Change Ahead: Winnipeg’s Future Housing Policy needs to Combat Poverty

By Alex Bartmanovich

This is a summary of a paper on potential impacts of Winnipeg’s new housing policy on neighborhood renewal corporations (NRCs) and the communities they serve. The original work is based on interviews and academic research conducted by University of Winnipeg graduate Alexander Bartmanovich while working a practicum at the Spence Neighborhood Association. Discussed here are relevant highlights, including: the shift from Housing Improvement Zones (HIZs) to Reinvestment Areas (RAs) as per the City’s new housing policy, as well as highlighting the importance to commitment to the capacity building roles of housing coordinators, and a critique of the Complete Communities document as part of OurWinnipeg.

The HIZ approach of the 1999 housing policy acknowledged the importance of a socially conscious housing policy because of the concentrations of poverty in Winnipeg’s inner-city. Through the policy, NRCs could apply for up to $160,000 per HIZ, per year from the Housing Rehabilitation Investment Reserve, concentrating resources in areas with identified need; areas with deplorable and deteriorated housing stock. Funding is a year to year decision made by Council, there is a concern in the new policy funds will be spread more thinly across Winnipeg in the planned broader Reinvestment Areas, and will not have the same impact in combatting poverty. Increased funding maximums made available to Reinvestment Areas through the HRIR would be a logical step in the continuation of effective contributions from the City, and the role of coordinating the on-the-ground, grassroots effort needs be included and reinforced in the new policy’s implementation for inner-city revitalization to be successful.

NRCs have been supported by existing policy through money for bricks and mortar and also housing coordination. Housing coordinators have been touted in academic literature as essential components to revitalization in Winnipeg’s inner-city. They implement five year housing plans supported by the City, engage in housing-related consultations with their respective communities, and have intimate knowledge of neighborhood housing stock and residents. The paper found there needs to be people in these capacity-building roles, building trust and establishing relationships with community residents and stakeholders. Housing coordination acknowledges that working with local people and their housing needs go hand in hand. In this way, NRCs are agencies linking residents with social supports alongside the efforts of brick and mortar housing revitalization. In the future, this must continue to be maintained and supported through funding, and the research finds funding this effort is a relatively small investment that yields incredible results, and is integral in the City’s pursuit of Complete Communities.

The Housing Policy supports Complete Communities, a key aspect of the new Plan Winnipeg. Complete Communities create or support neighbourhoods with a variety of housing types and services across Winnipeg. While it is a laudable overall guiding document, it is unclear in how it could be beneficial to improving the housing situation for Winnipeg’s most vulnerable citizens. A focus on Complete Communities leads to fear of displacement, as it points to developing housing for low-income people across Winnipeg, when people do not want to leave neighbourhoods they are familiar with. This was voiced by members of the Spence community in particular. Don Miedema, recently retired from the housing coordinator position at the Spence Neighborhood Association, expressed that housing geared towards low-income people requires social services and these services are available in inner-city communities. Truly complete communities mean adequate provision in planning and implementation, and must be done in an appropriate manner, conscious of housing options for low-income people with the requisite social supports.

 The research found that people often do not want to leave their communities in the inner-city; they are in proximity to things they need and people they are close to. Complete Communities can be used as a rationale to end support for new development of low-income housing in the inner-city, implying that low-income people should be moved out of the inner city to other neighbourhoods.  An effective housing policy needs to support low-income people where they want to live. It is also difficult to focus on creating ‘complete communities’ when there are persistent challenges in inner-city neighborhoods, such as rooming houses, which continue to experience growing divestment. Complete Communities uses language promoting home-ownership in RAs, which, when examining statistics of areas like West Broadway and Spence, seems impractical and undesirable as many are challenged to own homes given their income and the rising price of houses. Ninety-two percent of people in West Broadway rent their homes, and the community’s housing stock is eighty-five percent apartments. The Spence neighborhood sees seventy percent of its residents renting their homes.

Existing housing stock in need should be improved in a concentrated format; skills development, education, and training of lower income people to improve quality of life should be supported so people do not have to live with fear of displacement; there needs to be solidly committed resources into Complete Communities, as the City’s track record suggests that this has not always been the case. There is a need for the City and Province to come to the table and coordinate efforts with the NRC community and inner-city neighborhoods. The NRC community stressed that the City has a very important role to play in alleviating the low-income housing crisis in Winnipeg, an objective that should be reflected in the new policy.