Before it was consumed by flames last week, the house at 305 Alexander St. in downtown Whitehorse was known as a place to squat.
“Because the place wasn’t secure people had been in there doing whatever they do in abandoned buildings in the city,” said John Hadvick, the manager of Oscar’s Electric across the street.
When Hadvick saw smoke billowing out of the windows of the house, he called 911 and told the operator there was a good chance somebody was in there.
He wasn’t the only one worried about that possibility.
Before the fire department arrived, Hadvick saw a man brave the billowing smoke and run into the building.
“Obviously he was concerned about friends or a friend who could be in there,” said Hadvick. “He just walked through the gate and he just pushed on the front door like he lived there.”
But he wasn’t in there for long.
“He went in and yelled and screamed and then he came flying back out,” said Hadvick. “He was basically gasping for air because that smoke was pretty thick.
“It was pretty crazy.”
No one was injured in the fire and no other buildings were damaged.
The investigation into the cause of the blaze is ongoing, but Whitehorse RCMP Sgt. Don Rogers said that the fire was suspicious.
“Whether it was intentional or not is a different story,” he said. “Obviously, it was an independent source of ignition because there’s no power to the building or any services to the building.”
While no one seems to have seen the fire start, several neighbours confirmed the house, along with the other boarded up buildings on either side of it, were being used as places to squat by the homeless.
“I can’t say if there were people living there or not, without having been in there, but it certainly was a building that was believed to be used as a place to get shelter,” said Rogers.
While there weren’t any official complaints about people occupying that house, the police did recently talk to the owners of the building about that concern.
Under a city bylaw, buildings that are unoccupied are supposed to be boarded up or secured so that people can’t easily break in.
But that’s easier said than done, said Craig Tuton, whose wife, Geri, co-owns the house with Fae and Jean Jamieson. The trio own all seven buildings on that block. Several others are unoccupied.
“Even when they’re boarded up, it’s tough,” said Tuton.
Before it went up in flames, the Alexander Street house was slated for demolition, said Tuton. But when asbestos was discovered in it, the demolition was put on hold.
“We already have a demolition permit, we were just waiting,” he said. “There was some asbestos inside the building and as soon as that was removed then she was coming down.”
They also have plans to tear down the unoccupied buildings they own on either side of 305 Alexander, but they’re also full of asbestos.
“It’s going to come down and there’s always options about redeveloping or selling or whatever,” said Tuton. “But those decisions haven’t been made yet.”
They aren’t the only ones with derelict properties.
Last year, as part of the planning for the downtown, the city identified more than 20 “underutilized properties” in the downtown area south of Black Street.
With the severe housing shortage facing the city, those empty properties are seen as a problem.
The city has been considering carrot-and-stick options to spur development of some of them.
Last year, it offered property owners a carrot in the form of a development-incentives policy that reimburses property owners a portion of their taxes if they choose to build rental suites.
One of the stick options that has been looked at is increasing taxes on properties that the city deems “underutilized.”
The city’s planning department is also working on a zoning bylaw rewrite that could relax height restrictions in the downtown and hopefully provide more certainty for developers and help to get things moving.
The few businesses on Alexander Street are hopeful that after the fire something better will rise out of the ashes.
But with the Salvation Army at one end of the neighbourhood and a liquor store on the other, Hadvick doesn’t think that a new building will change things all that much.
But that’s OK, he said.
If it wasn’t his neighbourhood it would just be someone else’s.
“There’s a lot of somewhat questionable people that walk up and down our ally, but in all honesty we have never been vandalized,” said Hadvick. “All and all, they’re good people, they’re just down and out and don’t have a place to go.
“Everybody needs a hand sometimes. Maybe their house got burned down and that’s why they’re living on the street.”
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