In Cape Breton, some homes are worth so little that people just walk away from them

There are nearly as many empty houses in Cape Breton as in Vancouver. After years of economic decline in one of the country's most beautiful areas, homes are worth so little that people just walk away from them.
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In Cape Breton, some homes are worth less than cars.

The area is among the most beautiful places in Canada, known for dramatic Atlantic shorelines and excellent hiking along the Cabot Trail.

Nowadays however, sightseers don't just encounter whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but hundreds of boarded-up homes and derelict buildings, throughout industrial Cape Breton.

A falling population has turned once-thriving neighbourhoods into ghost towns.

"What you're witnessing is a community just crumbling," says John White, a teacher in the area.

For many years, the island was supported by coal mining and steel production. As those industries have declined, so too has the area's economy, with the population falling nearly 20 per cent over the last 20 years.

With between 600 and 800 abandoned houses, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality has almost as many empty homes as Vancouver. About 40 per cent of houses sold last year went for less than $100,000, while there are pockets where homes have been valued at less than $10,000.

The population is also aging — nearly a quarter are seniors — and when White asks his students who has a parent working out west, he says as many as half raise a hand.

"It's actually heartbreaking for me, because this is my territory, this is where I grew up," he says.

John White grew up on Cape Breton, and has witnessed the slow economic decline. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

How to cut a house in half

Many of the houses on the island are so-called company homes, built decades ago for coal and steel workers.

A lot of these buildings are duplexes, where one half is still lived in by a family, and the other is empty and boarded up.

Often the vacant half is demolished. The house is literally cut in half, and an internal wall converted to a weatherproof external one, leaving a family living in a free-standing 'half-house.'

The alternative is that the vacant house is simply left to fall into ruin, raising the risk that it takes the other half with it.

Kimmy Losier says owners should be held responsible for abandoned homes. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)
Kimmy Losier's home was nearly destroyed by a flood when pipes burst in the vacant house attached to her. 1:46

Kimmy Losier's house is attached to one such property. She brought her home 12 years ago, sight unseen, for $11,000.

For years it was her dream home by the ocean — until the day she found out her neighbours were packing up and moving out.

She realized her home was about to become another one of those places, with a line down the centre, and everything on one side boarded up.

Within a month, pipes in the house next door had burst, flooding Kimmy's home and causing extensive damage.

"Someone's got to be responsible for those other halves," she says.

"Where are these people, how come they're not standing up?"

"If you own a home and you don't want to live there — deal with it."

Dishes still left in the sink

Many owners who walk away have fallen behind in their taxes, owning more than their houses are worth.

Sometimes the municipality will take control and try to sell the property, but it's a costly and lengthy process, meaning that many have to be demolished.

Paul Burt is in charge of demolitions, and says that abandoned homes are often left in a terrible state. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

Paul Burt is in charge of taking down those houses, and has seen firsthand the state of decay they're sometimes left in.

"We've gone in and found food still in the fridge… cans that have been so old that they've basically imploded in the cupboard… even dishes still left in the sink with food on them."

"They are quite disgusting in there, we don't spend much time in them, only to make sure that there's nobody in them when we board them up, and nobody in them when we knock them down."

He says the permits for demolitions each year outnumber the permits to build new homes; in Toronto permits to build outnumber demolitions 50 to 1.

How to repopulate an island

Various groups try to acquire and maintain these company houses, either so they can be given to homeless or in-need families, or simply preserved as part of the island's history.

But every house takes so much time, and so much money, that the results are limited.

Some of the abandoned halves can develop structural problems, causing issues for the families living next door. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

Heather Coulombe, who co-owns a family-run market in Whycocomagh on the island, took a novel approach when her company couldn't find new employees.

Posting on Facebook, she offered a job to anyone willing to move to Cape Breton and work in her store.

If it worked out, she'd give you two acres of land, for free.

The post received at least 300,000 messages in response, with several families taking her up on the offer and moving their lives to Cape Breton.

While a few families moving to the island won't solve the problem of hundreds of abandoned homes, it does remind the people of Cape Breton that they have something a lot of people yearn for: an affordable life, in a beautiful, friendly place.

This article was updated on Mar. 16, 2018 to clarify the areas affected.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath and Halifax Network Producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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