Michael, a childlike pensioner who favours oversized 1970s glasses, has something you don’t expect to see in one of the filthiest, most menacing rooming houses in Winnipeg.
Lined up meticulously on his TV table sit a dozen tiny plastic toys and cars — the kind children get inside the chocolate egg of a Kinder Surprise.
"I’ve got 20 to 30 stuffed animals in my room," says Michael, a veteran resident of a behemoth rooming house on Spence Street. And, he loves Elvis. A nicely-curated cluster of photos of the King are tacked up on his wall.
Michael is fastidious, almost militarily so. He lines his shoes up neatly on newspaper and even puts a placemat under the old ghetto blaster that sits on the floor.
But the years of grime and decay — the walls a cigarette-smoke jaundice, a sink with no taps, pockmarked flooring, the hazy third-floor heat — make his efforts almost pyrrhic.
Michael’s rooming house just south of Sargent Avenue in the Spence neighbourhood is ground zero for one of the city’s most intractable and often tragic social policy problems, one that’s shifting into a full-blown crisis thanks to Winnipeg’s real estate boom.
Michael lives on a block with 19 other rooming houses, the biggest concentration in the neighbourhood. Even the longtime home of legendary Free Press editor John Dafoe is among them.
And, Michael’s neighbourhood has the most rooming houses in Winnipeg at nearly 120.
His is one of the more troublesome ones, bedevilled by crack dealers and addicts, young prostitutes and the kind of dreary dilapidation that breeds conflict among residents. Cockroaches and bedbugs compete for insect domination. There is no real caretaker, and the landlords are so absentee that residents joke they must be in the Cayman Islands. The only way to contact them is to leave a note in the safe where rent cheques are dropped.
But, shuttering the Spence Street mansion would make at least 18 people homeless.
As bad as it is, the three-storey warren of rooms represent a proper roof for some of the city’s most vulnerable, hardest-to-house people — not lazy welfare bums, mostly, but folks who have obvious mental or cognitive problems, chronic addictions like the young Red Seal welder who works just enough to support his crack habit, or who have weathered hardships and violence that most suburbanites cannot fathom.
"Rooming houses are a last resort for a lot of people, the only option," said Mary Burton, the rental housing worker at the Spence Neighbourhood Association. "You can’t judge a person by where they live. You don’t know what their story is."
The Spence Street rooming house is an endangered species in the inner city.
That sounds like a good thing — who wants to live in a rooming house, or next to one? But in fact, it’s the start of a catastrophe.
As parts of the core gentrify, rooming houses -- especially the big ones -- are being flipped into fancier duplexes or single family homes.
In the last decade, Spence has lost about 20 per cent of its rooming houses, according to new research done by the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies and the Spence Neighbourhood Association. That research involved going house-by-house in Spence, counting the number of rooming houses. It’s the best snapshot we have of the prevalence of rooming houses and suggests the number has dropped from 145 in 2004 to 117 now.
Burton, who walked the streets with IUS researchers, can think of two rooming houses she’s seen flipped since she hit the streets a year ago.
Despite the drop, there are still nearly 1,100 rooming house residents in Spence alone. For most, their small room is a last resort, the only thing standing between them and Siloam Mission.
And Spence is slow to gentrify. West Broadway is in a full blown crisis as it hipsterizes, and staff at the neighbourhood community organization there are now trying desperately to improve life in the area’s remaining rooming houses and keep them from closing, while also raising the alarm about what they say is the inner city’s most pressing housing issue.
Michael’s Spence Street rooming house is part seniors home, part flophouse for young prostitutes, part crack den and part dorm.
It’s home to characters such as Big Ted, who lives quite happily in the spacious back porch, a young Filipino kid who keeps to himself and Darlene, who occasionally cleans the bathrooms.
Inside, its hallways are dim and narrow and smell like filthy carpet that won’t dry and stale cigarette smoke. The rooms are sweltering on a breeze-less day, especially on the top floor. The kitchen is spartan, with a dirty stove that residents barely use. One of the three bathrooms has a toilet seat and bowl crusty with watery poop and encircled by mould. The rest of the fixtures aren’t much better.
There are three bathrooms for 18 people, and no real system for cleaning them.
"Sometimes it gets to be a hell of a mess, and I do it myself," said Michael of his third-floor bathroom.
On cheque day recently, a hot one, many doors are open on each floor as tenants mill about visiting from room to room with cigarettes burning and beers cans sloshing. The blasts of hollering are generally friendly, but with an undercurrent of menace thanks to the slightly surly young men sitting on the small stoop.
"There are cockroaches all over the f**king place," said one young man, who wouldn’t give his name. "That’s why we’re sitting outside."
A short, colourful discussion ensues over which is worse — cockroaches or bedbugs. There is agreement that you either get one or the other because cockroaches eat bedbugs.
"You know in the cartoons when a bunch of ants at a picnic carry away the pie?" said Jerry, a handsome 20-something crack addict during a brief chat earlier in the day. "That’s what it’s like."
Dave, the intellectual of the house, lost his mattress because it was covered with bed bug feces. For a while, he was sleeping on the floor next to his small window, his bed made out of a sleeping bag and some pillows while his speckled black mattress lay tossed out the back door.
The house was just sprayed for bugs, and all of Dave’s possessions are still piled up in the middle of his room, leaving little space to manoeuvre around the slopping dormer ceiling.
"It’s absolutely Third World," said Dave. "This is what $350 will get you."
The combination of events that conspired to manoeuvre Dave into his cramped room on Spence are a "there but for the grace of God" kind of thing.
Fastidious in dress and handsome in a cool, nonchalant kind of way, Dave comes from a decent middle-class family, and has enjoyed a decent middle-class life.
As a young man, Dave worked as a taxi driver in the winter and on mowing crews in rural Manitoba in the summer.
"I loved both jobs immensely," he said.
When he neared his 40s, he started looking to settle down. He had a nice girlfriend, a house in Elmwood and, by then, his certificate in aerospace manufacturing at Red River College.
Then, in 2001, he lost his drivers licence for drunk driving and got laid off from Bristol Aerospace all in the same month, the start of his slow-burning slump. Then, he started gambling away his employment insurance. Though he got recalled at Bristol after a couple of years, he got fired in what he said was a cock-up of a misunderstanding. If you get fired, you can’t claim EI, and things went from bad to worse.
"I lost my house, my car was gone, my girlfriend was gone," said Dave. "I don’t blame her. I wasn’t a good catch at the time."
Dave bounced between jobs at Westeel, making grain bins, and at New Flyer, the bus manufacturer. He also got his license back and drove a cab again, though a tussle with a customer who refused to pay netted Dave an assault charge. At his lowest, he ended up at the Salvation Army.
"I heard that rooming houses were so hard to get, I just took the first one," said Dave, now on disability due to anxiety and depression. "I didn’t expect to be here two years."
Things might be looking up, though.
Dave has given his one-month notice — a salute to tenancy rules that few rooming house residents bother with — and plans to move in to a new, more stable and supportive rooming house down the street run by a neighbourhood activist and minister.
Until then, he’ll keep grappling with the kinds of small, irritating problems that can balloon into big fights among residents. Most of the doorbells don’t work, meaning visitors often scream up at the house to get a tenant’s attention.
There’s a large hole in the bottom of the mailbox, so mail gets scattered around the stoop. Dave once found his disability cheque lying in a puddle of water at the bottom of the steps, so he microwaved it for seven minutes and it was good enough for the bank.
Dave has lived in the house for two years and has not met the landlords once. He does the math and figures the owners make an easy $75,000 from the Spence Street house. Dave is the one who jokes the owners must be relaxing in the Cayman Islands.
They might as well be. The rooming house is registered to Esperanza and Ruby Pelland, and is one of three they own in the neighbourhood.
But residents say the real owners are two ex-cops, including James Pelland. Six years ago, the CBC ran a series of stories about brazen drug-dealing in the house and a crackdown by the province under the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act. Neighbours, local activists and city councillors were appalled the owner, a patrol sergeant at the time, was ignoring rampant criminal activity on his property and the pleas of neighbours to stop it.
This is a fairly stable time in the Spence house, even though there is no caretaker — a vital part of the alchemy that makes a rooming house function. The last caretaker, a tough, handy guy, was willing to drop the hammer on unruly residents, but he was fired about six months ago. After that, a violent, mentally-ill crack dealer lived in one of the second floor rooms, causing havoc before being evicted -- the kind of bad apple that can upset the delicate compatibility of 18 troubled people living in close quarters.
The dealer was a volatile, intimidating presence, and a relentless mooch. He even made gentle Michael mad.
"Every day it was ‘you got a smoke? You got 20 bucks?’," said Michael, who worked for years at Perth’s Drycleaners until he was laid off in 1983. "I got so mad I almost put my first through the door."
The caretaker's perspective
Albert Carty ain’t a guy you want to mess with. His greying hair and Barry White baritone gives him a faded elegance, but his shear bulk and gift for profanity makes him menacing.
He’s a caretaker for several West Broadway rooming houses, including a mammoth one with 27 units. There may be no job in Winnipeg less coveted.
He’s been bear-maced, hit in the head with a brick, and set upon by seven gang members. He even has to deal, he says, with a pedophile tenant who hoards and has lost control of his bowels.
While cruising by on his bike, he stopped to speak to the Free Press, while occasionally taking calls on his flip-phone from people wondering whether he has a room for rent. He does, because he just evicted a young woman drug addict from a house on Furby Street.
Here is an except from a brief but colourful conversation.
Q: If you had to say, of all your tenants, what percentage are decent, quiet, no problems with them, straight-up people?
A: What percentage? Ninety per cent — the ten per cent makes them all bad. And I find that women are the worst problem.
Q: Really! Why?
A: Ah, man. You figure you’ve got a 20 year-old girl who moves into a building with 90-per-cent men, and she likes to drink or do drugs. Well. Of course every man in the building is going to want to have a piece of her. So they go and buy her whatever she wants, and she’ll take what they have and then go out and find some guy off the street and then everyone’s pissed off and fighting over her.
I won’t rent to women anymore. Once I get rid of these three women out of here. They are just a pain in the behind. Most of the women end up being prostitutes or drug addicts. So they bring guys in and do what they have to do.
Q: What would make rooming houses better in your mind? What policy idea or program might help?
A: Take care of the people that are sick. Find out what the problem is and try to fix it. Don’t just prescribe drugs to them. You pill them out so they can’t do anything, and then the drug trade starts. Then the B-Boys or the Warriors move in and then the whole building is shot.
Q: How come a lot of the tenants don’t get into Manitoba Housing?
A: You know what it is? They can get into it, but then they get thrown out... Or CFS is letting these people go at 17, 18 years old and they’re too young. All they want to do is party when they’re 17 years old. And they ruin it for everybody. At the other house I have, I only have people over 30. That’s not fair to the younger people.
Q: How many people in your rooms would have either addictions or mental health issues?
A: How many? Jeez. F---. Eighty per cent at least. That I know of. Maybe closer to 90 per cent. But they go to housing. I’ve had people go to housing and come back two years later because nobody will put up with the nonsense.
(Interview has been edited for space and clarity).
Rooming House Rundown
How many are there?
It is impossible to know for sure. No one counts — not the city or the province. The official tallies that do exist are not reliable. For instance, rooming houses must register their rents with the Residential Tenancies Branch, but many rooming houses don’t, so any count the RTB has will be too conservative.
On the flip-side, the city licences rooming houses but there are only 184 on their list. That includes some duplexes and triplexes, and the very low number bolsters the suspicion that many have that most rooming houses don’t bother to get proper licenses, ducking city inspections.
About a decade ago, a study by the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies pegged the total number of rooming houses in Winnipeg at about 1,000, and Winnipeg fire inspectors figure that is about right, perhaps even closer to 1,200.
More recently, the IUS did a door-to-door tally in the Spence neighbourhood alone and pegged the number there at 117. Similarly, staff at the West Broadway Community Organization say they have an estimated 75 in their small neighbourhood.
What’s the rent?
Between $350 and $425 a month, depending on the size of the room and whether it has a basic kitchen. Sometimes, some utilities are included.
Keep in mind the basic welfare shelter rate is $285 with utilities. That might get you a closet in the crappiest rooming house in Winnipeg.
How big are the rooms?
Imagine the average bedroom in an old Wolseley house and you’ll have it. The average in the Spence neighbourhood is just under 170 square feet. That’s according to an analysis of more than 100 rooming houses in the Spence neighbourhood done by the IUS.
Where are the hotspots?
West Broadway, Spence, Point Douglas, Centennial and other neighbourhoods in the inner core. There are fewer rooming houses in the North End because the houses tend to be smaller.
How are they regulated?
Lots of ways, but many of those ways don’t work.
Rooming houses must be licensed by the city, but many are not. Licensed rooming houses must follow fire codes and Winnipeg’s neighbourhood livability bylaw, which regulates basic maintenance.
Health inspections, for things like mould and bedbugs, are now done by the province.
There’s also the Residential Tenancies Branch, which regulates rent increases and other rules, but only if the landlord registers with the RTB. Some rooming houses are on the down-low.
Why can’t we just shut them down?
It’s too harsh to call rooming houses a necessary evil, but given Winnipeg’s chronic and widespread poverty problem and its almost total lack of affordable housing, they are absolutely necessary.
The trick is to make them less evil. Rooming houses are bottom-of-the-barrel housing for the poorest Winnipeggers, but if we shut them down or allow them to be renovated and flipped, thousands of people -- perhaps as many as 6,000 -- will be homeless.
Housing advocates and inner city activists say unequivocally: Instead of bulldozing rooming houses, we need to make them better.
Map: Spence neighbourhood rooming houses
Icons indicate approximate locations of rooming houses in Winnipeg's Spence neighbourhood. Click for more information on each one.
Source: Institute of urban Studies (UofW) and Spence Neighbourhood Association. Map by Wendy Sawatzky.
More in this series:
SATURDAY: A look inside.
MONDAY: One that works and why.
TUESDAY: Hear more from Furby Street landlord Steve Tait and other rooming-house owners.
WEDNESDAY: Besides gentrification, the biggest threat to rooming houses is fire.
SLIDESHOW: A house of last resort