Andrew Dawson is a south-end Sarnia business owner who has grown disenchanted with the appearance of some rental properties in his neighbourhood.
“It does nothing for this area. All I hear from my customers is ‘Wow, this is a rough side of town,’” said Dawson, owner of the Wired Nation computer centre at 102 Mitton St.
“It really kinda destroys your credibility when you’re trying to operate a business down here.”
Just down the street, chef Paresh Thakkar, owner of Personal Touch Eatery, echoed those concerns, saying the rundown state of a few buildings has a discouraging effect on would-be visitors.
“Some people are suggesting that I could be open later into the evenings, but it’s almost like a Jekyll and Hyde kind of area,” he said.
Homeowner Ron RealeSmith also lives nearby. It’s the owners of the buildings, not the tenants, who leave him frustrated, he said.
“We’ve got absentee landlords that don’t live in this city. And then they hire these companies to manage their properties, and they don’t care. So now you’ve got neighbourhoods that are depreciating in value,” he said.
Urban blight is defined by decay of residential and commercial spaces left unoccupied, sometimes for years. Rental properties allowed to become blighted in otherwise safe and quiet neighbourhoods often become associated with crime and substance abuse.
“I did a Freedom of Information (search) on all of the 911 calls over the last three years to eight properties - 178 calls for service. They’re all within a kilometer of each other,” said RealeSmith, who has launched a website containing information about individual properties and their owners.
“So I’m just scratching the surface.”
Sarnia’s manager of building and bylaw enforcement, Alan Shaw, said it’s a complex issue that has many causes but no clear solution.
“The value of our properties is so low that people can pick up properties, and sit on them without having any tangible resources or any kind of revenue coming back, which is problematic.”
Shaw said Sarnia has property maintenance and standards bylaws, but nothing that directly addresses absentee landlords. Often the “repeat offenders” know how to play the game, he said.
“If people know how to work the system, they can delay and they can manipulate.”
An owner or manager can make minor repairs to a property, such as fixing a broken window, to satisfy the letter of a bylaw infraction. But the house will still look blighted, and if taken to court by the city they can invoke lengthy appeals.
“I have court cases that seem pretty open and shut to me, that have been going on in the courts for three or four years,” he said.
There are also provincial statutes that property owners must abide by, but ultimately economics play a key role, Shaw said.
“This is one of those issues that, as we see social times become harder, we see more incidents of property standards and lot maintenance issues,” he said.