Should cities seize empty buildings?

This building stood vacant for years, so Toronto expropriated it

Should cities seize empty buildings?

A decade ago, a rooming house in Toronto’s lower-income Parkdale area was ravaged by a fire that killed two residents and forced almost 50 others out onto the street. It stood derelict for years, an eyesore and—given the city’s need for housing—a waste of space. In 2006, Toronto expropriated the building to convert it into affordable units. Activists are now hoping it will be the first of many.

In Toronto, where about 128,000 people are on the waiting list for social housing, empty buildings could be an important resource. David Wachsmuth and Shiri Pasternak, co-founders of a group called Abandonment Issues, are pushing for a bylaw that would put them to use. They’re suggesting several measures, among them that the city create a definition of “abandonment,” and in some cases, expropriate buildings from neglectful owners. “You can’t treat [buildings] like anything else,” Pasternak says. “That property exists in a community.”

The two propose a vacancy tax, which would see landlords pay an escalating fee for each year they mothball a property (Winnipeg already has a similar system in place). Because many Toronto properties are left empty due to speculation, Wachsmuth says, the tax could “change the economic incentive, so owners decide to renovate the building and get people living in it, or sell it to someone who will.” Their proposal is under consideration by city officials, who plan to release a new affordable housing plan in the new year.

Back in Parkdale, the once-derelict rooming house is being rebuilt into 29 affordable units. Victor Willis, executive director of Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, which is developing the site, says expropriation was the right thing to do. “It was not appropriate . . . to see this building sitting there underutilized,” he says. “It’s a community asset, and society has some right to it as well.”