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While neighbours fume, politicians look for answers

Debbie Walker and her neighbours were ecstatic when this Rotary Street home was boarded up following a fire (sparked by the manufacturing of hash oil) last year – until the residents moved to another home across the street.  - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS
Debbie Walker and her neighbours were ecstatic when this Rotary Street home was boarded up following a fire (sparked by the manufacturing of hash oil) last year – until the residents moved to another home across the street.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

Debbie Walker knows how frustrating it can be to see a problem, tell RCMP and the City about the problem and get no tangible results. For four years she’s lived on Rotary Street, literally a stone’s throw away from one of Chilliwack’s high schools.

For the last two years she’s dealt with a series of nightmare neighbours.

Looking out her front window while sitting at her dining room table, Debbie’s had the best seat in the house for a show she never wanted to see.

It started in the house directly to the left of hers, when people started coming and going at all hours of the day. At one point, she counted 19 of them, all of whom appeared to be living there. Nocturnal creatures, they seemed most active when the rest of the world was going to bed.

“Always furtive in the dark, like little animals,” she said.

Big dogs escaped the back yard to chase after children, and the atmosphere of fear was so palpable that Debbie stopped walking four houses down the street to visit a friend, because she’d knew she’d have to walk past that house.

“It was so demoralizing,” she complained. “I seriously didn’t want to get up in the morning some days.”

A feisty woman and not one to avoid confrontation, Debbie got in her neighbour’s faces. She’d be on her front steps at midnight, yelling at them to shut up. She took pictures and videos and kept books of notes that she forwarded on to police.

“And yet, when the cops came by and I asked them if they knew what had been going on, the answer was inevitably no,” she said with a shrug.

Her other neighbours suggested Debbie might want to keep her head down a little and not make herself a target of reprisal.

“And wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do? It’s not good for my health,” she laughed. “But I know I’ve got three girls living in that house over there, five boys in that house over there and two babies over there. So no, not on my watch!”

She did try to lay low for a while. She closed her curtains and made like everything was OK. But soon enough she was back at it.

“I yelled very loud and the lights were always on,” she chuckled. “I made sure everyone knew I was out there.”

It’s no exaggeration to say Debbie and her friends threw a party when the nightmare neighbours set fire to the house. In October of 2013 a large portion of the place was torched, rendering it uninhabitable. Word at the time, later confirmed, was that the fire was related to the cooking of hash oil.

The City slapped one of those non-occupancy orders on the house. The windows were boarded up and within a week it was barricaded behind a metal fence.

It was an eyesore, but a vacant eyesore.

“I was in Vancouver the day that it burned, and other people were emailing me pictures and saying, ‘You should be here!” Debbie said. “And we all celebrated with a block barbecue! We really did. We were all happy, and I actually started to feel normal again.”

Until...

Not long afterwards, Debbie was shocked to see the same faces from the burned-out house moving into the top floor of a house just across the street. To her dismay, they were getting into their old house and hauling stuff to their new place. She couldn’t believe her eyes as a water-logged couch was carried out. She saw them going in after dark, with miner-lights on their foreheads, salvaging whatever they could.

“I was so happy when they left and then I was so, ‘Oh my God’ when they came back,” she said. “And I learned a valuable lesson. When it’s really good, don’t celebrate too much.”

• • •

So why do they stay?

Frank (see ‘The dilemma of nightmare neighbours, Chilliwack Progress, July 23) tried to sell his place not long ago, and nearly found a taker.

“I had a couple come in from Alberta and they were ready to buy it, until they went upstairs,” he recalled. “They took a look out my bedroom window, saw one of the messes next door and said, ‘There’s no way we can buy this.’

One of the neighbours in Frank’s complex reduced his price three times trying to get out. Of the six units, five have now sold.

There is a point at which you could sell one of these places, but it’d be a price point where I’ve calculated I’d take at least a $60,000 hit,” Frank said. “I’m fortunate that I’ve saved my pennies and I could absorb that kind of loss, but I don’t want to use those pennies, take everything out and leave this empty until someone comes and buy it.”

Debbie is in the same situation.

She knows she won’t be able to sell her place, but she could rent it out and move closer to Vancouver and her work.

“Why don’t I? These are my friends,” she said. “They’re hard working people who aren’t rolling in it, and what are they going to get for their houses with this s**t going on? Selling isn’t an option. Perhaps reviewing assessment pricing on the block might be a consideration, if we’re not getting the support to keep us safe.”

• • •

Chilliwack City Councillor Jason Lum understands the frustration that Frank, Debbie and others in their situation feel.

He’s been there.

“My neighbourhood has an issue with a house, and you know, they think it should be taken care of right away,” he said. “They want to hear we’re going to kick the door in and drag them out. Due process isn’t the first thing you’re thinking about when you’ve got kids or grand-kids living close to a house like that.”

As chair of the City’s Public Safety Committee, Lum’s heard the voices of people affected by the problem, and the voices of people trying to deal with it.

“We send bylaws officers out to do inspections and post no-occupancy orders, and the people living in those houses scatter and move to other locations,” he said. “The RCMP invests time and effort into an investigation. Perhaps they get a conviction and these people are out in a couple weeks or months. I feel it. I hear that frustration from police officers and citizens alike.”

So is the City doing all it can to combat the problem?

Lum believes the bylaw and police officers are doing what they can within the limitations they face.

“In terms of bylaw and the city perspective, we simply don’t have the capacity to have bylaw officers driving up and down every street,” he said. “In terms of the RCMP, when we do any kind of surveying, public safety comes back as a top priority for citizens. And when you look at our allocation of tax dollars to fire and policing, those priorities are reflected.”

Talk to the RCMP and they’ll say the root of this problem is property owners who are content to pocket rent cheques from just about anyone while letting their properties fall into disrepair.

“They need to be more accountable and responsible for those properties,” said RCMP Cpl. Len VanNieuwenhuizen. “They do have the authority to go in and inspect rentals with due notice and if they did that, they’d deter a lot of this activity. Unfortunately there’s a lot of property owners out there who just rent to anyone who has cash. They don’t ask questions or take time to research background.”

Could Chilliwack adopt Surrey’s hit-em-in-the-wallet strategy?

Maybe. In time.

“The Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce started calling for the derelict (commercial) building bylaw in 2008 and we did it this year, so it takes a while to come to fruition,” he noted. “If you’re contemplating any new bylaw or policy, you want to make sure you’ve done due diligence. When you get into it and start piling on other levels of legislation at the provincial and federal levels that we have to comply with, it compounds.”

“We’re handcuffed in our ability to deal with these problems in the manner the public expects us to,” he continued. “If you had mayors and councils with the ability to act in the way we wish we could... I guess what I’m saying is I feel the frustration and understand it.”

If Lum can point to one area where the City is being proactive, it would be in prevention.

If Chilliwack had no people with alcohol and drug addictions, these problem houses would fade away. Pie in the sky thinking perhaps, but Lum says the City is allocating resources to that preventative side.

“We’re trying to work with service providers who can deal with the underlying issues, like drug and alcohol addiction and mental health,” he explained. “We have the Health and Housing Contact Centre, which is providing services for the severely addicted and resources for people who’d otherwise be homeless.”

Open for close to a year, Lum is hoping to see hard data that it is making a difference.

“We’re keeping a very close eye on it, and we’ve been in close contact with the community resources people who are running it,” he said. “One program or service or location isn’t going to solve everything, and these things are traditionally not part of the mandate for municipal government. But it’s ending up on our doorstep and the doorstep of our citizens. So, this council and the council prior moved to start working on some of these preventative programs.”

At the same time, Lum said the City will continue to work on the punitive side.

Drug dealers are going to move with their market, and if there are people here they feel they can exploit and make tons of money off, they’ll be here,” he said. “But I understand the preventative approach is sometimes the last thing a neighbourhood wants to hear. It works hand in hand with the punitive side. If you have a meth lab in a neighbourhood by a school, there’s nothing I want more than to find you, crack down and put you in jail.”

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