FOUR YEARS LATER, there is still no sign of life on Mars. The derelict house that caused nearby residents to rise up in one of Victoria’s more elegant protests remains right where it was, rotting in place.
As those residents have found, there’s a limit to what can be done when your neighbours abandon a dwelling.
At question is a dilapidated 669-square-foot house, its boarded-up shabbiness standing out amid the otherwise tidy single-family homes on Mars Street, a quiet, leafy, road off of Finlayson. For the past 19 years, the structure has been owned — and largely left vacant — by a man who is said to, well, march to his own drum.
For a while, neighbours took it upon themselves to tend the yard, occasionally cutting the lawn and planting flowers, but that stopped in 2014 after the city, responding to a series of fires at abandoned properties around Victoria, ringed the whole yard with a head-high security fence.
Yeesh, that just makes an ugly property uglier, the neighbours said. In early 2015, somebody zap-strapped some teacups to the fence as a cheerfully cheeky protest against both the neglected house and the imposing new barrier. Then more cups were added, and more, until after a few months more than 100 teacups, teapots and coffee mugs adorned the fence, turning it into a minor attraction.
Sure enough, the city moved the fence back, buoying residents’ hopes that their gentle pressure might inspire action on the house, too.
Nope. Four years later, both the teacups and hope are gone.
“I think everyone on the street has given up,” says next-door neighbour Stephen Brenner.
His own yard is well tended. “We try to make the place look nice, but it’s always going to be bookended by that,” he says, gazing over at a structure that looks like bulldozer bait: boarded-up windows, a sagging roofline, one exterior wall starting to bulge. “The house is falling down. I don’t know how long it will last.”
Brenner and his wife used to cut the next-door lawn, and even planted a flower garden around a tree and attached a dozen birdhouses to the relocated fence, but eventually gave up. Now dandelions and other weeds have taken over the front. Blackberry vines have won the war for the back.
“We should have bylaws in the city that stop this from happening,” Brenner says.
The city does, in fact, have property maintenance and abandoned properties bylaws, and has applied them relatively aggressively as of late. A house on Fairfield’s Chapman Street was demolished recently, and city council just ordered a former Yates Street rooming house torn down.
The thing is, the city, which has files on 23 vacant properties, can’t just waltz in and knock down buildings because they’re eyesores. It can order owners to clean up and secure their properties — and, if they fail to comply, do the work itself and stick the owner with the bill, as has happened on Mars Street — but can’t force the destruction or sale of a house just because it looks bad. Owners have rights, including the right to sit on a property until they decide to sell it.
Demolition orders are saved for the most extreme cases, where voluntary compliance hasn’t worked and there’s a real, demonstrable — as opposed to potential — threat to safety. “The elements have to be there before you ask council to force someone to crush their investments,” says Barrie Cockle, the city’s bylaw boss.
Take the case in the 1100 block of Yates Street, near Cook Street, which involves a building that hasn’t been occupied (at least legally) since 2003, when it was shut down due to alterations that left it unstable (in the basement, construction jacks held up the floor above). After a couple of fires, a long history of complaints — police were called 24 times in the past two years alone to handle calls relating to squatters, break-ins, drug use and the like — and no sign that the situation would improve, council finally ordered the structure demolished this spring.
By contrast, the city has had no complaints about the Mars Street property in the past year. There are no squatters, no druggies at risk. Other than a spot where somebody has dumped lawn clippings, the yard is trash-free. Cockle says the owner is getting a letter telling him to cut the lawn, but that’s it.
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.