Extreme neglect: On St-Dominique St., neighbours angered by Montreal's inaction
No easy solution on how to tackle property owners who refuse to fix derelict buildings
When Paul Stoica and his wife moved into their condominium on St-Dominique Street in 2014, their new neighbour welcomed them with a warning.
He told them not to walk in front of the empty, run-down building next door because they might get hit by falling debris.
"We were under the impression it would be torn down fairly quickly," said Stoica, whose wife was pregnant at the time. "We're like, it's going to be done, and my son won't have to grow up next to that thing."
He had reason to be optimistic.
That fall, the building owner asked the Plateau–Mont-Royal borough for the right to demolish it. Based on the building's sorry state, the city agreed, declaring it an "imminent public safety risk."
However, two years later, despite the hazard the building poses to the public, it's still there. Now, it's up for sale.
Empty for at least a decade, it's covered in graffiti tags. Much of the brick on the first level is gone, exposing wooden planks.
Two metal poles appear to hold up a support beam out front.
A peek through a broken lock reveals the building is a frequent hangout for squatters. Stoica has seen the police visit a few times from his window, and at one point, there was a small fire.
To keep people off the sidewalk, the city installed metal gates, but Stoica said they're often knocked or kicked over.
What was at first an embarrassing eyesore for Stoica is now a constant reminder of the city's inaction.
He's incredulous the city can't force the owner to rip it down or do it themselves and send the owner the bill.
"At this point, we've just lost hope," said Stoica.
Derelict buildings in the 100s
Across the island of Montreal, there are hundreds of buildings no longer in use. Many are derelict and – in extreme cases, such as the building at 3476 St-Dominique Street – dangerous.
Montreal's vacant buildings include homes as well as commercial and industrial properties. Many have heritage value.
There are many reasons a building becomes vacant.
If it's in a trendy area, some owners will do nothing until they get the right price for the property.
Others are earmarked for development, but they sit empty for years as the company works through the permit process. If the building has heritage value, it can sit untouched even longer.
Occasionally, the owner has fallen ill or died without a succession plan, so the building's disposal is overseen by the Public Curator of Quebec.
Whatever the reason, for people like Stoica who live beside an empty building, the situation affects their home's property value and can be a source of stress. The buildings often become targets for vandals, pests and squatters.
Rarely used tools
Although city bylaws specify how owners must maintain and protect their vacant buildings, CBC Montreal Investigates discovered many aren't secured properly.
Some aren't boarded up, making it easy to gain entry through windows and doors. In some cases, the boards have been pried loose and haven't been repaired.
The city can issue fines, place a lien on the property and send in building inspectors, but if the owner continues to pay the property taxes, the building can continue to deteriorate for years, said Projet Montréal Councillor Alex Norris.
Expropriation and legal injunctions are also part of the city's tool box, but those tools are rarely used.
The city can carry out demolitions or repairs itself, but Norris doesn't think that is the best use of taxpayer dollars.
"We have legal obligations to hold calls for tender," said Norris. "But it's a much more cumbersome and costly undertaking."
This is Part 2 in a CBC Montreal Investigates series, Extreme Neglect.
- Read Part 1: On de l'Esplanade Ave., heritage greystones rot away
Not surprisingly, the largest inventory of vacant, run-down buildings is in some of the city's oldest boroughs such as the Sud-Ouest, Ville-Marie and the Plateau–Mont-Royal.
Recently, the Plateau decided to make its list public to put pressure on owners to act and to alert potential buyers.
"Oftentimes, it's long-time owners who don't really have the financial resources themselves to maintain the buildings they own, but there's nothing really forcing them to give the buildings up," said Norris.
The owner of 3476 St-Dominique, Denis Guerrera, never returned calls from CBC News.
But his realtor, Mike Abatzidis, said Guerrera originally had a condominium project in mind for his property, but he couldn't come to an agreement with the borough about the number of units.
"The profit margin is not there anymore," said Abatzidis, who told CBC there is now an offer on the building and Guerrera is close to a deal.
Norris said the borough's zoning bylaws are clear, and points out several other developers have successfully renovated and sold properties under the same rules and in the same neighbourhood.
The borough plans to start legal proceedings against Guerrera, he said.
"He's not meeting his current obligation to make sure his building is safe."
Bureaucratic red tape
Although there are cases of willful neglect, some owners told CBC that the complexity of city rules are to blame for some of the delays.
Developers say bureaucrats often demand changes or additions that aren't clearly set out in the city's bylaws.
Although those bylaws are supposed to spell out what a developer needs to include in any proposal, building plans are left in limbo as officials go back and forth on what they want included.
In buildings that are so structurally unsound they're obviously unsafe, some boroughs still ask for extensive proof that the building has no historical value or that it is beyond salvaging before agreeing to a demolition.
Another developer told CBC the demolition committee in his borough has too much power.
He had independent tests done to show his own building was a write-off and could not be renovated. The committee turned him down. Although he appealed the decision, the exact same committee heard the appeal and turned him down once more.
"They don't have the proper mechanism to handle this," the developer said, who didn't want his name used because of his fear of repercussions.
He said it's not worth it for him to sell the building or renovate it the way the city has asked. So the building sits, boarded up.
"If I sell it, I lose a lot of money," he said. "If I renovate, I lose a lot of money. If I wait, less."
Unsal Ozdilek, a real estate analyst at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), says Montreal has a large number of run-down buildings because most of them were built more than half a century ago.
To repair or renovate them takes substantial investment and some owners just don't have the financial means.
If the building isn't fixed, it drags down that building's property value and affects the values of neighbouring homes. That, he said, should be a concern for the city.
"Each year, the city loses taxes on the buildings because the value is less," said Ozdilek. "Less value means less taxes."
He said there needs to be a better mechanism to help the city and owners negotiate how to proceed.
That doesn't mean granting permits or making zoning changes just to ram through a property's redevelopment, Ozdilek said. He suggests the city offer grants or tax breaks to encourage renovation.
Before buying a building, investors also need to be clear about what the rules are, he said.
"Owners need to know what the limitations are before investing in a property and then realizing they cannot do what they wish," said Ozdelik.