This is Part 2 from Sarah Cipkar and details the way citizens can push for better policies to stop the deterioration of vacant buildings and can hopefully prevent their demolition through collective action.
Windsor: The Backstory
Windsor is an automotive city whose history mirrors that of Detroit. With a population of 220,000 residents just on the other side of the border, we like to call ourselves “South Detroit” (which makes the song ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ song from Journey particularly relevant in these pandemic times while we wait for the border to reopen). It’s a city of amalgamations: several surrounding small towns in the 1930s (East Windsor, Sandwich and Walkerville) and 1960s (Riverside, Ojibway, and parts of Sandwich), and has been driven by a surge of outward growth, or sprawl, around the ring of these core neighbourhoods. This growth has led to a disinvestment in the core of the city and left many abandoned residential properties that do (did) not have the market value to incentivize redevelopment. It is clear that the City recognized a significant problem with housing (re)development in the core of the city and needed to address both the blight, while also investing in revitalization efforts via financial incentives to spur brownfield development in these areas. After the 2008 housing crisis, Windsor’s City Council passed a ‘Blight Mitigation Strategy’ (BMS) that was designed to address this problem by demolishing properties that were past the point of repair. This strategy resulted in many vacant lots throughout Windsor, as 80 buildings were demolished between 2011-2015 (City Clerk, 2020).
Relatedly, Windsor has struggled with a high unemployment rate for the last decade, with the recent, pre-covid figure from February 2020, putting the city at 8.3%, the highest for any municipality in Canada; comparatively, the unemployment rate was over 12% in 2010. This high unemployment is correlated with pockets of low-income families. A further geographic analysis of income demographics paints a bleak picture. Windsor’s core neighbourhoods, meaning ward 2 (West End), ward 3 (Downtown), ward 4 (Walkerville), and ward 5 (Ford City), represent some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the country over the last decade. The United Way Windsor-Essex (UWWE) published a report in 2014 indicating the high levels of poverty found within Windsor, with 33% of the population living in low-income households, the highest in Canada at that time. As a follow up to this report, in 2016, UWWE outlined the impact of ‘poverty of place’ and showcased the concentration of low-income individuals, and illustrated that they had significantly increased, most particularly in the “core” neighbourhoods of Windsor. These statistics led to the funding of four Neighbourhood Renewal Groups (NRGs) in their 2015 funding cycle. Community groups were already present and active in different parts of the city – such as the downtown, Ford City and Sandwich Towne – prior to the United Way’s support. Nevertheless, the UWWE gave impetus to specifically do community development work through the creation of a Neighbourhood Engagement Strategy funding stream for their 2015 funding cycle, and chose to focus on a place-based capacity-building strategy (see Figure 1 for map of catchment areas). They each had created a five pillar work plan and been given staff and resources to build leadership capacity and tackle systemic issues such as neighbourhood beautification, crime prevention initiatives, and increase civic engagement. The issue of blight, meaning commercial and residential building vacancy resulting in dilapidation of structures, quickly became a focal point.
Figure 1 – Courtesy of T.J. Auer
This is the situation in which we found ourselves in 2015: high concentration of poverty in core neighbourhoods alongside a bunch of buildings being torn down and still yet, many more vacant buildings still standing across the core of our city. I say ‘we’ because I was one of the Community Developers who organized the advocacy around this issue.
Blight Mitigation Strategy v. Vacant Building Registry
We (the NRGs) had a mixed response to the city’s approach: while not having blighted structures littering the various areas of the core is seemingly better than having them dilapidated and wreaking havoc on the surrounding residents, we knew there was a cost to having vacant lots, including the loss of historical buildings and the lack of investment in these places. We started investigating proactive solutions to potentially save some of these buildings and mitigate against a high volume of demolitions in the core. We discovered policy mechanisms, such as a Vacant Building Registry (VBR), that would include proactive inspections to ensure property standards compliance. Under a reactive, complaint-driven system, such as the BMS, a resident would report these buildings via 311 when they were noticeably not complying with the property standards by-law from the exterior. In contrast to the City’s BMS, the proposed VBR would catch the degradation of a vacant building through this process. This legal enforcement mechanism would keep it up to minimum standards before it needed to be torn down due to safety hazards it poses, which would also mean a higher likelihood that it could be rehabilitated. In sum, because more buildings are being saved from the wrecking ball, due to proactive inspections and compelling owners to maintain property standards, there would be economic, social and environmental benefits to maintaining these buildings and incentivizing their reuse. While the city did have a Property Standards by-law and a Blight Mitigation Strategy, there was no formal tracking mechanism, nor staff specifically dedicated to routine, proactive inspections to ensure property standards were maintained. As a result, many of these properties were falling into states of disrepair and wreaking havoc for surrounding residents.
All four NRGs determined that the problem of vacant properties was more pronounced in the core of the city, where our neighbourhoods were situated. (And we knew the city wasn’t tracking them.) In particular, the Ford City Neighbourhood Renewal staff conducted an assessment on their neighbourhood in order to understand the scope of the problem within their catchment area. Led by T.J. Auer, a Community Planner at the FCNR, the group mapped all of the vacant buildings within their catchment area in response to the City’s Blight Mitigation Strategy. After collecting this data, Auer then applied a formula from Temple University and estimated that the City of Windsor was losing $6 million in lost tax revenue due to the decrease in surrounding property values. In response to the work in FCNR, all four groups began to informally track buildings in their neighbourhoods, both by documenting via pictures, and mapping. Several other resident-led initiatives also began in 2015, including informal mapping documenting of vacant buildings using social media, as well as residents creating petitions to deal with particularly problematic, large buildings, such as the City of Windsor’s old social services building that had been vacant for 15 years located in a residential neighbourhood. By the end of 2015, we were united in the view that vacant buildings presented a significant problem in our neighbourhoods. We further concluded that the City of Windsor lacked accurate information on the extent of the problem and therefore, needed to do more to create a better solution to this problem.
We (the staff of the four NRGs) devised a flexible, multifaceted campaign to establish a VBR in Windsor. It was understood that success depended on securing support from municipal council staff and ultimately securing the support of a majority on city council to approve and fund this initiative. As noted above, the staff of the four groups built the case through fact finding, and independent analysis of the economic impact of vacant properties in the four neighbourhoods. The staff used this data as the basis for documentation delivered to council staff, individual councillors and council as a whole. The strategy had both an elite dimension – with the staff from the NRGs directly contacting city staff and councillors and brokering that communication – and a grassroots dimension – with staff mobilizing neighbourhood residents to make the case for a VBR – in order to let councillors know both the extent of the problem and its impact on residents.
We decided to take a consensus-driven approach, knowing the advantages of our catchment areas spanning across four political wards, and therefore cutting through habitual voting patterns on municipal council. We attempted to both make a case that addressed the city-wide concerns, as well as the individual ward complaints to secure the support of each of their local councillors. We knew that certain councillors were already supportive of this VBR, as they met the groups on a semi-regular basis to create support publicly, whereas other councillors were apathetic at best. NRG staff and residents engaged in further one-on-one conversations with other councillors across the city, with whom they thought were open to supporting the initiative in order to secure votes.
Staff from all four groups frequently interacted with neighbourhood residents and encouraged them to be vocal in their support of a VBR, encouraging them to contact their councillors to raise the issue of vacant buildings. They approached and prepared residents to be delegations to city council to speak to their experience of living alongside vacant properties in their neighbourhood. Staff facilitated the use of video logs by residents (published on Youtube), created a centralized blog (Small Change Windsor), and issued press releases that resulted in subsequent media stories surrounding this issue. NRG staff also encouraged residents to make 311 calls when it came to property standards, in order to build a case with the city. As has been previously noted, the Building Department’s complaint-driven system, wherein residents needed to call 311 and make a specific complaint, would log calls under the category of Building Condition Complaint or Building Condition Use. By encouraging residents to call, the high number of complaints was intended to demonstrate the severity of the problem to Council. Indeed, according to City of Windsor Building Department staff, by the end of 2016 the outstanding complaints sat at around 1,200, with about 750 older than 30 days (meaning no investigation was initiated within 30 days).
On October 2, 2017, after almost two years of lobbying activity by the Neighbourhood Renewal Groups, Windsor City Council received a report from the Building Department in response to the initial Council Question at a regular meeting of City Council. It provided a detailed analysis of what a Vacant Building Registry could be, as well as some of the drawbacks to its creation. The report recommended that a VBR not be implemented and that “Enhanced Enforcement be brought forward for consideration as part of the 2018 budget.” The city administration report concluded that there were several reasons to not go forward with a straightforward VBR. First, the report argued that a registry would likely result in additional demolition requests, and that, unlike Hamilton with higher land values and relatively quick redevelopment, land would potentially sit vacant for years. The report further concluded that, contrary to the claim made by the NRGs, there would not be enough ongoing vacant properties to recover the costs of enforcing the registry. Finally, the report concluded that a VBR would create an additional administrative burden on a department that already has very limited resources. Instead, city administration simply wanted to add staff to deal with the backlog of complaints and enhance enforcement on these properties.
The NRGs received a copy of this City of Windsor Report when it became public approximately 10 days prior to the meeting. Due to the information presented, it forced them to reassess their objective and their strategy. The NRGs debated whether to alter their messaging and arguments and instead support an ‘Enhanced Enforcement’ option, or to keep with the goal of implementing a full VBR. The delegations on October 2nd reflect this change with many articulating that the hiring of additional Building Bylaw Officers to proactively deal with only vacant buildings across the city was of key importance – not whether these properties were kept on a formal list.
After a night of deliberation and debate, there were 18 delegations from across the four wards, as well as the Executive Director of United Way that advocated in support for taking action in some capacity. City Council unanimously approved the ‘Enhanced Enforcement’ option, which meant an increase of two building by-law officers (BBOs) and one additional clerk to do proactive enforcement of these properties specifically as a ‘pilot’ model was passed by city council. It was renamed informally to be a ‘Vacant Building Initiative’ (VBI), as it was still an investment to address the problem, but with less prescription from an administrative viewpoint. Overall, despite the lack of an official VBR, there was a positive response from the NRGs to the council decision. Although it was not exactly what we wanted, it was widely seen as a success. Many residents felt positive about their advocacy and believed that this would yield, at the very minimum, satisfactory results.
Two years later, in July of 2019, a report from the Building Department was sent to City Council on the effectiveness of the program’s first year of operation. The report claimed that the Enhanced Enforcement Strategy was successful, as measured by a decrease in the number of vacant buildings, as well as the City’s response time to citizen complaints. The report noted that the two BBOs compiled a list of approximately 750 vacant buildings using 311 data, as well as data from community partners, which resulted in 417 investigations, with a list of about 166 confirmed vacancies, 26 demotions and 107 orders issued (from the City of Windsor Council Report Appendix A). The report noted that the City believed that they achieved the goal of the initial VBI: to compel property owners to comply with property standards by-laws in a proactive and timely manner, and in turn, reducing the burden on both the city’s enforcement resources, as well as the surrounding neighbourhood. The success of the measure was evident in Council approval to continue to fund the additional BBO positions.
Anecdotally, I would agree. Overall, the number and standard of vacant buildings in my neighbourhood has improved. One of the buildings 2 doors down from me that was a previously vacant four-plex from an out of town property owner has now been rehabbed and is fully rented as a direct result of this advocacy (I know because one of my neighbours asked). While we didn’t get exactly what we proposed (a VBR) we did exert some influence to bring forward the issue and get it on the agenda of Council. Our process was collaborative with residents, city administration and elected officials. The four NRGs were firm on a positive approach to advocacy by ensuring all communications were based on facts, narratives of personal experience, and connection to economic impact on the rest of the city rather than a negative approach that primarily focused on criticism. Rather than paint the picture that the city isn’t doing enough, or that elected officials don’t care, the NRGs attempted to demonstrate the economic, social and environmental cost to the city, and presented a proactive and prudent solution to the problem of vacant buildings. The goal was to create a narrative that people in wards 2, 3, 4, and 5 could empathize with, and those beyond could sympathize with, and not to alienate anyone unnecessarily.
In looking at the problem in a Windsor context, it was clear that there was a strong desire for proactive action from residents and neighbourhood groups, rather than simply leaving a building to endlessly deteriorate, and then have the state (i.e. municipality) demolish the structure after it has posed problems for the surrounding residents. As was discussed in Part 1, blight is a stigmatizing concept that is often used to garner political support for demotion and tax incentive policies. However, the neighbourhood groups used it advantageously to garner public support for outcomes that would better serve their neighbourhoods. Residents, who lived beside these problematic structures, were essential to bringing attention to the way that a lack of enforcement and absentee property owners results in ongoing problems. Rather than use the visuals to further stigmatize, they used them to bring attention to the problem to municipal policymakers and call for better solutions.