By Shauna McKinnon
Since learning on July 26, 2022 that their home would soon be listed on the private market, the residents at Lions Place have been fighting hard to keep their home out of for-profit hands. This is not a battle that they should have to fight in their senior years. Their needing to do so raises several questions about an obvious gap in our social safety net and the responsibility and accountability of non-profit housing providers who have been supported by tax dollars to address this need.
Since Lions residents began to speak publicly about their fears, Lions Housing Centres has made clear that it fully intends to proceed with the sale of the 287-unit housing complex that has provided a home for low-moderate income seniors since 1982. In fact, it seems to be digging in its heels – speeding up the process rather than agreeing to Provincial and Federal requests to slow the process down. Lions Place Residents Council Seniors Action Committee was surprised to learn that despite their calls to give them time to work with community partners to find a non- profit purchaser, Lions Housing announced an October 14 closing date for offers. Residents wondered – what’s the rush? If committed to seniors housing as it says it is, why would Lions not give the community time to find a non-profit solution?
That deadline has now passed, and Lions residents anxiously wait to learn their fate. They are worried not only about being displaced due to rising rents that are sure to result from privatization, but also the loss of the community they have built through the many volunteer, resident-led programs they have on site.
Although the fate of Lions Place is not yet known, the speed at which this story is playing out demonstrates a need for immediate government intervention.
Although the Province has expressed its empathy for the seniors at Lions, it has yet to take concrete action. As the level of government directly responsible for housing, it must act immediately to ensure that the building and its 287 apartments is not sold to the highest bidder and permanently lost to the non-profit sector.
There are a few things that the Province can and must do immediately to stop the privatization of this important seniors housing community.
1. The Province of Manitoba should strongly encourage Lions to extend its deadline for offers. It is unconscionable that it is rushing this through. Admittedly, there is nothing obliging them to comply, but Lions Housing has received millions of dollars in public money over the past 40 years and the organization should take some responsibility to ensure that this housing remains in non-profit hands and affordable to low-income tenants. As a non-profit organization supposedly committed to providing housing for vulnerable people, including seniors, working with the government to ensure the non-profit ownership of this property is quite simply the right thing to do.
2. If a non-profit proponent cannot be immediately found, the Manitoba government should work with the federal government to purchase Lions Place. This approach aligns with recent calls for a reconfiguration of the National Housing Strategy to move funds from its multi-billion dollar Rental Construction Financing Initiative (RCFI), to a rental acquisition program. This change has been recommended by housing experts because the RCFI has not created the much-needed affordable rental housing and has been found to be out of line with the primary objectives of the National Housing Strategy. The development of the National Housing Strategy’s Rapid Housing Initiative showed us that urgent housing needs can be met when there is the political will to do so. This is an example of a dire situation that requires bold political will.
3. The Lions Place situation demonstrates the importance of government legislation to protect the supply of non-profit housing. Quebec recently adopted a law that prevents the sale of any housing building constructed or bought for community housing purposes with public funds unless they have the explicit approval of the Minister in charge. Manitoba should immediately enact a similar law. Montreal’s city council recently unanimously adopted a motion calling on the Quebec government to impose a one-year moratorium on converting seniors’ residences into apartment buildings. Denmark recently established a law to disallow increases in rent until 5-years after purchase to ensure the protection of renters. These are things that governments can do immediately to curtail the loss of affordable rental housing supply.
What happens with Lions Place should concern all Manitobans. The privatization of the much-loved seniors apartment complex will be detrimental to current residents as well as those in need of affordable housing in the future. The case of Lions Place is just one example of what can happen if publicly supported housing is not sufficiently regulated and protected. Having received millions of dollars in public funding for many years, it is troubling that Lions Housing sees fit to sell Lions Place to the highest bidder with seemingly little concern for the impact on the people who live there. Worse yet, it is troubling that the Manitoba government has yet to show leadership by doing what is necessary to stop the sale.
Shauna MacKinnon is professor at the University of Winnipeg, Urban and Inner-City Studies, a
long time-member of the Manitoba Right to Housing Coalition and a research associate with the
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba.