Stratford cracking down on vacant property after squatters take over house

The Town of Stratford is reminding people who own vacant buildings to secure them — and warning folks not to trespass on property which isn’t theirs.

According to the document package for Wednesday night’s council meeting, RCMP got a call in March about a person approaching a vacant property on Horton Drive.

Officers found four people inside “who appeared to have moved in,” Coun said. Jody Jackson, chair of safety services for the town. He told the RCMP told them to leave and not return.

“We’ve had some concerns over the last couple years since [post-tropical storm] Fiona around the state of the property — you know, trees on the roof and just generally unoccupied. So we always feared that there may be some chance for folks to move in there,” he said.

The property, at 9 Horton Drive, sits on the waterfront on the Stratford side of the Hillsborough Bridge.

As well as people living inside the building, police found stolen items during the March call that were returned to the rightful owners, according to Wednesday night’s council package.

Stratford councilor Jody Jackson.

Stratford councilor Jody Jackson says people who own unoccupied houses should ask someone to keep an eye on them, visiting to check for signs of damage. (Tony Davis/CBC)

Jackson called it “not an ideal situation for us, or for them from a safety standpoint.”

After the town asked the owners to clean up and secure the house, Jackson said there has been some progress.

“Some of the trees that were on the roof and in the driveway have been cleaned up. I know it was a concern for our fire company that they couldn’t get into the structure should there be a fire.”

Numbered company owns house

Officials with the province said the property is owned by a numbered company, and that company dissolved in October 2023. The town has contacted the owners and believes they will secure the property by a deadline of May 18.

CBC News did try to contact a person attached to the company, but did not hear back.

Town staff and RCMP are still monitoring the area around the empty home, as well as the nearby park where Jackson said people have set up tents to camp outside in the past.

“We have to understand the situation these folks are in and we all could be in those positions,” Jackson said. “We have to be empathetic and we have to try to help where we can.”

Use ‘your eyes and ears’

Cpl. Gavin Moore, the RCMP’s spokesperson on the Island, said there are many vacant buildings across the Island that can attract unwanted attention. I have cited two abandoned houses that were recently set on fire in Prince County.

“If you have a building, structure, anything like this in your community, it’s your eyes and ears that can help to make a community safer by keeping an eye on it and reporting to police if you do see anything out of the ordinary,” he said.

Cpl. Gavin Moore of the RCMP saysCpl. Gavin Moore of the RCMP says
Cpl. Gavin Moore of the RCMP says

Cpl. Gavin Moore of the RCMP notes that two vacant homes in Prince County were recently set on fire. Once someone breaks into a house that has been sitting empty, he says damage can escalate quickly. (Tony Davis/CBC)

Often these situations escalate quickly, he said. Someone kicks in a door or smashes a window, and more people hear it’s no longer secured.

“What the escalations sometimes look like is further destruction to the property,” Moore said.

“These properties do have owners, they all have a unique [story] behind them, and perhaps the owners of them are not in a position to be able to maintain them to a standard of other properties around them.

Once they are broken into and further damages occur, things just spiral from there. — Cpl. Gavin Moore

“Nevertheless, these are still [holding] a value to people and once they are broken into and further damages occur, things just spiral from there.”

Even if a property has been vacant for a long time, it’s still an offense to trespass onto private land and cause damage, Moore said. He urged anyone seeing campfire smoke or any other potentially dangerous activity at an abandoned property to call the RCMP.

Summerside issues as well

Similar situations have cropped up in Summerside, said JP Desrosiers, that city’s deputy chief administrative officer.

“We have had issues in the past that have come on our radar as a result of concerns from nearby residents,” Desrosiers said.

While pointing out that housing is a provincial responsibility, JP Desrosiers says Summerside city staff are ready to provide supports for a 24-hour low-barrier shelter if one is established.While pointing out that housing is a provincial responsibility, JP Desrosiers says Summerside city staff are ready to provide supports for a 24-hour low-barrier shelter if one is established.
While pointing out that housing is a provincial responsibility, JP Desrosiers says Summerside city staff are ready to provide supports for a 24-hour low-barrier shelter if one is established.

Summerside deputy CAO JP Desrosiers says he wouldn’t be surprised if the housing crisis led to more people eyeing unoccupied buildings as a source of shelter. (Tony Davis/CBC)

The abandonment of homes in residential areas has caused problems ranging from unsightly-property complaints to reports of people living there without authorization, he said.

“Our authorities are relatively limited… When there may be squatters on properties that are owned by an individual who may not live in the province, may not live in the country, we may not be able to reach this person,” Desrosiers said .

Sometimes people who can’t afford to keep paying the mortgage walk away and banks end up owning houses, which adds a layer of difficulty in getting sites cleaned up or secured, he said.

“The bank’s lawyers subsequently deal with these issues. In some cases there are banks who own properties and their lawyers are in the US or… in Toronto, so it becomes more difficult to locate the issues and bring it to the attention of the appropriate people …

“In the meantime, the challenge is that nearby residents deal with the fallout of those challenges.”

Ties to lack of affordable housing?

Summerside has no current issues with people squatting in vacant buildings that he is aware of, Desrosiers said.

But given the skyrocketing cost of housing on PEI in the last several years, he wouldn’t be surprised to see ripple effects.

Have someone go take a look. Make sure it is secure. Make sure there are no safety hazards. — Coun. Jody Jackson

“There remains a handful of individuals who were married, I guess, to some degree, who are now unhoused,” Desrosiers said.

“We are trying to be as compassionate as we can, but also dealing with nearby residents who have concerns about some of the issues going on around the property.”

Meanwhile, back in Stratford, Coun. Jody Jackson has some tips for people who may need to leave a property vacant.

“If it has to be that way, have someone go take a look. Make sure it is secure. Make sure there are no safety hazards.”

 
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