The Manitoba government’s Homeless Strategy’s goals are worryingly modest when compared to what past governments have done

By Doug Smith

The Manitoba government’s recently released Homelessness Strategy amounts to a belated recognition that to relieve the shortage of affordable housing that blunts and blights the lives of thousands of people in this province government might actually have to build some housing. One has to balance the province’s commitment to build 300 units of housing and fund an additional 400 with a recognition of the following facts: since taking office the government had eliminated a tax credit for the construction of rental properties, sought to sell off government-owned housing, and so badly mismanaged the housing that it owned that there are over 1,000 vacant units of public housing.

Still, a commitment to building new housing is to be applauded. But it also needs to be put into perspective: earlier governments in Manitoba had far more robust records when it comes to the construction of affordable housing. 

Nearly two-thousand units of low-cost housing were built by the federal government’s Wartime Housing Corporation in the City of Winnipeg between 1945 and 1947. The land was donated by the city—the provincial government declined to provide any funding. In addition, wartime housing was built in the surrounding municipalities, including East Kildonan, Fort Garry, St. Boniface, St. James, and Transcona. 

The houses were leased to returned military personnel or their dependents, cost approximately $3,000 to build, and were rented for between $22 and $30 a month at a time when the private market was renting comparable housing for $40 a month or more. 

Every expansion of the number of Wartime Housing homes in Winnipeg was carried out in the face of opposition of the local property development industry. The housing industry sought to limit competition from wartime housing by insisting that these buildings be constructed without basements or furnaces. The private sector hoped that wartime houses would be torn down after the war. 

Supporters of public housing hoped that the government would use them as the basis for large-scale public housing development. Instead, a business-oriented federal government chose to sell the houses of their tenants, who in turn, dug basements, put in furnaces, and continued to use the houses for decades. Most are still standing.

In 1949 the federal government committed itself to providing loans that would cover 75 per cent of the cost of building public housing if the provincial governments agreed to pick up the remaining 25 per cent. For over a decade, the Manitoba government did nothing. It was not until the 1960s that two housing projects, Lord Selkirk Park and Burrows-Keewatin (now referred to as Gilbert Park) were built. By 1969, the city of Hamilton had more public housing than the entire province of Manitoba. 

The New Democratic Party’s surprise victory in the June 1969 Manitoba provincial election marked a historic turning point in the history of public housing in Manitoba. The Schreyer government did away with a requirement that municipalities come up with 12.5 per cent of the needed funding and it stopped asking municipalities to cover any portion of capital and operating costs. In 1970, the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation committed itself to building between 900 and 1,000 units of public housing in the coming year, almost double what had been built in the previous decade. The following year, 2,409 units of public housing were put into construction: these included seniors and family housing. Public housing was built in Selkirk, Carman, Brandon, Morris, The Pas, Flin Flon, Winkler, Killarney, and Swan River, as well as in Winnipeg. The scale of increase in the investment in construction is staggering: from $3,273 in 1969 to $31,499,744 in 1972. Several of the projects were innovative: 1010 Sinclair was the first public housing project for people living in wheelchairs, while the Kiwanis Centre for the Deaf was also a new step in housing for people with disabilities.

The funds to pay for this expansion came from both the federal and the provincial governments. Federal funding had been available since 1949, but it took an activist provincial government to enable the construction of public housing. 

Those who believe that the private sector—or the non-profit sector on its own—can provide affordable housing for all are captives of their own ideologies. What is required is the borrowing power of the combined federal and provincial governments to leverage the money to build housing, rent assistance to allow low-income people to pay affordable rents, and capable management to keep the buildings in good shape. On at least two occasions in the past, government in Canada has demonstrated that it has the capacity to create affordable housing on a scale that has a meaningful impact. The politics of austerity have blinkered our vision. Demands for the construction of a thousand units a year are not unrealistic: indeed, there is no reason why the governments of today cannot do what the governments of fifty years ago accomplished.

Doug Smith is the author of the forthcoming book: Property Wrongs: the Seventy-Year Fight to Public Housing in Winnipeg. It will be published by Fernwood Books in April. Research for the book was sponsored by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through the Manitoba Research Alliance’s Partnership Grant Community-Driven Solutions to Poverty: Challenges and Possibilities and supported by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Right to Housing Coalition.