Abandoned homes in Toronto leave neighbours frustrated, fearful

A CBC investigation into four abandoned homes in Toronto in various states of disrepair reveals a lengthy, and cumbersome process that forces frustrated neighbours to take matters into their own hands.

Fixing dilapidated homes in Toronto isn't easy to do

There was a flash of fear in Chiara Lovecchio's eyes as she stole a glance at the house next door.

The six-year-old believes the bogeyman lives there. Sure, it's just a child's imagination, but her grandfather said he's scared too.

Leo Lovecchio thought it's only a matter of time until 27 Brownville Avenue burns down, or that the animals living in the house will make his family and the kids who roam freely in the neighbourhood sick.

Neighbours say police and city bylaw officers have visited the property near Black Creek Drive and Weston Road for a decade. Recently, they've made some headway.

Lovecchio watched the city remove two huge dumpsters full of waste in March, although there's little to show for all that work.

The neglect clings to it more firmly than any of the nails, boards and shingles. A padlocked rusted fence in the front yard lines the property and the house can barely be seen through vegetation. The rotten wooden roofline has splayed and warped, and part of the roof has caved in. 

The house is uninhabited. But there's a twist. The property isn't. The homeowner isn't allowed inside his own house anymore, so he lives in the back yard.

"The raccoons live inside. So he lives in a tent. You want to see the tent?" Lovecchio asked. Sure enough, from Lovecchio's back yard it's easy to see the large black tent.

Decade-old problem

The city says it can bar entry to properties if a structure is in an unsafe condition.

"It's one of those situations where we're concerned about the property as much as we're concerned about the person," said Joe Magalhaes, a manager with the city's Municipal Licensing and Standards department.

Magalhaes says even though the city has done some clean up, the homeowner — or anyone else — shouldn't be there. Getting the owner to accept that is another matter, he says. 

"So in cases like that we engage Toronto Public Health and shelter support and housing and other city divisions and agencies to assist the individual while we're looking after the property."

Attempts to contact the owner in the back yard of the property went unanswered.

Toronto Building has closed its most recent file that was securing the property.

Magalhaes said that department has the lead for any future investigations and it will become involved again if the owner continues to live on the property.

Lovecchio added, "The city told me if he doesn't do something about it, we'll do something about it."

Magalhaes said his department first started fielding complaints about the property last September. 

But the local councilor's office said the city has been addressing problems at this property since 2005.

Jennifer Cicchelli, Coun. Frances Nunziata's executive assistant, wouldn't share specifics, but said a number of city divisions, including the Toronto Building department, became involved "to deal with its condition and the housing structure itself" as recently as January. 

Junction trouble

The Brownville property is an extreme example of some of the abandoned homes that CBC News visited after getting several responses to a report on a problem house at 441 Pacific Avenue in the Junction area.

The owner of 441 Pacific Avenue, CBC News has learned, also owns another dilapidated home nearby, at 58 Laws Street. The home, which has been abandoned for about a decade, was secured by the city in the last couple of months. 

Other licensing investigation requests date back to July 2014. Neighbours said before securing the porch, children would drop their backpacks inside the decrepit space as they played outside.

There are tax arrears, repair and maintenance costs owed on the property.

The city couldn't provide estimate for how many such abandoned homes exist in Toronto, but a common theme among the properties investigated by CBC News is the lengthy, cumbersome and frustrating process when it comes to dealing with them.

Waste, mail accumulate

Consider the home at 197 Boulton Avenue in Riverdale.

It looks unremarkable from the curb. But from his vantage point on the sidewalk, general contractor Jason Forsyth noticed problems with the roof, porch and eavestrough. And he believes those problems could spell trouble for the owner of the adjoining home.

"Because he's attached he's going to have his roof destroyed, his veranda destroyed," said Forsyth, speaking of the owner of the neighbouring home at 195 Boulton Avenue. "It's wrecking his side."

James Owen and his partner bought the property at 195 Boulton Avenue a year ago and didn't know the house attached was empty. Neighbours have told him it's been that way for about five years. 

Owen said they noticed waste and mail accumulating. They could see deadfall in their neighbour's backyard. Another neighbour told them that was from an ice storm two years ago.

Homeowners on the street work together to cut the lawn and collect waste and accumulated mail. They don't want to telegraph to vandals or thieves that it's abandoned.

An emergency order notice dated April 2015 from the water meter program hangs on the front door, and there's another emergency order notice dated December 2014.

Neighbours also say the original owner died. 

The name and address on that notice is for a Power of Attorney who lives in Ottawa. 

Owen and his partner have done their own sleuthing. He said their extensive searches to find the P.O.A. were unsuccessful. 

Nerve-wracking situation

Moreover, CBC News found an obituary for a woman who died unexpectedly at 54, with the same name as the legally-appointed agent. 

CBC News also contacted someone with the same last name in Ottawa who told CBC they were unrelated to the power of attorney and that a year ago they received a similar inquiry. 

A spokeswoman for local Coun. Paula Fletcher said there was an issue with a broken window and wildlife. 

MLS fixed it and applied charges, as it would in any of these cases, to property taxes. 

Owen called the situation nerve-wracking. 

"I've had a little bit of contact with the city inspector. And we've had some discussion back and forth but there hasn't been a lot of follow-up," he said.

Often the city relies on proactive residents to call 311 about problems, said Magalhaes, acknowledging the process could take months or even years. 

In drastic cases the city could take possession of the house for sale but he said, "we're not in the business of 'dehousing' and we want to find other options." 

Toronto council will consider changing bylaws in the fall to reduce the length of time the city requires to act when there's an abandoned property.

Meanwhile, in Regal Heights

One case that the city has been able to resolve involves a home at 16 Lauder Avenue near St. Clair Avenue West and Dufferin Street.

The area is known as Regal Heights, one where houses routinely sell for millions. The home, a grand dame located on one of the most coveted streets in the in the area, has been unoccupied for an estimated 15 years.

The brick structure looks solid and there are stained glass windows still intact. But any wood on the house has sunlight shining through, and neighbours said the city was already involved in tearing down a chimney, an unsafe garage and sunroom as well as yard maintenance.

Briged Higgins lives next door and knows the owners who she didn't want to identify. She said the property "became too much for the owners to deal with it. So I guess they moved on to another property and shut the door on it." 

She says families of lumbering raccoons have lived in the century-old house for years. 

One of the owners has died since and another has been difficult to locate, she said.

"There's a certain amount of civic responsibility. You know it doesn't have to have a manicured lawn. It doesn't have to be painted well. It doesn't have to have one kind of veranda but it does have to have a minimum standard of upkeep," Higgins added.

MLS had investigation requests from October 2011, with the latest being issued this June. But the city recently tracked down the homeowner, who it says is now complying with requests.

"We'll get to a point where if we feel they're dragging their feet, the city has the authority under the bylaws to undertake the work and that's what we'll do," Magalhaes said.

CBC News has been unable to make contact with the person named on the violation notices posted at the home.


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