By Katie Derosa, Victoria Times Colonist, October 7, 2011
A Victoria-based historian and council hopeful has bought what was once a house known for drugs and prostitution on Prior Street and is turning it into a home for him and his five-year-old daughter.
As Ben Isitt, 33, stands in the two-and-a-half storey 100-year-old home at 2547 Prior St., the bathroom is being gutted, the rooftop deck is being rebuilt and holes in the walls are patched and awaiting a fresh coat of paint.
“It’s a diamond in the rough,” Isitt said, as one of his campaign volunteers put a fresh coat of paint on a wooden railing in the yard. One room is already outfitted with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, fitting for the author and University of Victoria history fellow.
Natural light filters through the windows which, a year ago, were boarded up or covered with dusty sheets, hiding the illegal activity and seedy tenants that made neighbours fear for their children’s safety.
As of 2010, Victoria police had visited the home 206 times in eight years, including raids by tactical teams that turned up weapons and drugs.
The owner, Robert Earl Marson, was forced to sell the home under the province’s Civil Forfeiture Act.
Marson has never had a criminal conviction, but the province was able to force the sale by successfully arguing he used the home to facilitate criminal activities, including drug dealing and prostitution.
“He created a lot of problems in the neighbourhood by not supervising what was going on on his property,” Isitt said.
Marson lived in the home with his adult son and daughter, who were drug addicts, and rented out other rooms to tenants.
Marson was given a deadline to sell the home by July 4 or else the province would seize it.
Isitt put in the only offer four days before, after the house passed a building inspection by the city.
Isitt bought the house for “a song” at $381,000, about $30,000 more than the value of the land.
Marson used the money from the sale to pay off a property lien placed by Canada Revenue Agency for unpaid taxes and also had to pay $35,000 to the Office of Civil Forfeiture.
Isitt cleaned the house top to bottom (he said he only found two needles) and will put up a plaque with the family name to ensure those looking for drugs know about the new owner.
He removed 25 tonnes of scrap wood and metal from the backyard and plans to plant a vegetable garden and a grassy patch for his daughter, Aviva.
There is a tree-house-like guest room on top of the garage, accessible by a bridge from the kitchen, which Isitt is sure will attract the neighbourhood kids.
“She loves it,” he said of his daughter, who splits her time between Isitt and his ex-wife. “She’s been very tolerant of the ongoing renos. Her room will be ready in a week.”
The dark wood panelling inside the home and several additions are all Marson’s handiwork and Isitt wants to keep it that way.
“It was the character of the place that caught my interest. For all the problems here, Bob really built something special.”
While most Prior Street residents breathed a sigh of relief at knowing the house is no longer a haven for criminals, others were outraged that the government could seize private property from someone without a criminal record.
“I think we do want to be vigilant of people’s civil liberties,” Isitt said. “But the activities here placed too big a burden on the neighbourhood.”
Isitt, who twice ran for mayor unsuccessfully, plans on hosting an open house and campaign kick-off party Oct. 15 at 4 p.m.
“A big motivation is to show them [the neighbours] the work of art that Bob built,” he said.
“It was well-publicized with the police reports what was going on here. Hopefully now [Marson] can leave Prior Street with some dignity.”
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