Last week we had a special Council meeting. I wasn’t quick to report out on it, because it wasn’t a regular meeting, and it has been a busy two weeks. I was also not sure how to frame it here, because it is a little dull and procedural for anyone not involved. So I’ll use it to talk about Section 57 of the Community Charter, because I think it provides an interesting example of the powers of local government, the limitations on that power, and the discretion Councils have to wield that power.
First off, I don’t want to talk about the three properties that were discussed in the open council meeting on Monday. Though it is important that processes like this occur in an open meeting so that the City is transparent and accountable, I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to discuss the specifics of each case here. Short version is that three properties were found by staff to be in violation of City Bylaws and/or the BC Building Code, and after several attempts to bring the properties in to compliance, Staff asked Council for permission to put notices on the property titles under Section 57 of the Community Charter.
One role of local government in BC is assuring that building standards are maintained so that the buildings in which people live, work, shop, or play are safe for occupation. There are provincial codes for structure (buildings shouldn’t fall down), plumbing and electrical (buildings should not leak, shock occupants, and clean water coming in needs to be separate from sewage going out), and fire codes (buildings should not readily burst into flame, an if they do, people should be able to get out of them).
For the most part, it is during construction and renovation that inspections of buildings occur to assure these standards are met. Of course, many people choose to do renovations without getting appropriate permits (on purpose or out of ignorance of the law) and so not all buildings get the inspections they should. People often buy houses that have “unpermitted” improvements, potentially inheriting an unsafe condition. The soft regulation of secondary suites in the City means that many do not meet standards, especially for fire separation and escape.
Sometimes our fire or building inspectors become aware of these conditions, and they are compelled by their jobs to take action. That usually means telling the owner to fix the non-compliant situation. Our general practice as a City is to inform and incentivize remediation before enforcement. Staff first assure people are aware of the problem and are given the tools to fix it, then encourage them with ramped up urgency to get it done if they do not take measures to fix the situation. Staff have several tools in their toolbox to do this: a letter telling people to do the work, an official order (which is like a letter, but has the threat attached of fines if compliance is not met), all the way up to condemning a building so no-one can legally occupy it. The City can go so far in the most extreme cases to actually do the work to bring a building into compliance and send the bill to the landowner. Obviously, there needs to be a pretty significant life safety or other concern to go that far.
All of the properties discussed in Council last week had some level of enforcement on this spectrum, some for several years.
The step we are taking now is something in the middle of the spectrum. A Section 57 Order on Title is a note the City adds to the official property title registered in Victoria. This means that anyone who looks up the property title will be informed of the non-compliance. This serves two purposes. First it encourages the owner to fix the non-compliance, as the value of the property may be impacted, and it may even impact the insurance and mortgage costs for the owner. Secondly, it warns any potential purchaser that the building is not code compliant and the City knows it is not code compliant, and that the City is working to get it compliant.
Staff needs permission from Council to put a Notice on Title, and the property owner is able to appeal that questions (what we were doing at the meeting last week). The notices are much easier to remove than they are to apply. Do the required repairs and get it inspected by the city, and the City will remove the notice without needing to come to Council again. To be fair, the building repair work needs to be done, and that can sometimes be an expensive prospect, but ultimately the duty of our inspections staff is to assure people live in safe buildings, so getting those repairs done is always the goal.