Manitoba releases a long-awaited homelessness strategy: It must be election time

By Kirsten Bernas and Shauna MacKinnon

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday March 11, 2023

The Manitoba government released its Homelessness Strategy on February 28th. The primary questions being asked by social housing advocates are: what took you so long, and what’s the long-term plan?

As noted in the strategy, tackling homelessness requires multiple interventions and a whole of government approach. “A Place for Everyone” outlines a 5-pillar approach that if implemented and expanded on annually, could make a real difference in the lives of vulnerable Manitobans.

Pillar 2 of the strategy aims to address what we know to be foundational to solving homelessness and housing precarity.  Through this pillar, the government intends to “lead the planning and development of new social housing units, beginning with 700 in 2023/24”. This is welcome news to advocates who have long been calling on the government to expand the supply of social, rent-geared-to-income housing.  But it’s only a one-year commitment. 

Right to Housing and Make Poverty History Manitoba have campaigned for multi-year targets and investments in social housing to address the long-standing shortage of units and to make up for the loss of units over time. The waitlist for Manitoba Housing is almost 6,000 households long. Data on the loss of units is difficult to access, but we know Winnipeg alone experienced a net loss of 881 social housing units just between 2019 and 2021.

The addition of 700 units in 2023/24 is a start, but we need much more, and it is difficult not to be skeptical about what this government would do in subsequent years. Governments are evaluated on what they have done, not on the promises they make before an election.

The Conservative government’s record on housing is abysmal. Through a series of cuts and policies aimed at privatization, the Conservative governments of both Brian Pallister and Heather Stefanson have reversed any previous, albeit small gains, made by the NDP government that began to expand the supply in 2009. 

The Conservative government has rightly been criticized for doing ‘too little too late’.  So why did it take so long?

The need for social housing is not new.  Housing advocates have long presented evidence that the supply and condition of low-cost rental housing have worsened since governments chose to go the private-sector route in the 1990s. 

The Conservative government isn’t the only government to blame. The ideological shift toward private sector solutions has led governments of all stripes down a path to the crisis we experience today. It took the previous NDP government several years to acknowledge the failure of the private market to address low-income housing needs.  It eventually responded to community calls to action in 2009 and by 2014 it had expanded the supply of social housing units by 1500. Also too little too late, but to its credit, it did so when a federal Conservative government had no interest in investing in housing supply.

When elected in 2016, the Pallister government made clear that it wanted out of social housing. It failed to invest in the maintenance of supply and began the process of privatization.  Any progress made under the NDP was quickly eroded.

Fast forward to 2023. A highly unpopular Conservative government desperately clinging to power is now making promises it was asked to make eight years ago. If only they had listened then we would have thousands of social housing options available to low-income households. We would have avoided the privatization of social housing developments such as Lions Place and 185 Smith, and the low-cost rental housing crisis would be well in hand. Manitoba could have been a model for other provinces to follow. 

Advocates and people in desperate need of safe, accessible, low-cost rental housing will gladly accept the 300 new and 400 additional rent-supplemented housing promised for 2023/24. But if not too late, it is far too little. With a provincial election soon to be called, there is an opportunity for all political parties vying for our votes to demonstrate that they have a well-developed, long-term strategy with clear timelines and targets and a financial commitment to expand social housing so that all Manitobans have access to the housing they need. The crisis is worsening, and it is unacceptable for governments to drag their feet until election time.

Kirsten Bernas is provincial coordinator of the Manitoba Right to Housing Coalition. Shauna MacKinnon is Professor and Chair, University of Winnipeg Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies. Bernas and MacKinnon are Research Associates with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba.