Problem properties are found on nearly every block of our community. Some need bylaw attention for overgrown lawns, unshoveled sidewalks, or poorly maintained buildings. Others have yards collecting garbage, weeds, and car parts. More than a few have tenants getting frequent visits from police and emergency services.
In some of the worst cases, drug dealing and violence have caused considerable trauma to those communities.
The City of Edmonton has assembled an interdisciplinary team that includes Bylaw Enforcement Services, Development Compliance, Alberta Health Services, and Edmonton Police Service. This team is tasked with enforcement related to problem properties.
On May 31, Mayor Don Iveson and city council heard from the task force and a panel of area residents who described living next to drug dealing, violence, and repeated responses of police and emergency services. I sat on this panel and shared my experiences of living next to a problem property.
The mayor and city council heard descriptions of bylaw complaints lasting for decades without resolution, large police responses that closed blocks with tactical deployments of police armed with assault rifles, and violence associated with tenants of properties well known to the city and police.
Another panel member and I submitted that the city and province create a forfeiture program targeted at problem properties in the inner city.
Forfeiture is a legal process allowing the government to seize property used in a crime, such as seizing houses where drugs are being sold.
This program would see many of the worst of these properties demolished and material repairs made to salvageable properties. The program would send a clear message to landlords that they need to maintain their properties and prevent criminals from doing business in their buildings.
However, when large seizures of property take place due to criminal activity, there is always a risk to the local real estate market if the government sells all the properties at once without repairing or demolishing them. Doing so would flood the market with low-quality units at lower-than-market pricing. There would be nothing to ensure those properties got repaired, demolished, or brought up to code. Private market housing leaves no ability for the community or the government to prevent problems from returning.
As a possible solution, I asked the mayor and city council to convert the seized properties to three bedroom and larger units and retain them for family social housing for families.
These tenants could stay in the community long term and their children could attend area schools for decades to come. Public management of these properties would ensure they are well maintained, properly engineered, and compliant with regulation.
Forfeiture can interrupt cycles of poverty by ensuring that your drug dealer, landlord, and employer are not the same person.
These instances of dependency and power imbalance are exploitative to vulnerable people and must be stopped with every legal remedy available.
A number of well-targeted forfeitures could make considerable differences to the community. If properly implemented, forfeiture can significantly reduce crime, protect vulnerable people, and benefit the community. Such a program could be significantly more effective at combatting organized crime in the inner city than sending people to jail.
Council gave clear direction to administration that there was to be performance improvements on the problem property file. Administration will report to council again in the fall on the status of the task force.
Header image credit: Rebecca Lippiatt.
If you see suspicious activity at a problem property, call 311 or Crime Stoppers at 1.800.222.8477.