Inner City Diary
< ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------->
When building codes become building barriers
April 21, 2002
Did you ever drive through the West End and wonder why there are so many boarded and derelict homes?

Several years ago, our church started decided to help by renovating homes in the neighbourhood.

The plan was pretty basic. We would get older, derelict homes and renovate them in such a way that they could be sold to people who wanted to live downtown. Money from the sale of homes would help us fix up more homes. After awhile, we also got involved in fixing up a few rental properties.

I figure it’s a good thing. But the reality is anything but straightforward.

We often find ourselves banging heads with a multitude of inspectors and plan examiners about things that don’t even make sense to me.

Sometimes when we get into a building, we see structural walls built with 2 by 2 inch lumber. If we would leave those leaning towers of toothpicks alone, we’d be okay with inspectors.

But if we improve it with 2 by 4 lumber, 2 by 10 beams and serious posts, city plan examiners bust our chops. Civil engineer techs by training, they won’t perform standard calculations to check if the changes are proper. They demand that we pay for another engineer to give their stamp of approval on every detail of our improvements. You couldn’t blame us for figuring it’s cheaper to leave it alone.

Part of me starts to wonder why we need plan examiners to slow down the process. Why not have clerks who simply receive the stamped drawings of real engineers?

Some city inspectors, however, who don’t even have an engineer’s stamp can dictate the demolition of buildings because they’re “unsafe.” But they leave other buildings alone.

And that’s not all…

“If you touch those stairs to try and fix them, you’ll have to replace them to meet today’s codes.” In a hundred year old house, that could mean changing not only the design of the stairs but the actual structure of the house. So rather than do something we can’t afford, we should leave the damaged stairs alone?

“You’re not allowed to have two kitchens in a boarding house, even if it reduces tensions and pressures on tenants.” Different departments have different definitions, rules and procedures. Sometimes they have no constructive way of dealing with new models of housing.

We have to go through a special process for changing an 8 bed rooming house back to a single-family dwelling. Lots of questions from planners and inspectors. I grin and bear it.

Meanwhile, slum landlords down the street get to subdivide single apartments into rentable rooms which have to share a single kitchen, shower and toilet. Sounds like a rooming house? No! Those rules don’t apply because it’s an apartment block.

Fire inspectors make regular visits to our properties, taking note of every detail that needs attention. No problem with that. I want to have safe buildings. But I start wondering when they seem to spend too much time on buildings which meet the code on 99% of issues and neglect other buildings.

There are other buildings which haven’t been inspected for five or six years. Buildings with suite doors not attached or latched. Fire extinguishers are missing, windows don’t open, and inferior wiring is plainly obvious. It starts to feel like they’re cherry-picking certain folks while ignoring others.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Harry, take a pill and calm down.” But this nonsense has really hurt some people. 

People start hiding from inspectors. They lie to plan examiners. People are afraid of unreasonable building codes and bylaws. They’re afraid of inconsistent and sometimes contradictory decisions of plan examiners and building inspectors.

Rather than dealing with a scary and costly bureaucracy, they avoid it. Some people plan badly and their homes suffer. Others hire unqualified or unscrupulous contractors who don’t mind renovating without building permits. Then these poor folk are really in trouble when something goes wrong.

The endless arguments have taken their toll on our efforts to fix up the neighbourhood. I try to remember that usually my grief is not with inspectors or plan examiners, but with the goofy system which prevents creative solutions or independent judgment.

A crumbling inner city is an ugly sight. But it’s no surprise when lots of these homes are approaching their 100th birthday. They need help desperately.

When the bureaucracy works against us, the crumbling will continue and the helpers will be chased away. Some of us are starting to work to improve both the codes and the way they’re applied to these old buildings.

The rules are a means to an end – safer buildings in safer communities. When they become an impediment to those goals, it’s time to make some changes.

I don’t enjoy breaking rules. I’d rather work at changing them.
Copyright 2002
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Return to Index
New Life Ministries
West End CIA
Contact info:
New Life Ministries
514 Maryland Street
Winnipeg, Mb R3G 1M5
(204) 775-4929