Renovating Winnipeg's image as 'arson city'

A new police task force and real estate developers give Winnipeg a facelift.

"Burn Me Next."

This bit of graffiti spray-painted across the vacant house at 311 Manitoba Avenue, in Winnipeg's North End, adjacent to one already torched, gave new meaning to the phrase "handyman's special."

But where many Winnipeggers saw another arson waiting to happen, Ron and Anne Hupp saw an opportunity.

They bought the house and restored it. Today they are renting it to a family of eight.

Winnipeg has received a lot of ink and air time recently as the "arson capital of Canada." But renovations like this are an early indicator that the situation is turning around. They are like the first green blades of renewal that shoot up after a prairie grass fire.

City officials are very careful not to be overly optimistic, however. Arsons are down sharply, but that may be just a reflection of the weather. "Minus 20 keeps a lot of people off the streets," says Randy Hull, the city's emergency-preparedness coordinator. "It's too early to say we're making great strides against arson. I'm curious and excited to see what April and May will bring."

Officials are also very careful not to concede that this city ever has been the arson capital of Canada. But a visitor sees a lot of plywood here, on boarded-up structures not only in the North End but on the main business streets - and in the close-in Exchange District, a veritable museum of early 20th-century commercial architecture.

Last year the city set up an arson strike force involving the police and fire departments. Neighborhoods were cleaned up to get derelict cars and other potential targets off the streets. Enhanced sports programs were offered to keep young people out of trouble during school vacations.

With over 80 arrests made since the strike force swung into action - about two-thirds of suspects 18 years old and under, and, poignantly, some too young to be charged even as juveniles - the police feel they have "cleared" about 80 percent of their arson caseload.

The arson crisis developed within a complex urban ecology. The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics reports that for 1998, the latest year available, Winnipeg's arson rate was 53 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 17 for Toronto, and 41 for Vancouver. The agency also noted that Manitoba's arson rates jumped by 63 percent in 1998, while those of other provinces remained "relatively constant."

But there is some statistical confusion. Winnipeg officials point out that they track fires differently: Here, even small blazes, in garbage cans, count as "fires." And any fire without a known cause, a lightning strike, for instance, is counted as arson.

Dale Kein, an executive with Insurance Bureau of Canada, blames over-zealous reporting in the local press for the perception of an arson wave, leading to "more people wanting to be on the front page and wanting to start their own fires."

Many in the business community see arson primarily as an economic policy problem, not a crime problem. The remedy, they say, is to drop the rent-control regime - in place in Manitoba since 1981. Over the past four years, rent increases have been capped at 1 percent annually.

Rent increases

"Everybody knows that utility bills are going up higher than that," says Karl Busch of London Property Management Ltd. of Winnipeg. With free-market rents, "you wouldn't have firebug houses and you wouldn't have wrecking-ball houses," he adds. He estimates that some $2 billion [US$1.35 billion] has simply evaporated from the tax base as landlords abandoned properties from which they can no longer profit.

According to Hull, Winnipeg has about 700 vacant houses, 95 percent of them in the city's so-called fire zone, and about 180 houses are actually derelict.

But the landlord's nightmare can be the sweat-equity renovator's dream.

Go to the Winnipeg Real Estate Board's online multiple listings site and enter $30,000 (Canadian) as your top price for a three-bedroom, two-bath house in the North End, and the computer won't laugh. It may offer you up six bedrooms and three baths on a corner lot for $28,000.

Still, Winnipeg Real Estate Board spokesman Peter Squire sees signs that the market is bottoming out. "Sales did go up in 1999 over 1998.... There have been some pretty healthy increases," although not in the very toughest areas, he adds. Another positive sign he mentions is an announcement Monday by Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit Christian housing initiative, that it will "establish a beachhead" in Winnipeg.

The Hupps, who have been buying and renovating houses for 20 years, were able to restore 311 Manitoba Avenue with a relatively small outlay of cash. The house "needed TLC," says Ron. "But it had potential. It was solid."

Family fixings

As a family, they had some built-in advantages: Anne is a painter, one son is a carpenter, and the other a plumber. Their daughter and son-in-law provided "a lot of elbow grease" too. If they had contracted the work out, they would have had to put more cash into the house than its location was worth, Ron points out.

The family had other advantages as well: memories of how the North End used to be, and a vision of how it might be again.

Ron has lived in the North End for over 40 years. He remembers the North End of his boyhood as "something like New York City" with its rich mix of immigrants. "There was a vibrant commercial area: banks, furniture stores, hardware stores, even open-air markets where farmers would bring their chickens, or their fruits and vegetables."

That commercial sector has shrunk down to a few convenience markets in what is otherwise an area of mostly single-family houses, dignified with the onion domes of some major Orthodox churches. Still, the entrepreneurial spark hasn't completely winked out. "I've seen a few stores springing up run by Filipinos - a florist shop, an auto-parts store, a deli - within the last year, " says Ron.

He declares himself untroubled by rent controls, but says, "You have to find people willing to take a chance on the neighborhood."

He says he's a believer in the "broken window" theory of controlling urban blight: "If you see a broken window, fix it. If a board is loose, you nail it tight."

The Hupps have 13 tenants in eight single-family houses plus a multiple-family building. Ron says his focus is, "What can I do to make an impact - one house at a time?"

"It's not a lucrative thing, but you can pull yourself forward and still help the neighborhood," he adds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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