SIMON NATRASS: Derelict buildings a sad sign

When older buildings fall into disrepair, it reduces the affordable rental stock

A decade ago, I stood on the curb outside 2321 Cook St. and dreamt about some of the things a creative owner could do with the abandoned two-storey apartment block.

Standing in that spot 10 years later with Russ Godfrey of the Tenant Resource Advisory Centre (TRAC), we revived those same fantasies about affordable housing units for artists, young workers, students and seniors.

Today, a heron nests in the building’s inaccessible second floor, at least one resident of a dozen or so units which sit waiting to be torn down.

We continued on to another derelict property – 1176 Yates St. – owned by the same landlord.

Godfrey related stories about the building’s past from his years of working with tenants and landlords here in the capital.

As he spoke, we stood in front of the decaying building on the spot where a former resident was shot and killed during an argument with another tenant.

The ongoing dispute was ignored by the building’s manager until one night when both tenants went over the edge – the police were called, only to arrive the moment that bullets began to fly.

Rising rental costs have long plagued our region. Nearly a quarter of the capital’s renters already spend more than 30 per cent of their annual income on housing, and the number of people struggling to make rent is projected to rise by 19 per cent in just over 20 years.

For better or worse, near the end of their lives, these two properties were well known as a haven for the hard to house. The residents of buildings like these – the working poor, seniors, folks on social assistance and active illicit drug users – are the first to feel it when the cheapest rental units disappear.

This problem goes beyond a couple of buildings scattered around the City of Victoria.

Between 2001 and 2006, rental stock in the region declined by 247 units, despite steady population growth.

As the older buildings that form the bulk of the region’s rental stock slowly fall into disrepair or are replaced by glittering condos and sprawling subdivisions, the region’s 60,000 renters will only have more trouble placing a roof over their head.

According to Godfrey, the demolition-by-neglect of buildings like those on Cook and Yates is, in part, responsible for the scarcity and rising cost of rental units.

“At a time when we need affordable housing,” he asks, “why are these buildings being allowed to rot and why do officials seem so reluctant to even talk about it?”

Several municipalities in the Capital Region have created bylaws to address the problem of derelict buildings, but experience has shown these to be largely unenforceable.

In Victoria, the Northern Junk and Janion buildings sat vacant for years before the city was able to force the owner to sell the downtown properties.

The Residential Tenancy Act doesn’t provide much help either, and tenants’ advocates in government are few and far between, prompting Godfrey to wonder, “Where do residents turn when it comes to housing that is being allowed to rot down?”

In recent weeks, most of the region has been consumed with deciding the fate of its dung and the rest seems content to view housing creation as a race to build the greatest number of luxury homes.

While vacancy rates continue to plateau far below the Canadian average and more and more residents struggle to find a home, I’m left wondering how long it will take before we pull our heads out of our sewage and look up.