Minister Scott Fielding’s Housing Shock

Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine shows that governments engineer or take advantage of political and economic crises to push through policies that would otherwise be very unpopular. They take advantage the idea of a “crisis” to take extreme measures that would have been widely resisted without that dramatic claim to justify them. In an earlier post, we suggested that this strategy is being used by the Pallister government through the fear-mongering coming from the board of Manitoba Hydro. We can see that this strategy uses an exaggerated risk of “massive debts” or “economic uncertainty” to coerce the public into accepting the selling of public assets and reducing public services.

Value Manitoba wonders if Manitoba’s Minister of Families is doing this same thing with public housing. It looks like he’s using the need for investment in public housing maintenance to set the narrative of a false crisis. Recently, he feigned shock at a $500 million backlog of Manitoba Housing repairs. He told the Winnipeg Sun that “We were quite surprised at the amount of deferred maintenance that was left over for us.”

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We are surprised that Minister Fielding was surprised. After all, when in opposition, the Conservatives voted against budget allocations for housing repairs. Minister Fielding might also be forgetting that the Conservative Filmon government signed a terrible federal/provincial housing agreement in the early 1990s that led to a huge increase in the province’s responsibility for housing. And later in the 1990s, the Filmon government all but entirely stopped funding social housing maintenance. Those Conservative decisions set in motion a serious decline in Manitoba-owned housing, from which we have yet to recover. (Check out this this report to learn more about how underfunding of public housing and other federal policies throughout the 1990s and beyond has led to growing housing problems and homelessness across the country).

Manitoba housing advocates have long called upon the Manitoba government to restore public housing. By 2009 the Province had identified a need to invest $1 billion in rebuilding Manitoba’s public housing infrastructure. In 2013, the NDP government launched a 3-year housing plan, which invested over $358 million on renovations and repairs by 2016, resulting in the refurbishing of close to 20,000 units. Manitoba Housing also completed a five-year plan to add 1,500 units each of social and affordable housing. It was in the process of completing a new three-year commitment to add another 500 units of each when the Pallister government took over in April 2016 and slammed on the brakes.

So partly, Fielding is correct: there is much more to do and the cost to bring our public housing stock up to par will be high. That’s what happens when you allow public assets to deteriorate — as was done throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. And this is why the Manitoba government needs to think long-term when it comes to public housing. The deficit in public housing was a result of short-term thinking that viewed housing as an expensive social cost as opposed to a positive business and economic investment that generates savings in other areas.

Under the Selinger government, we began to see some long-term thinking that set multi-year targets for investments in repairs and new supply. We also saw a strategic approach to housing that included using social enterprises that trained and hired workers with barriers to employment to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. That’s a great example of a housing expense acting as an investment by creating much needed job opportunities, pathways out of poverty, for low-income Manitobans. This strategic approach also recognized the importance of giving Manitoba Housing tenants access to supportive resources and opportunities (e.g. mental health services, literacy training, job training, education, childcare, and healthcare). These community-based services improve the wellbeing of tenants and help foster economic independence so that tenants can transition out of public housing, easing pressure on the system.

So yes, Minister Fielding, ensuring that all Manitobans have access to quality social housing that they can afford is expensive. But the payoff is immeasurable for the 35,000 households that rely on it. And it’s an excellent investment for all Manitobans, because affordable housing, transition programs supporting employment capacity, and helping people out of dire poverty with support programs are all cost-effective uses of public funds.

So, what will the Pallister government do? How will it help us become the “most improved province” for low-income households needing safe, affordable housing?

Is Fielding’s “surprise” an early warning sign that his plan to create a crisis that he then proposes can only be repaired through privatization?