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Learned Helplessness

Our City Councillors are not as powerless as they say

by Paul Dechene

It was a marathon meeting on Jan 24, when city staff responded to a request from city council to find options to prevent the demolition of the Black Building at 1755 Hamilton St. - an apartment block built around 1912 that contains 46 affordable housing units.

"The lawyers have spoken! There's nothing you can do! The demolition permit has already been unleashed!" said city staff.

"Alas and alack! Our hands are tied!" replied city council.

Nice bit of theatre, that.

Because here's the thing: I'd be surprised if anyone on council expected their solicitors to respond with anything beyond their characteristic legal caution. And I doubt the eight delegations who came forward to speak in defense of the Black Building, nor any of the people who packed the gallery that night, really expected council to come up with a better plan than doing nothing.

Oh, some may have shown up hoping for a miracle. But no one could be fool enough to think that this council, when you consider its track record on housing1, would be able or inclined to pull one off.

During his address to the gallery, Councillor Wade Murray (who chaired the meeting in the mayor's absence), said that he was sorry there was nothing council could do to save the building, then added, "But it's not for a lack of caring. It's not for a lack of compassion."

No. But it is for a lack of will, a lack of leadership, and a lack of imagination.

Because as it turns out, there are things city staff and council could have done to save the Black Building. And I know this because we at prairie dog sat down - lazy, drunken, slackers that we are - and brainstormed a few ideas. Then we went out into the community and talked to some very clever people who gave us a few more.2

So here's our list of The Four Ways We Could've Saved the Black Building, in descending order from most ballsy to most diplomatic.

1.) REVOKE THE PERMIT

Turns out that a demolition has to start within 10 days of the permit being issued and completed within 30 days. It's right there on the permit application. And remember how the demolition permit was issued way back on Dec. 6? Math tells us that's considerably more than 30 days ago. Math.

Granted, staff's report notes that the demolition is waiting for all the tenants to vacate the building in a time-frame designated by the Office of Residential Tenancies (a.k.a., the Rentalsman). But Garson Hunter, a professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Regina, has this to say about that.

"This is the city's fall down. If they didn't issue [the building owner] a new permit to account for the Rentalsman, then I don't care."

And you know what? Neither do I. The permit was for Dec 6. It's not valid anymore. Time for a do-over. Maybe the building owner, Jack Sharp, CEO of Calgary's Westgate Ventures, will file a lawsuit. Let him try. Because then we can hit him with this....

2.) POISON THE PROPERTY

What seems to have gotten this whole demolition ball rolling was an order from the city's bylaw enforcement division for repairs that are needed on the building. They're estimated to cost roughly $150,000.

Deadline to complete those repairs was May 15, 2011 but when bylaw checked in on July 14, they hadn't been completed. Apparently, Westgate's representative explained at the time that they intended to demolish the building so bylaw enforcement dropped the matter.

And that's a problem. Because, according to Hunter, there's nothing in the maintenance bylaw nor in the Cities Act that says an order to repair a property gets wiped away if the landowner decides to tear the building down.

And that's a good thing because it protects rental properties from wanton demolition.

In fact, there are fines for not complying with a maintenance order. In the case of the Black Building, those would amount to up to $25,000 and $2,500 for every day after the May 15 deadline. And unpaid fines can be added to the property's tax bill even if the building is torn down and the lot sold off.

And, unpaid taxes still have to be paid by a new owner.

Best case scenario, assuming the fines started May 16 and ended the day Westgate applied for a demolition permit (July 29), there could be around $250,000 owing on the property. Who'd want to buy that debt?

All of a sudden, $150,000 in repairs doesn't look so bad.

A pity city staff didn't attempt to use that bylaw infraction as leverage to discourage the demolition. And speaking of missed opportunities....

3.) BECOME HOUSING TYCOONS

The city could have made an offer to buy the property and gotten into the affordable housing game. Probably still could.

In fact, the province would even give them money to do that. The Rental Development Program offers a one-time forgivable loan of up to 70 per cent of the cost to purchase and renovate a building containing affordable housing units. Alternately, the city could buy the property and then apply for funding through the Rental Repair Program which provides a forgivable loan of up to a maximum of $24,000 per unit. That's $1.1 million in the case of the 46-unit Black Building.

As for managing the property, that could be handed over to an existing non-profit, or an arms-length non-profit corporation could be set up for the purpose. Both are models that have been used successfully in other cities.

As a bonus, city hall could rent out the ground floor retail space at the market rate. We could make off like bandits!

Of course, I can think of a couple voices on council who'd object strenuously to this idea. "Downloading! Downloading!" they'd holler. "Housing is the province's job!"

That's been council's mantra throughout this housing crisis and I think it's about time to call bullshit on that.

Yes, the province has been stingy with the affordable housing support. But are they really likely to loosen the purse strings for a city that responds to a housing crisis with, "It's your fault. Give us money"? Or might they be a more willing partner if we came up with some innovative housing solutions and pitched them a business case?

4.) BEING MEDDLESOME

But there was another missed opportunity that wouldn't have gotten council's knickers in a twist: brokering a deal.

Back when city staff first caught wind that Westgate was thinking about demolition, they could have intervened and offered to share their expertise and connections to find a way to preserve the building.

For instance, the demolition permit could have been politely withheld (remember that little matter of a bylaw infraction?) while the city helped seek out a buyer who'd be willing to maintain the affordable housing units, thus saving the building owner considerable time and expense. The city may not have even had to get formally involved. They could have just finessed the process.

You and I would have never heard a thing because no one would have been evicted.

WE HAD MORE, BUT WHAT'S THE POINT?

Seriously. The Black Building is up for the chop. Most of our best ideas you needed to get started on months ago, long before the demolition permit was issued. The rest would die on the council floor for being "too radical" and involving "too many raccoons."

Clearly though, options were available. But by staff's own admission at the Jan. 24 meeting, little was tried to avert the demolition beyond making Jack Sharp aware that there was free money available to fix up his building.

And frankly, that lack of planning in the face of a serious threat to the city's rental stock suggests staff's priorities lie elsewhere these days. 3

And that council brought excuses instead of ideas to that meeting and didn't grill city staff over their apparent ineffectualness suggests that while there may be individuals on council who want to take an active role in solving the housing crisis, as a group they are inclined to continue with the hands-off approach that has brought us to my footnote number one.

FOOTNOTES

1. Yes, this council's record on housing. Want some performance measures? How about a net loss of 126 rental units last year? How about a vacancy rate that currently sits at 0.6 per cent and hasn't been above two per cent since 2006?

2. Some of the people we talked to asked not to be named in this piece but said we could appropriate their ideas and claim them as our own. So if you've read something you think is particularly clever... yeah... it probably isn't from us.

3. Lauralyn Johnston was the city's senior housing planner when the demolition application was submitted. She was let go in late Dec. 2011. On the subject of the Black Building she would only tell me, "As ex-housing planner I can say that I was not asked to look at the demolition of the Hamilton properties, nor asked if I could think of ways that the building could have been saved."