A look at the data behind decisions to deal with problem properties

· The Pulse
By and

Now that Edmonton's Community Property Safety Team has started to board up problem properties, it's worth taking a look at some of the data underpinning the decisions leading up to this action.

In April, city council approved allocating up to $850,000 to the fire rescue services branch to extend the Community Property Safety Team pilot project to the end of 2023. That money, along with $915,000 to enhance dedicated resources for problem properties, was reallocated from the funds diverted from the Edmonton Police Service budget in December.

Of the 886 deliberately set fires and suspected arson cases recorded in Edmonton as of Nov. 30, 2021, 281 were in the northeast neighbourhoods in the city that also have the highest concentrations of derelict properties. Seven people died in these fires, four of whom were experiencing homelessness.

The loss of human life is the greatest cost of all. But among the reports councillors considered when deciding whether to spend this money was also an attempt at quantifying all the costs incurred by problem properties. The Socio-Economic Costs of Edmonton's Problem Properties, prepared by the Edmonton Community Development Company (ECDC), tracked 31 "high intensity" derelict and problem properties over four years, calculating the direct costs from additional demands on government services and indirect costs absorbed by affected communities.

It pegged the cost at more than $6.2 million over four years, three-quarters of which was borne by the neighbourhoods themselves. The City of Edmonton absorbed 22% of the cost, with the remaining 2% incurred to Alberta Health Services.

That's just for the identified 31 properties, which represent only a fraction of derelict and problem properties in Edmonton. There are about 250 such properties in the Alberta Avenue, Eastwood, and McCauley neighbourhoods alone, according to the ECDC, and 486 identified since 2018.

"Problem properties are not only a threat to public safety, but they also contribute to the significant decline of a community," says the ECDC. "If no redevelopment occurs in these core neighbourhoods, residents will leave, further encouraging the prevalence of drug activities, social disorder, and crime. "

A table showing the cost of select problem properties and a pie chart illustrating how that cost is shared by stakeholders (76% by the neighbourhood, 22% by the city, 2% by AHS)

A study conducted by the Edmonton Community Development Company calculated the impact of 31 problem properties to be more than $6.2 million over four years, the majority of which was borne by the neighbourhoods where these properties are concentrated. (The Socio-Economic Costs of Edmonton's Problem Properties)

Direct impacts include the cost of fire, bylaw enforcement, EMS, and police service responses, as these houses are strongly associated with fires, drug activity, and crime. During just three years, the 31 properties generated 2,669 police calls.

In the neighbourhoods surveyed, it was found that the number of derelict properties was correlated with fewer building permits being granted each year. McCauley was the hardest hit, with 8.6 times more problem properties than building permits, which the ECDC estimates as a loss of $5.2 million in construction value. The "dampening effect on new construction" is the largest impact by far, the report says.

Intangibles such as a decrease in peace of mind used proxies to estimate financial impact. Anxiety experienced by community residents as a result of fire and crime, for example, was pegged to the price of five counselling sessions at $200 an hour for two neighbours per house. Considerations were made for out-of-pocket expenses like replacing stolen property and increased insurance premiums, and comparative declines in property value with neighbourhoods that don't have the same concentrations of problem lots.

Altogether, the report calculates that each problem property costs an average of $50,049 per year, based on assumptions that the ECDC calls conservative. "While this analysis is based on a small sample, it is based on a four-year period and the faithful tracking of specific problem properties," says the report, which lays out its logic, references, and calculations in detail. "The cost to communities and taxpayers is substantial," it concludes.

The ECDC is a non-profit company created in 2017 to address poverty by boosting economic development within communities. Through its Project 10 initiative, it has acquired 10 problem properties, with plans to demolish the structures on them and build family-friendly housing on the land.

It seems this is just the beginning. "We cannot stop with ten properties; we need to be relentless with getting these properties torn down," founder Anna Bubel said on the company's blog.

Meanwhile, councillors are looking at other ways to address the issue, including taxation, fines, and other bylaw actions. And the Community Safety Property Safety Team will continue its work, with a goal to ensure all vacant buildings in Edmonton are secured against unlawful entry, starting in the northeast.