Sector: Social & Human Services
Projecting a brighter future in McCauley
Anna Bubel has at least ten good reasons to feel positive about the future of her neighbourhood. As a long-time resident of Edmonton’s McCauley community, she’s well aware of what makes the area such a hidden gem, like its vibrant cafes and bakeries, open green spaces and multicultural makeup. But she’s also familiar with many of the challenges that exist there—like poverty, addiction and abandoned or neglected properties.
“I’ve been in McCauley for close to 30 years now. Of course I love it here and I’ve made it my home,” she says. “At the same time, there can also be this kind of low-level PTSD when you’re exposed to the problems that you face here, again and again.”
For the past 25 years, Bubel has been a part of various committees and initiatives looking to tackle the issue of problem properties in McCauley. In that time, she’s heard first-hand accounts from tired neighbours, desperate to see change, and from tenants in the properties themselves, who’ve shared horror stories ranging from living with no running water to landlords renting out spaces like a bathtub or furnace room to sleep in.
“This is a problem that’s intimately intertwined with drug addiction and homelessness, because many of the absentee landlords are drug dealers, and often people who also have addictions issues end up using these buildings to look for shelter,” she says. “It’s often vulnerable people being taken advantage of. And we’re really struggling with absentee landlords who really have no regard for their tenants.”
So in 2020, when she was invited to work with the Edmonton Community Development Company on Project 10, an innovative initiative working to transform derelict properties into affordable, family-friendly homes, Bubel jumped at the opportunity. ECDC had developed a list of more than 200 problem properties in the core neighbourhoods of McCauley and Alberta Avenue. Through Project 10, they were ready to begin tackling the problem directly through the purchase and redevelopment of ten initial properties.
“When we started to collect data on the McCauley and Alberta Avenue area, we saw some patterns. We started wondering what if we could make some changes,” says Karen Gingras, executive director of ECDC.
“This project is a hugely important response to one of the most significant problems we have to community health and safety,” adds Bubel. “It’s part of a much bigger issue of exploitation – homelessness, addiction, crime. These problem properties are a confluence of all these factors. By addressing them directly, demolishing them and starting something new, we’re really looking to save lives.”
Through Project 10, ECDC will purchase, demolish, and redevelop ten properties across the Alberta Avenue and McCauley districts. Each will then be turned into condos or duplexes, with the goal of encouraging more families to move into the area. And while ten might seem like just a drop in the bucket when there are hundreds of other derelict properties on record, it’s an important start to what Bubel and Gingras hope will grow into a much larger trend.
“Project 10 is really just the proof of concept for us. I’d love to take it to the next level, and get some private investors to make this even bigger. There are a couple of blocks with derelict properties where I would just love to go to the owners and say, ‘Have we got a deal for you,’” says Gingras.
“There’s a reason these houses have not been acquired and redeveloped already. The effort and the predevelopment expense is so significant that the math just doesn’t work,” adds Bubel. “But our deep hope is that project ten is the beginning of project 40. Or more. We would just need significantly deeper pockets and larger working capital to figure out how to offset these extraordinary predevelopment costs.”
As a proof of concept, Project 10 is well underway. In September 2020, the first two properties—homes that had formerly housed meth labs—were purchased. The properties were carefully emptied and remediated in preparation for demolition, including a costly and time-consuming asbestos abatement process. Then, after months of work, the houses razed, all before work could begin on building anew. It’s a slow and expensive process—but as Gingras notes, the final payoff will be well worth it for the McCauley community in the end.
“We’ve learned a lot about predevelopment issues and challenges so far. These properties have had issues with biowaste, drugs, syringes—and all of these things are costly to deal with. And this provides an understanding as to why developers choose other neighbourhoods to build in: they can make more money, more easily in other areas,” she says. “But one thing I don’t think developers don’t understand is the commitment of the residents to their neighbourhood here. There’s a powerful sense of neighbourliness and community in McCauley, that you don’t get just everywhere else.”
SEF works as a financing partner to ECDC on several of its projects, including Project 10.