HOME, Decrepit HOME
Welch, Mary Agnes, Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg faces a dearth of clean, safe housing for those less fortunate
Joe, a retired house painter, is wedged into a corner between the window and his television by a roomful of trash -- food containers, dirty clothes, mangy chairs, saggy boxes and bags.
"I'm living in a dump," said the 75-year-old, who still has an accent from his native Hungary. "I can't find anything better."
Joe has been living in the Pritchard Avenue rooming house with at least three other men for more than two years. He has a bath once a week in the grimy communal washroom, fries an egg or two on his hotplate and, stooped and slow-moving, clambers over his recliner to get into his debris-filled bedroom. He pays $350 a month.
Asked whether he could clean up a little, he said, "What for?"
"It's going to be the same tomorrow or next week, so forget it."
The dearth of clean, safe housing for the poor is arguably Winnipeg's most serious and entrenched social problem; one that hasn't improved much despite a decade and millions spent on modest, small-scale affordable-housing projects. In interviews with half a dozen inner-city housing experts, all agree Winnipeg's housing shortage stymies many other attempts to lift people out of poverty.
In the last decade, millions have been spent through a confusing bevy of tri-level government grants to build or renovate a duplex here or a small apartment block there. Those added up to more than 8,000 units, and the province is now more than halfway finished a commitment to build 1,500 more affordable units before 2014.
But all that hasn't made much of a dent in the vacancy rate, which still hovers below one per cent for a one-bedroom suite and is typically among the lowest of any Canadian city. The private sector is building few apartments and even fewer affordable ones, and rents are going up. The average two-bedroom apartment is nearly $60 more expensive this summer than it was last summer, and roughly 20,000 units win an exemption from rent control every year.
Every time politicians cut a ribbon on a new affordable triplex, a new batch of units is taken off the market thanks to the condoization craze, which has turned more than 2,200 apartments into condos in the last five years. Or, what was once an affordable, if slummy, unit undergoes renovation, allowing landlords to jack up rents beyond rent control and beyond what the poor can pay. Meanwhile, there's simply more demand for rentals, especially the scarce two- or three-bedroom units, because of the province's aggressive immigration strategy.
"If we weren't making those investments, the situation would be much worse," said Manitoba Housing Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross of the millions spent on new rentals and on renovating the province's inventory of public housing. "I do accept the fact that we have a lot more work to do."
In the North End especially, the rentals exist mostly in decaying 100-year-old houses, many of which are owned by indifferent, absentee landlords.
Just as often, say housing experts, they're owned by well-meaning people hampered by tenants on social assistance or disability, whose housing allowance is stuck as low as $285 a month, including utilities. People with disabilities get a little more, but the rate hasn't changed much in two decades. "Where does that leave you?" wondered Dale Harik, housing program supervisor at the North End Community Renewal Corp.
It leaves many robbing their food budgets to pay for rent, and it condemns many to rooming houses such as the one on Pritchard Avenue.
Above Joe, on the third floor, another tenant named Stan was trying to spruce up his sweltering apartment with a little paint, despite peeling drywall, crumbling plaster and rooms jammed with debris. …