Councillors seek new tools to crack down on problem properties

· The Pulse
By Karen Unland

The damage done as a result of problem properties has "reached a boiling point," and city council needs new tools to try to deal with them, say two city councillors.

An update on the problem properties initiative will be received by the community and public services committee on April 11, in response to a motion made last fall by Coun. Ashley Salvador.

Ward Métis saw 429 "fire-related events" between November 2020 and October 2021, most of them in the Alberta Avenue area, Salvador said on Episode 173 of Speaking Municipally. A lot of those incidents were deliberately set fires in vacant structures.

"We are limited as members of council in our authority to launch or conduct investigations. But we do have powers related to taxation, fines, and other bylaw actions," she said. "So I'm going to be looking at additional tools for enforcement for both tenant-occupied and vacant derelict problem properties, as well as things like property tax subclasses, so that there are financial penalties applied to these properties."

Coun. Michael Janz said council has an opportunity to do something about all kinds of vacant and underused lots by broadening the scope of what is considered a problem property. For example, he said, Ward papastew has developments that are stalled and sitting empty or abandoned, with no consequences for the owners of that land.

"Every year, land speculators get to sit on property around our city that's blight to us but is incremental profit to them. And that's got to stop," he told Taproot's civic affairs podcast.

A bar graph showing the costs of inspections, enforcement, police and fire responses, and uncollected taxes on 31 problem properties, totalling almost $1.4 million

Administration conducted a case study on the costs to address 31 problem properties from 2017 to 2020, which is cited in a report to be received by council's community and public services committee on April 11.

Janz and Salvador said this council has made a lot of decisions on land use that are aligned with the City Plan but don't always get noticed.

"One of the most striking things that I've noticed about our public hearings is the amount of missing-middle style infill projects that this council has said yes to," Salvador said, noting that density-building decisions that would have been contentious on previous councils are passing easily now.

"I actually think that's a big change," she said. "And it's one of those changes that doesn't really make the headlines because it's more cumulative."

That said, council has made some decisions that don't seem to align with the City Plan, such as the rezoning of a long-vacant lot between Gateway Boulevard and Calgary Trail on 46th Avenue for the Ever Square complex, which was approved despite the absence of shared-use paths.

Janz and Salvador were on the losing side of that debate, but at least there was a discussion instead of a rubber-stamp, said Janz.

"Sometimes the fight is the point ... to educate people, to raise awareness, to raise issues, and to set up the next call," he said. "So this development maybe wasn't perfect. But next time, we can demand better. And that is how you move things forward."

As two sprawl-averse councillors, it is perhaps surprising that both Salvador and Janz support the city's continuing involvement in greenfield development, which the previous council was leaning towards exiting.

Enterprise Land Development is a self-funded program that provides a dividend to the city as it converts undeveloped greenfield land into fully serviced lots for sale to the public. It is one of the few revenue streams for the city other than property tax, but it does mean the city is in the business of building at the edges.

"They are going to get built, whether we want them to or not. And I think we should be the ones that are making that money," Salvador said. "At the same time, I think we should use the retained earnings that we generate from ELD to invest in the city-building catalyst projects that we say we want to invest in ... Why not both?"

Janz added that by staying in land development, the city can sell those lots to small developers and first-time builders who don't have the resources to buy whole blocks or whole neighbourhoods.

Hear more about those issues, as well as the councillors' thoughts on executive salaries at EPCOR, the 100th Street Pedestrian Bridge, and their contrasting styles in office on the podcast.