Winnipeg considers taking derelict properties off owners’ hands, turning them into affordable housing

The City of Winnipeg wants to make it easier to take vacant and derelict properties and turn them into affordable housing.

Winnipeg has seen a growing number of derelict properties, some of which burn down and sit as piles of rubble for years.

The city now wants to give its chief administrative officer the authority to accept properties from owners who want to give them up before the tax sale process begins. Currently those decisions require a vote of council.

“In some situations, it may be more cost effective to purchase a problem property rather than attach a charge for violations to the tax bill or incur ongoing resource costs,” wrote Marc Pittet, the city’s manager of real estate and land development, in a report for city council.

“Additionally, some property owners may wish to surrender their property to the city prior to entering into tax sale status — thereby reducing the number of years it would normally take before the city assumes control of a property.”

Non-profits looking to build housing could also get more opportunities to buy city-owned property at a low cost — as little as $1 — anywhere in the city, the report suggests.

Cheryl Martens has documented vacant and boarded-up houses in the Spence neighbourhood.

A house on Sherbrook Street is just one example. It’s been boarded up for about four years, and its garage, now surrounded by metal security fencing, burned down six months ago.

A rear window is exposed, the board that covered it lying on the ground — a violation of city bylaws governing how vacant buildings should be secured.

“This is what happens when a place is boarded [up],” Martens said. “It’s an eyesore.”

She says she looked at the house when the property was put up for sale, but thinks it needs at least $100,000 in repairs, which would put its total cost beyond what most houses in the neighbourhood could fetch.

“It’s a very cute house.… It’s got double gables, a little front porch,” she said.

“But we do need the city or someone with some imagination to come and reinvigorate our neighbourhood and places like this.… It needs to have somebody who doesn’t have primarily a profit motive.”

Costs to owners, city

Over on Powers Street in the North End, William Whyte Neighbourhood Association president Darrell Warren says he’d like to see a row of four houses that have all burned in the last year torn down to make way for new housing.

“If I was a property owner, and I could walk away from this without any cost or anything, I would probably sign it over,” he said.

The cost of repairs can be prohibitive, but Coun. Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntyre) says the new policies could help.

“This is a really good step, if the city is willing to kind of step in and take some ownership and really work through some of those bureaucracy issues that people are having, and get rid of some of these properties faster.”

Non-profit housing advocate Christina Maes Nino says other cities have had success with similar programs.

“It won’t be enough to address the city’s housing crisis,” she said, but “in order to do that, we need to throw all of the tools in the tool shed at housing.”

Property and development chair Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) says the proposed change would help speed up the process of redevelopment. 

“There’s so many costs associated with people just sitting on property, it being derelict, vacant or distressed, including what unfortunately Winnipeggers are experiencing now, which is fires,” Rollins said.

“So creating those off ramps in this real estate policy is a good thing.”

The report’s recommendations still need approval from council. The property committee will vote on the recommendations on Thursday.