacant or derelict buildings. However in November 2006, the City threatened action against 15 property owners who had been convicted under the by-law. A strength of Winnipeg By-law No. 35/2004 is its persuasive effect on property owners. The threat of expropriation without compensation creates a major incentive for owners to maintain their properties to a reasonable standard. The escalating costs of applying for vacant building permits, as required under the by-law, similarly persuades owners to maintain and use their property.
Other benefits of the Winnipeg by-law include: (1) limiting the unsightliness of vacant buildings on adjacent properties and neighbourhoods; (2) maintaining safe conditions for firefighters, other civic officials, and members of the public who come in contact with vacant properties; and (3) preventing the decay of useable buildings by mandating minimum standards of maintenance and upkeep.
Victoria would benefit from legislation along the lines of Winnipeg By-law No. 35/2004. While the Winnipeg by-law required amendments to the Winnipeg Charter, BC’s Local Government Act and Community Charter can be similarly amended by the province. In the interim, Victoria City Council can pass a draft Vacant and Derelict Buildings By-law to shift the onus onto the province.
Vacant and derelict building legislation reconciles private property rights with broader, community interests. Winnipeg now has the legislative capacity to take title to derelict buildings and open them for community uses including housing. Proposals for redevelopment are part of the process of taking title in the Winnipeg by-law.
In Victoria and neighbouring municipalities, citizens and elected officials would be wise to incorporate such legislation into their housing strategy. Rather than wait for low-income people like Craig Ballantyne to squat derelict buildings, provoking confrontation, city officials can be proactive and take action against negligent property owners.
Proactive civic action can avoid needless conflict that pits low-income people against police; squanders limited tax dollars on expensive counter-protest gadgets and noxious tear gas; and puts law-enforcement officers in the unenviable position of deploying force against the property-less poor in order to protect the interests of derelict property owners.
A Vacant and Derelict Building By-law is a step toward equality and social justice for Victoria.
Some facts on ending homelessness
Ending homelessness is a big task, but one that Canada can certainly afford. The country’s “Big Six” banks recorded profits of nearly $12-billion in 2005, while the average salaries of Canadian CEO’s exceeded $9-million that year. Our federal government, which once took an activist role in the provision of housing, subsidized the oil and gas industry to the tune of $1.4 billion last year. The problem is not a lack of funds. The problem is that Canada’s vast resource and financial wealth by-passes a large number of Canadians, and leaves them without adequate shelter.