Manitoba Housing units left vacant while homelessness soars

CBC recently published two stories about two different vacant buildings owned by Manitoba Housing that once housed some of our province’s most vulnerable citizens. These vacant buildings could house around 400 people. But one building, located on downtown’s Smith Street, has been sitting vacant for almost a year now, and the other for two years. The Province has not confirmed if any other buildings are currently unoccupied.

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This news is alarming once you learn that 7,500 new rental housing units are needed just to house Winnipeg’s homeless population (see page 48 of The Plan to End Homelessness in Winnipeg). Further, the Pallister government has yet to make any commitment around building new social housing.

If the Province is not going to build any new housing, it should at least make use of its existing assets. The 373 bachelor units in the Smith property could be meeting the needs of one of the most under-served groups – single individuals tend to wait the longest for public housing as families are given first priority.

The Province says that both buildings require significant repairs. But one building was housing refugees as recently as nine months ago and the other property has already received $4.3M dollars in repairs. So it’s not clear what further work needs to be done to make the buildings habitable. Whatever it amounts to, the Province should take advantage of the current opportunity to leverage the federal dollars that are available for repairing and restoring social housing.

For now, the required investments are on hold. According to the CBC reports, the Pallister government says it is undergoing a provincial review of Manitoba Housing and that it is working on a ‘modernized provincial housing plan.’

So what can we expect to see in this new plan? Time will tell. Budget 2017 signaled that the Pallister government will have a much smaller capital program this year – meaning it is expected to invest fewer resources in building new and repairing existing Manitoba Housing units.

The Pallister government also reduced its transfer to Manitoba Housing by $20M. How will the corporation make up this difference? Will it sell its assets? Or raise rents for people who are in core housing need? Neither option is appealing.

The Province has already transferred its management responsibilities for 66 publicly-owned housing units in Winkler to a community-based non-profit, so we wouldn’t be surprised if the next step transferred ownership of the asset from Manitoba Housing to the non-profit. A recent audit of BC’s asset transfer program highlights how the program has put the long-term sustainability of affordable housing in BC at risk, and should act as a warning to the Pallister government.

So it sounds like the future of the two vacant Manitoba Housing units will remain unknown until the Province completes its review of Manitoba Housing. Meanwhile, thousands of Manitobans including women escaping domestic violence, youth exiting out of the care of Child and Family Services, and newly arrived refugees or asylum seekers will continue to be threatened with homelessness.