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Responding to problem buildings

July 2012 | Constable David Bratzer, Burnside Gorge Community Resource Officer

In my role as a Community Resource Officer, I participate in a team called RESPOND. The acronym stands for Reacting Effectively to Solve Problems in Our Neighbourhoods and the Downtown. The goal of the RESPOND team is to tackle properties that create serious health and safety challenges for their residents and neighbours.

You would not believe the living conditions of certain buildings in Victoria. I’ve seen my share of rats and mice, as well as bed bug infestations. Water damage is sometimes present, often leading to serious problems with mould. I’ve also seen unsafe balconies, leaking roofs and collapsed ceilings.

Some of these buildings have stairwells and other common areas that reek of urine or are littered with drug paraphernalia. Often the fire extinguishers are damaged or expired. Sometimes there are no working smoke detectors. I’ve seen fire exits that have been painted shut, locked up or used as storage areas. Many of these buildings have been subjected to unsafe electrical work, including the use of extension cords as permanent wiring.

Some tenants live in suites with broken windows, broken heaters, damaged appliances or inadequate plumbing. Sometimes these suites have doors with no locks, doors with broken hinges or even doors with no door knobs!

The common theme with most of these properties is that they are poorly managed and the owners are unwilling or unable to invest the money required to bring the building up to the required safety standards. There are many reasons why property owners behave this way. Some are absentee landlords who lack meaningful connection with the community in which they own property. Occasionally, a business person or a company simply does not have the skills and knowledge required to manage a hotel or an apartment building effectively. Others have long-term plans for a property so they do not want to spend money on short-term improvements. Some owners become embroiled in legal action with partners or creditors; they are hesitant to invest money in a property until the issue is resolved in court.

The RESPOND group uses a multi-agency approach to address problem buildings. The team includes a bylaw officer, a fire inspector, a building inspector, a plumbing inspector, an electrical inspector, as well as an environmental health officer and representatives from social services, housing and animal control. Each member of the team has been granted certain powers and duties from the relevant municipal bylaws and provincial legislation. In many respects, these legislated powers exceed those of the police when it comes to addressing public health and safety issues.

The authority to conduct these inspections is found in Section 16 of the Community Charter. The team provides advance notice of the inspection and seeks consent from the owners and tenants to enter the property. If consent is not obtained, the team can request an Entry Warrant in Provincial Court. Usually it takes about two hours to conduct a full inspection, depending on the size of the building. My role, as a police officer, is simply to keep the team safe during the inspection.

Members of the team encourage voluntary compliance with the bylaws, but if that approach does not work, fines can be issued and the municipality can also require remedial actions. The fines for not complying with municipal bylaws are significant. For example, electrical wiring and fixtures need to be installed in accordance with the City’s Electrical Safety Regulation Bylaw. Carrying out work without an electrical permit is an offence. The penalty is a fine of $400 per day for each day that the offence continues. It is easy to see how these fines could add up quickly.

I am so proud of the work carried out by the RESPOND team. Although it does not rely on the traditional criminal justice system, the team has a big impact in terms of safety and quality of life. This is because a small number of problem buildings tend to generate the most calls for police service. The reverse is also true: the residents of a well-managed apartment building will generally experience far lower levels of crime and violence.

The team has conducted several inspections in this neighbourhood during the past year. In each instance, these efforts have resulted in genuine, lasting improvements for tenants, neighbours and the entire Burnside Gorge community.

If you have questions about VicPD’s community policing efforts, please email me at BurnsideGorge@vicpd.ca.