The dilemma of ‘nightmare neighbours’

The Chilliwack Progress begins a two-part series on problem properties and the challenges they pose for neighbours, politicians and police.

Frank has been writing down notes and taking photos of a neighbouring problem property for years.

Frank has been writing down notes and taking photos of a neighbouring problem property for years.

The first time he thought something might be wrong, Frank was looking at the grass.

“Getting pretty long,” he thought, as he looked out of his upstairs bedroom window at his neighbour’s back yard. “Looks like it’s been a while since anyone mowed it.”

Not entirely surprising.

The house next door had mostly been vacant since 2007, when a young family moved out. Whoever owned it now had left it empty for several months, sitting there as a ripe target for ransackers. He’d heard them skulking about, going in to strip out the copper wiring and whatever else they could find.

But, Frank had noticed people moving into the place lately, and was hopeful they’d get around to some upkeep.

On a bright and beautiful late-spring day, the retiree went downstairs to toodle around in his backyard garden, never suspecting his idyllic existence was at an end.

• • •

The second time he thought something might be wrong was when Frank noticed that he was rarely seeing the same people twice.

People moved into the house and moved out as fast as they came. As he lay awake in bed, listening to the sounds of late-night activity drifting in through window, his heart sank. It dawned on Frank that he was now living next to a haven for squatters, a flophouse.

One day, not too long after that, he sat by his upstairs window and watched the backyard lawn finally get cut.

With a weed-eater.

Displaying the kind of obsessive single-minded focus he associated with heavy crystal-meth users, Frank watched someone mow every square inch of lawn, in a very large backyard, in the most inefficient manner.

He added that to his notes.

In an effort to do something, anything, about the growing problem next door, Frank had started taking pictures and keeping a book that detailed all that he saw. At this rate, he figured he may have to start buying those notebooks in bulk.

At one point, a recreational vehicle (RV) had shown up in the neighbour’s driveway. He sat by his upstairs window, pen in hand, trying to describe a tragically comical scene as barbecue tanks were precariously perched on nearby sawhorses — they were setting up a makeshift heating system, one that would never, ever pass any safety inspection.

Frank watched them burn copper wire. He saw stacks of brand-new jeans tucked behind the shed, with price tags still on them.

He saw people urinating in the back yard!

He lost count of how many times his sleep was disturbed by some sort of late night ruckus. In a letter to the City of Chilliwack bylaw office in July of last year, Frank spelled out the details of one particularly awful night.

“A group varying from four to five individuals has set up a tent and a ‘camp’ adjacent to the garden shed of said property,” he wrote. “For all these hours (approximately 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.), our residents were subjected to the vagaries of foul language, alleged drug use, raised voices and public urination.”

The most jarring moment of many moments that night was the sound of a baby, whimpering amidst all that chaos. One of Frank’s neighbours, a kindly older woman, was absolutely distraught the next morning, bawling her eyes out at the thought.

Police were called twice that night, at 3 and 6 a.m., but whatever they said or did proved ineffective.

“As I write this I realize I have not slept since 11:30 p.m. Sunday evening,” Frank continued in his letter. “Almost 20 hours ago.”

Over time, he counted 34 visits to the house by police, fire and by-law enforcement officers. Five or six times he welcomed officers into his living room, and was always impressed by their legitimate concern.

But, five years after things started heading south things remain largely unchanged.

“Their efforts, individually, appear to be heroic,” Frank lamented. “But collectively, their response has been an abject failure.”

What’s a guy to do?

• • •

The RCMP would say Frank’s done everything he should do, and more. In a lengthy chat with the Chilliwack Progress, Cpls. Len VanNieuwenhuizen and Nicole Delagorgendiere said the first and best thing anyone can do is tell them about an issue.

“A lot of people are aware of a problem, and they assume the police know the problem’s there when we don’t,” VanNieuwenhuizen said. “There’s a lack of communication between the community and the police. We need to know a problem exists before we can act upon it.”

“I’d say the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Delagorgendiere added.

That sounds a touch cavalier, but it’s not meant to be.

Delagorgendiere conveys the reality of policing on a budget, and the fact that there’s only so much ‘grease’ to go around.

• • •

There probably isn’t a police force in existence that can handle every problem within its borders. The RCMP’s Crime Reduction Unit is small, and targets the houses that are considered the most ‘dire.’

“There is a capacity issue, and we prioritize based on frequency and severity of activity,” VanNieuwenhuizen elaborated. “We do surveil (watch) drug houses, but we have to have evidence to go to the next level with search warrants. If we feel we can do that with house A, in a timely fashion, we’ll target that house.”

A search warrant is what allows police to go into a house, without warning. A handful of times last year the RCMP issued news releases about drug house busts, with people arrested and charged and drug paraphernalia seized.

But, warrants are terribly difficult to get. Judges don’t view lightly the idea of police invading homes, and only issue warrants if they feel there’s exceptionally good reason to do so. It needs to be a ‘caught red handed’ sort of thing, where police are watching as someone leaves a house with a pocket full of meth.

“And you have to have recency if you’re applying for a search warrant,” Delagorgendiere added. “You can’t say, ‘Well a month ago we caught someone walking with drugs.’ It has to be a yesterday kind of thing. It’s almost like fishing. You have a bad day, and the next day you get two or three and boom! You start piping away on that warrant.”

Delagorgendiere said a pattern needs to be established, one that proves to the judge that there is nefarious activity taking place.

“You have to show that pattern, have several instances of people leaving that house with drugs on their person,” she said. “And then have them saying, ‘Yeah, I just bought it from Tommy who lives at this house. This is what he sells.’”

Even that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Police need ‘probable cause’ to stop someone for a search. They must have ‘sufficient reason, based upon known facts, to believe a crime has been committed or that certain property is connected with a crime.’ (www.dictionary.law.com)

Knowing this, let’s go back for another look at Frank’s neighbours.

Perhaps there’s no drug dealing going on in this house. It sounds more like a place where drugs are used than dealt. Therefore, police could probably sit there all week and not catch people leaving with ‘purchases.’ If the residents are inside the house doing drugs, there’s not much to do about it from a law enforcement point of view.

Without a warrant, what grounds do they have to enter the house? None. They can respond to midnight calls from Frank and his neighbours and knock on the front door. But unless the people who are inside let the police past the doorstep, they are virtually powerless.

“I called the police last week, because there was an argument at 2:30 in the morning — a guy pounding on a woman in the backyard and her screaming,” Frank said. “It all happened within five to seven minutes. But when the police arrived, they were back in the house and everything was fine.”

So, does all of this mean that Frank and his neighbours are doomed to a life of sleepless nights and tanked property values?

Not necessarily.

The RCMP has allies in this fight, starting with the City of Chilliwack’s bylaw office.

• • •

Like the police, bylaw officers are complaint-driven, relying on the public to tell them about problems. Then they spring into action.

An example is overgrown lawns that fall under the weed-control bylaw. Bylaw No. 3578 is on the books to control noxious weeds, brush, tall grass and other growth.

When Fred’s neighbours let their lawn get taller than 25 centimetres, it becomes a bylaw violation. If Frank or someone else complains, bylaw officers will come out and take a look. If there is a legitimate concern, they’ll post a notice on the property and send a letter to the property owner, giving him/her/them five days to mow the lawn.

If they don’t, the City sends a contractor to do the job and sends a $200 bill to the property owner(s).

The City has another bylaw on the books to deal with ‘unsightly premises,’ though it’s trickier to enforce.

Unsightly is a bit of a subjective term. Some children’s toys left out on a lawn may be unsightly to some, but wouldn’t be worthy of bylaw office response. The City’s definition of what is and isn’t unsightly is found online at chilliwack.ca and reads as follows:

• the accumulation of building material, unless the owner or occupier of the parcel is in possession of a valid building permit in respect of the materials or it is stored in a closed building or structure such that the accumulation is not visible from another property or the road;

• notwithstanding the City’s Zoning Bylaw, the storage or accumulation of all or part of a vehicle, as defined in the Motor Vehicle Act, which is not validly registered and licensed in accordance with the Motor Vehicle Act or capable of movement under its own power, unless stored in a closed building or structure such that the vehicle, or any portion of the vehicle, is not visible from another property or the road;

• the accumulation of filth, discarded materials or rubbish of any kind, whether or not for commercial purposes or as part of a trade, including but not limited to dead animals, paper, glass, metal, plastics, wire, ropes, machinery, tires, appliances, and any other scrap or salvage;

• the accumulation or deposit of discarded or fallen building materials, including the surface, covering, or coating of a building or structure, or the building or structure itself or part of it which is missing all or a portion of its surface, covering, or coating materials;

• the use of any premises, other than a parcel zoned for industrial uses pursuant to the City’s Zoning Bylaw, for the storage, repair, cleaning, maintenance, or servicing of mechanical equipment including bulldozers, graders, backhoes, or other similar equipment;

• the presence of graffiti, whether in the form of pictures or words, on real property or on the surface of a premises located on the real property;

• the accumulation of garbage not contained in a covered receptacle.

In this case, bylaw officers will give the property owner(s) 10 days to tidy things up. If they don’t, they get slapped with a $500 fine and get another three days. If they still don’t do the job, they get another fine and the file likely gets bumped up the ladder to Council for a remediation order.

Council gives the property owner(s) a definitive timeline to clean it up, and if they still don’t comply the City sends in one of those well-paid contractors.

The idea is to hit property owners in the pocket book, often the most effective way to get someone’s attention.

The City of Surrey took it even farther in late February, introducing heavy fines for repeated ‘nuisance’ calls. Property owners in that jurisdiction who have more than three nuisance calls in a calendar year may be hit with a fine of $10,000 plus court costs.

That may be steep enough to get Surrey’s negligent property owners moving, but if push comes to shove, there’s nothing in Surrey or Chilliwack’s basic bylaws that provides an ultimate solution. Bylaw enforcement can become a frustrating circular exercise.

Property gets overgrown. City mows property. Property gets overgrown. City mows property. Property gets overgrown. City mows property. On and on and on.

There’s no three-strikes-and-you’re-out provision, no relief for stressed-out neighbours.

Chilliwack does have one more option with the Health and Safety Inspection Team. Including representatives from the fire department, a building inspector and an electrical inspector (BC Safety), this unit arguably has more teeth than police or bylaw officers, with a mandate to ensure buildings follow proper health, safety, electrical, fire and bylaw regulations.

They don’t need a warrant to go into a house, only sufficient notice. A requirement to give 24 to 72 hours gives residents plenty of time to ‘prepare,’ and clean out anything that might be incriminating. But often, the poor upkeep on the outside of these houses only hints at the damage on the inside. The vast majority of people would consider these places unlivable.

Frank had a look at the inside of the neighbouring house. It’s been for sale for quite a while, though the tenants rarely let realtors or potential buyers in for a look.

“Oh dear,” he said, when asked to describe the interior. “Put it this way, I couldn’t even bring myself to go downstairs. I went with a friend of mine who buys older houses and rebuilds them, and he said you’d need to put $100,000 into it to get it going again.”

Copper wiring stripped out by ransackers has never properly been replaced. Windows are broken.

“Just debris and dirt and car parts in the middle of the living room,” Frank said. “And the actual infrastructure of the place has been destroyed.”

Yet even here, the powers of the Health and Safety Inspection Team are limited.

They can’t tell the residents to vacuum the carpets and wash the walls. If someone wants to keep a disassembled 1983 Ford Ranger engine in the middle of their living room, no one’s going to stop them.

If the smoke detectors don’t work, that’s a problem. If there are live wires poking through the walls, that’s a problem. If the roof is on the verge of collapsing or the floors look like they’re about to cave in, that’s a problem.

The inspectors, often accompanied by RCMP officers who are there to keep the peace, will do their work, then come back with a shopping list of items that need to be rectified. The Health and Safety Inspection Team works with the property owner(s) to deal with those issues.

In extreme scenarios the City has the ability to post a no-occupancy order. This is most often seen when one of these houses is involved in an RCMP ‘bust.’ If police go in and find a living room full of marijuana plants or a bedroom meth lab, one of these orders will be posted on the front door and the house will remain vacant until the property owner(s) act.

They are required to apply for a re-occupancy permit, which involves paying all the bills to get the house back up to snuff. An industrial hygienist, who doesn’t work cheap, is called in to test for air quality, and needs to provide certification.

If all conditions are met, a no-occupancy order can be lifted, and in most cases property owners cooperate.

The City has issued approximately 350 no-occupancy orders over the last decade, and only a handful haven’t been lifted.

Sometimes it takes a year or two, but eventually these houses get taken care of.

That’s a long time to wait for some residents.

On Friday, The Progress talks to more home owners who say they’re tired of waiting.

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