Monday, March 7, 2011

By-Law Enforcement aka Cherry Pickers

From the title, you'll guess where this is going. I'll admit it, I own a vacant house. Vacant, means just that. No one lives there... it's empty insofar as human inhabitants goes, and animals don't live in there either, because as all Winnipeggers know, it's colder inside than outside.

I applied for a building permit last October. In typical fashion, even for a simple permit, I didn't get one until November... late November. Sure, it was for foundation repairs, but no one at the Permit Department cares when I can do the work, so it just sits and waits it's turn on the pile. By November, it was too cold to do too much with the frozen soil surrounding the home. Exploratory work was carried out, a new roof was put on, the rotted trough and fascia was taken off, and the rotted porch floor and framing was removed to facilitate the excavation.

In January, I received a letter from The City, telling me about the "new" Vacant Building By-Law. I received this as information, since no mention was made of the address or any concerns. The previous owner did take out a Boarded and Vacant Building Permit, but in discussions with an inspector, we agreed that the building really did not require a permit under the previous by-law, because it was not "boarded".

Boarded has a definition in the by-law. It means that one opening is covered with plywood, metal, or something else. Buildings with all doors and windows left in their openings did not require a permit. That said, I guess the house stayed on a list, and some newbie got the file.

In February, I received a letter stating that my building was scheduled for an inspection by the by-law enforcement officer, and a date was provided that he'd like to hear back by. I responded immediately via regular mail, since that's how I was contacted. My response was to cc the by-law inspector my request to the Existing Buildings Administrator for a Boarded Building Exemption Certificate, if required. I say if required, because according to my reading of the by-law, I need one if I have a building permit, AND board up the windows and doors. If my building is undergoing repairs and the doors and windows are not boarded, there is no provision for such an exemption (becausae the building is not boarded). I choose NOT to board the windows, because it makes the building a target. Can you have a Boarded Building Exemption if the building isn't boarded? The by-law MEANS something, and sure, there are maintenance items specified in the by-law, but I have a building permit for those things.
A few weeks go by, and I get a phone call from the neighbour. A "team" of inspectors are breaking into my building. Incredulous, I race across town in an attempt to catch the inspectors, but I miss them by minutes. I'm incensed. I wrote him a letter... he never called or wrote back... now what?

I called the Existing Building Inspector who assured me that there will be no fee from his department for the inspection because my building permit covers the inspection costs. No problem, but I'm still upset. I'll let it go, but I feel that someone has over stepped their authority.

A week goes by, and what do I get but an "order" spelling out the repairs I need to carry out, along with a compliance date. The repairs are basically a summary of the work I already have a permit to carry out, so I write a three page letter ripping apart the order, and making sure to mention that I received no responses to my correspondence. Before sending it, I make one last attempt to extend an olive branch and leave a message for the inspector.

He calls the next day, and says, "Ya, after getting your message about sending me a letter I looked on my desk and found it. I hadn't opened it yet." Oops.

Nice. Maybe if you weren't out breaking into peoples houses...

I felt that he and I understood (without actually saying so), that he had overstepped. He said he'd talk to his boss about the property and made everything sound like we'd put this matter to rest. I didn't send my somewhat poignant letter. I didn't see an upside... after all, he was going to work with me.

A few days pass, and I get another envelope. I know what it is, but I don't open it for a few days. I was planning to enjoy my weekend, not curse at some pinhead who couldn't rebuild a house to save his life. Sure enough, it's an invoice for the Vacant Building Inspection ... a cool $1000.

As if. I call the inspector again and ask what we're going to do about the invoice. He tells me that he'll look into it and get back to me shortly. I know where this is going... I've delt with these sorts of people before. He's the "I screwd up and can't back down or do anything about it because I'm a puppet who has no real responsibility but all sorts of authority" kind of guy". Not his fault (I guess).

I get a call from his boss. We chat, but he can't rescind the order, and he can't reverse the invoice. He goes on to tell me that the building was scheduled for inspection last May, but they are so far behind that.... HOLD ON BUDDY. Last May, had you come, the by-law didn't have the provision to nail me with a $1K inspection fee, so you slack off , and now that there's some cash in it for you folks... Oh no he claims, that's not it at all! He was a bit surprised that his staff don't read their mail, or respond to people, but alas, council has directed them to do this... there's nothing he can do. I go on about the responsibility and authority thing to no avail and mention that I'll be appealing and mentioning the "circus" events that have transpired here. He tells me that I have that right, but that I can only appeal the order, not the invoice.

I point out that the by-law is specific that the appeal can reverse all charges that are applied as a part of the by-law, but he holds fast to his story. He can't be wrong... he's the boss... of a guy who also can't be wrong, and so his boss has to call to follow up after he screws up. Nice job. I wonder if he read the by-law. I have to believe he read it... perhaps the subtle nuances that give some balance to the people they "deal" with just escaped him... or he forgot. Cool... I'll appeal... but first I'll send my letter.

In it I demand to know the names of all of the inspectors who entered my building. The doors were locked and the portions of the foundation wall that were under repair where covered with plywood nailed to the wood. They had to use tools to enter, so my question in the letter also requested where in the by-law they were/are permitted to enter the building if it is secured, the by-law only allows entry to secure a building they find open. This sounds more like "trespass" and "break and enter" to me... but those are big accusations, so please note how I said that. "Sounds like... to me". That's not definitive.

I also point out that virtually every item in the order is referred to in my building permit, and that numerous "deficiencies" are as a result of the work. The only item I couldn't refute was the "graffiti throughout the building" . This related to the exterior, where it was found on the door (32"x80") and a portion of the exterior wall (36"x48"), hardly "throughout the building" considering it's a fairly large building. I did send a request to the City Graffiti Removal Service to look after that.

I attended the City Clerk's office to file my appeal today. The Clerk listened to my story with some disbelief until I showed him my building permit, and the request for a boarded Building Exemption Certificate, and even that the building isn't "boarded" as defined in the by-law. He took my $250, date stamped everything, and promised that he'd schedule a hearing, but that he'd send a few e-mails first. My sense is that he sees a lot of half baked appeals and that mine looks like a fairly good one that will embarrass the fine civic employees at by-law enforcement.

This in indicative of many civic "officials" I get to deal with. They make up rules, forget the ones that are in the favour of the "citizen", and hope no one is smart enough to read the by-law and actually challenge them on it.


The by law inspector wasn't on staff in 2009, but his position earns about $53K
His boss made $70,440 in '09
And the only person to actually provide me with the sort of professionalism, respect and service I'd expect as a citizen, the guy at the City Clerk's Department earns about $130 K.

Nice to see that if you double the salary of the two faces that can't help me by admitting their mistake and over reach...


  1. I'd be interested in the follow up on this. I am fairly familiar with the by-laws and some of their staff and it really does seem as though perhaps an oversight was made.

    The intent of the by-law is to give teeth for when property owners aren't putting in the effort, not to penalize people who are genuinely working to fix up their property. I think (hope) this will work out for you in the end and that your property can be added back to the rental stock as it is much needed here in the city.

    It is an interesting point that I wonder if a lot of folks know that you do not have to board a vacant building, so long as all the doors and windows are intact. It also needs to maintain an appearance keeping with the rest of the neigbourhood (lawn mowed, no peeling paint, proper roof & eaves etc.). I wonder how many empty houses are out there, just blending in?

  2. Welcome Winnipeg Girl. Driven down Route 90 lately and seen the empty houses? There are MANY vacant buildings, just blending in. Leave up blindsm a light or two, pick up the mail, shovel the walk... I'm a believer in the by-law, and was around for the initial crafting of it by G.S. (assuming you know who that is) and the intent is exactly as you say, not to put the screws to someone with a valid building permit in place. I'll post how this turns out in a future entry.

  3. Hmmm, yet another problem with the lack of intonation available via text (or I suppose my ability to convey myself properly!). I was more hoping that others would ponder the idea that all vacant houses are not evil as such; I think that those without intimate knowledge of the by-laws probably associate "vacant" with "boarded and vacant", and a boarded house is not a pretty sight.

    With the extreme housing shortage that Winnipeg faces it is indeed a shame that (especially government-owned) houses sit vacant by the dozens along Route 90, although politics are not my strong suit I would hazard a guess that the wealthy residents of the adjoining neighbourhoods don't favour affordable housing as it would diminish the sense of exclusivity and make their feelings known to the right people.

    People certainly have the right to leave their property vacant and being a landlord with a small portfolio is certainly no picnic so I can understand why they may choose not to rent it out. I know of empty houses in some of Winnipeg's nicest neighbourhoods that indeed just blend right in.

    I do know G.S. and was one of many who eagerly awaited the revised vacant and boarded by-laws to come through as I believe long term they will have an extremely positive effect.

    We'll call this one growing pains for the by-law folks and thank you for being the unwitting test subject. I look forward to your follow-up post.

  4. Part of the problem with the by-law enforcement is that an owner who is taking over a property that has been neglected continues to feel the full force of enforcement. once the building is "in their sights", the officer has a much easier time continuing to "do his job" than locating the owner of other vacant (and boarded) houses. There are boarded houses in VERY prominent locations in my hood that are permitted to remain improperly boarded, and without any permit (obvious by the improper boarding) and inexplicably, these remain eyesores for many months. One is left to question who is getting greased, because there are few other good reasons one can imagine this is permitted to continue. Perhaps the owner is well connected? maybe they are in a profession where they can tie up the process in court, so they are ignored? Calls to 311 about houses burned out and improperly boarded, debris in the yard go ignored for months... the greatest frustration is knowing how poorly the officers are able to actually do their jobs.