Are old downtown buildings arson magnets or the answer to the city's housing crisis?

After a series of suspicious fires at vacant downtown buildings, Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam is calling for stricter rules governing developers.

Developers should be required to keep buildings occupied as long as possible, councillor says

Two firefighters were injured, one of them critically, in November while trying to contain a fire at 85 Shuter St. It was one of several downtown fires in the past two years that convinced Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam to call for change, she says. (John Hanley/CBC)

After a series of suspicious fires at vacant downtown buildings, Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam is calling for stricter rules governing developers.

Wong-Tam's motion, passed by the housing and planning committee last week, calls on staff to research possible new rules that would make developers keep tenants in their newly-acquired properties as long as possible.

In a letter to the committee, Wong-Tam maintained that too many developers are pushing tenants out as quickly as they can, "accomplishing demolition by neglect."

Wong-Tam, who represents Ward 13, Toronto Centre, called it a form of "renoviction" in an interview with CBC Toronto.

"The developers and land speculators have purchased older properties with sometimes vulnerable tenants and asked them to leave early."

Simply boarding up derelict houses, like this one awaiting redevelopment on Jarvis Street, isn't always enough to keep out vandals and arsonists, according to Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Keeping buildings occupied not only protects against vandals, she said, but can help ease the housing shortage.

"I don't think it's good city building for properties to sit vacant while we're in the midst of a housing crisis," said Wong-Tam, whose downtown ward has seen a great deal of condo construction and redevelopment. 

Her motion was inspired in part by a series of fires in derelict downtown buildings over the past two years.

In the most recent incident, in November of 2019, two firefighters were injured at 85 Shuter St. Two months earlier, the heritage home known as the Sheard Mansion was damaged in a suspicious fire, and in March of 2018, a firefighter was hurt while helping extinguish a fire at 189 Mutual St.

'Demolition by neglect' is how Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam describes what some developers have done to old downtown houses they've bought. Developers say some of those old homes are too far gone to be salvageable. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

"All three vacant buildings were part of consolidated development sites," Wong-Tam said in her letter.

"They were allowed to remain empty for years, growing ever more neglected over time. The protections required by the City were minimal; boards on the windows to prevent trespass. Enhanced security measures, such as bricked-up or barred windows and high fences, were not imposed until after the incidents had occurred."

But not everyone agrees that the problems posed by derelict buildings can be solved by forcing developers to keep them occupied.

"Sometimes you're buying buildings that are so dilapidated, and you're planning to redevelop them anyway, so you can't really afford the money required to keep them up," said Bernard Luttmer, co-founder of Podium Developments. 

The remains of the Sheard Mansion on Jarvis Street after it was gutted last September. Arson is believed to be the cause. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Luttmer, who emphasized he has little experience with the redevelopment of vacant downtown properties, said it makes sense to keep buildings habitable as long as possible, "however if the buildings aren't safe, you don't have the financial means to bring them up to standard when you're planning to tear them down a year later."

Wong-Tam is also suggesting that if a building can't be kept habitable, the developers should go to greater lengths to ensure they can't be broken into. She's suggesting high fences, and bricked up or barred windows.

"Absolutely agree," Luttmer said. "It's very unsafe to have people squatting ... So if it's not already a bylaw in the city, it should be one for sure, to keep the public safe."

Wong-Tam said she hasn't looked into the number of vacant buildings downtown; that's something she wants staff to find out in the course of their research.

The motion calls on staff to return to the committee with research and recommendations by the end of 2020.


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