03/10/2015 11:24 EDT | Updated 05/10/2015 05:59 EDT

Richmond plans crackdown on vacant homes that pose safety risks

Officials in Richmond, B.C., could soon have the power to fine owners of vacant or abandoned buildings in the event of a fire or emergency, and even knock down buildings that are a deemed by the city to be a public safety risk.

According to Mayor Malcom Brodie, there are too many empty homes falling into disrepair when the owners, who might be investors or developers, wait for the right time to sell or redevelop.

"Most often they'll cut off the services — no heat, no electricity, no running water, that kind of thing, and so the house just sits," said Brodie.

The vacant homes then become safety risks, because of squatting, vandalism or other factors, and if police or fire crews are called out to deal with an incident, it can cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Brodie said that's why the city wants to beef up bylaws by expanding the definition of a vacant property and giving city staff the power to charge owners of vacant properties if firefighters, police or city workers have to deal with an emergency, and to demolish the building if it's deemed a public safety risk.

Safety before profits

Brodie said dealing with abandoned homes is not just about saving money.

"The safety issues, the unsightly issues are, to my mind, far more important," he said.

"Wouldn't it be great if we could get some more people into those homes, get them to be used for a useful purpose, even if it's just for six months or a year? That's still more than you had before, and it gets someone off the street and into some kind of an establishment."

Fire Chief John McGowan said despite the proposed changes, the number of vacant homes in Richmond has actually gone down in recent years.

"In 2013, we had about 130 properties. Since then, it's dropped down to about 30, which is a tremendous decrease," said McGowan.