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Abandoned Shaughnessy: how empty mansions are changing Vancouver's toniest neighbourhood

As some houses sit empty for years, neighbours say they're bearing the brunt of increased property crime.

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Barbara Cullen was taking a shower one Saturday morning in her Shaughnessy home when she heard what she first thought was construction noise from next door.

“I heard some running and by the time I dried off, grabbed my housecoat, he was gone,” said Cullen, 80, of the August incident.

“I was really shaking, because I was on my own and my bathroom door wasn’t locked. He went right past that."

Police apprehended the thief, who had stolen several purses from Cullen, several days later. But she was so unnerved by the brazen daytime break-in that she asked a friend to stay with her for several weeks.

Shaughnessy residents are now questioning whether the empty houses that have become common in their neighbourhood are contributing to an increase in break-ins. Joanne Lewis, a neighbour of Cullen’s, has rented a home in the neighbourhood for two years and was surprised to notice just how many homes sit empty — some for years.

There have been a number of break-ins in the neighbourhood since Lewis moved in. A fire at a $14 million house in the historic First Shaughnessy area on Oct. 22 has only heightened Lewis’ fears: police have called the fire "suspicious".

“It needs to be monitored,” she said of the empty homes. “Because the people who are remaining have to put up with this crap.”

A fire gutted this vacant $14 million mansion built in 1913 on Oct. 22. Police believe the fire was set deliberately.

Jen St. Denis/Metro

A fire gutted this vacant $14 million mansion built in 1913 on Oct. 22. Police believe the fire was set deliberately.

To illustrate just how abandoned these properties are, Lewis pointed out one house — an elegant six-bedroom home built in 1937 — where she saw a man living in a tent on the lawn for months. She showed Metro another house across the street where she has noticed people “disappearing” into the backyard of the large property.

In the alley on the same block, the garage of a house boarded up in preparation for demolition has been wrenched open and garbage is strewn about.

Vancouver police statistics show that between 2013 and 2014, break-and-enters spiked in Vancouver’s Westside neighbourhoods, and have remained at elevated levels in many of the neighbourhoods. Shaughnessy, one of Vancouver’s most affluent neighbourhoods, led the trend with a 128 per cent increase. 

Westside neighbourhoods (Dunbar, Point Grey, Arbutus Ridge, Shaughnessy, South Cambie, Kerrisdale, Oakridge) and Killarney saw an over 30 per cent increase in break and enters between 2013 and 2014. In the same time period, break and enters increased by 20 per cent in West End and Downtown, by 21 per cent in Strathcona and by 10 per cent in Renfrew Collingwood.

Jason Doucette, a media liaison officer with the Vancouver Police Department, said Shaughnessy is a “target-rich” area: many of the homes are owned by wealthy people who have valuable items stored inside. Unoccupied homes are also a factor.

Sometimes, people are squatting in houses or garages and then committing break-ins, Doucette said, a situation not unique to Shaughnessy. But he warned against connecting homelessness with a “significant amount” of criminal activity.

Doucette urged residents to report all incidents to police, but Lewis believes that with fewer eyes on the street, things are getting missed.

There’s an assumption in Lewis’ neighbourhood that the empty homes are owned by absentee foreign buyers. As shown in a 2015 analysis by Vancouver urban planner Andy Yan, the pattern of non-anglicized Chinese names of owners with non-earning occupations like “homemaker” and “student” is common in Westside Vancouver neighbourhoods, where houses are now valued in multi-millions. The two empty houses Lewis pointed out to Metro also fit that pattern, according to land titles: one is owned by a student, the other, by a housewife.

Between 2001 and 2016, Westside neighbourhoods lost 2,100 people, according to the 2016 Census. Public school enrolment has also declined. When Yan looked at voter participation in the 2014 municipal election, the trend continued: Westside neighbourhoods are empty spaces on the map.

Population change between 2001 and 2016, according to Statistics Canada census data.

City of Vancouver

Population change between 2001 and 2016, according to Statistics Canada census data.

Metro Vancouver five-year student enrolment change, 2011/12 -2016/17 school years. Blue dots more than 25 per cent decrease; light blue dots between 10 to 25 per cent decrease; purple dots between 10 per cent decrease to 10 per cent increase; pink dots between 10 to 25 per cent increase; red dots more than 25 per cent increase. White dots inside coloured dots represent annexes.

Andy Yan, Community Data Science at SFU's City Program

Metro Vancouver five-year student enrolment change, 2011/12 -2016/17 school years. Blue dots more than 25 per cent decrease; light blue dots between 10 to 25 per cent decrease; purple dots between 10 per cent decrease to 10 per cent increase; pink dots between 10 to 25 per cent increase; red dots more than 25 per cent increase. White dots inside coloured dots represent annexes.

Vancouver’s empty home tax may be turning this trend around: starting this year, homeowners who leave homes empty for more than six months must pay one per cent of the home’s assessed value to the city.

Andy Yan, Community Data Science at SFU's City Program

Lewis has noticed some neighbours returning. And when she knocks on the door of one of the empty houses, there’s a light on inside and the man who answers the door says he and his family just moved in (it turns out to be James Tansey, a business professor at the University of British Columbia.)

He confirms the six-bedroom, $8.2 million house has been empty for two years. He believes the empty homes tax is the reason the owner is renting it out now, for $4,200 a month.

Lewis says young families, once very rare in the neighbourhood, are becoming a little more common. Inevitably, they’re renters.

vancouver@metronews.ca

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