Fights in the alley, sex on the lawn: Welcome to Slumtown

Our investigative podcast looks at problem properties, the neighbours, the tenants, the bureaucracy and the small group of landlords who own a big chunk of problem real estate in Edmonton’s inner city.

Problem properties subject of new five-part investigative podcast from CBC

CBC Edmonton's Slumtown podcast launches today. (CBC)

Olivia had lived within a 10-block radius of her childhood home her entire life.

It's a small, inner-city Edmonton neighbourhood called Spruce Avenue — post-war bungalows, streets lined with elm trees, giant lilac bushes.

But like many inner-city neighbourhoods, it comes with its problems. Growing up, Olivia says, she would feel nervous about leaving the house for school in the morning.

"I would have to really prepare myself mentally to step out," she says.

But when it came time to raise her family, she couldn't think of anywhere else she'd rather be. 

"Here, there's this camaraderie of sticking together that there isn't in those neighbourhoods, in the nicer neighbourhoods," she says.

But then in the spring and summer of 2018, Olivia started to notice a change in her community.

Fighting in the alley. Neighbours' cars broken into. Fences smashed.

One day, she says, she went outside to find people having sex in her yard.

There were so many discarded needles on her lawn she'd have to rake her grass before mowing.

At least once a week, she would have to call 911 to report an overdose.

A syringe located on a street in the McCauley neighbourhood in Edmonton, Alta. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

"A lot of the times they would start to shake violently or they would lay down and just pass out," she says of the overdose victims.

"Some would be foaming at the mouth. Some would be screaming, just, bloody murder and tearing their clothes off.

"There's one lady in particular. She started turning blue and really shaking violently and it took the EMS a little while to get to her and she — I thought for sure she was going to die. It was bad. Really bad. yeah.

"And oftentimes my children were the ones to see it and had to tell me to call 911 for them. And what they were exposed to was awful ... I carry the Narcan kits with me just in case. It's very scary. Very scary." 

Neighbours believed they knew where this dysfunction was coming from. A rental house, a few houses down: a drug house.

It's just one of many problem properties in Edmonton's inner city, and that of many other cities around the country — Halifax, Vancouver, Toronto.

Problem properties subject of new five-part investigative podcast from CBC. 1:50

A couple of years ago, the City of Edmonton struck a task force to deal with 110 problem properties. Now, after failing to get results, a new iteration of the task force — named the Residential Living Governance Committee — is investigating about 39.

These are properties known to police, bylaw officers and health inspectors. Sometimes, tenants are living in properties deemed "unfit for human habitation" by Alberta Health Services. And sometimes, people die in these houses. Killed by their roommates or overdosing on drugs.

A home located in the McCauley neighbourhood in Edmonton, Alta. (Cort Sloan/CBC)

People living near these houses are desperate.

They have penned impassioned letters to city hall, tipped off authorities countless times, tried to stop landlords from expanding their operations by appealing development permits.

They've even bought up derelict properties with their own money to stop them from turning into drug houses. And still, the core is littered with problem properties. 

Neighbours are looking for someone to blame. And a landlord makes an easy target. Especially a notorious landlord. 

Many of Edmonton's problem properties are concentrated in the hands of a small group of landlords. And they all have a connection to one man: a landlord and convicted fraudster named Abdullah Shah, also known as Carmen Pervez.

Shah wouldn't grant an interview for this story, but through his lawyer, he says the neighbours have it all wrong; that he is a compassionate person who is helping people down on their luck find a place to live.

It's no secret that Edmonton, like many Canadian cities, has a deficit of permanent supportive housing. He argues he's just filling in the gap.

And Shah says the fact that properties owned by him or his associates are the subject of so many police raids, health orders and bylaw infractions just demonstrates that he is being singled out. 

In a letter to CBC, his lawyer says Shah is being unfairly targeted by authorities trying to appease vocal critics, and officers who harbour a personal animosity toward him.

This is the subject of Slumtown, a new five-part investigative podcast from CBC Edmonton: Problem properties, the neighbours, the tenants, the bureaucracy and the small group of landlords who own a big chunk of problem real estate in Edmonton's inner city.