Joe, a retired house painter, is wedged into a corner between the window and his television by a roomful of trash -- food containers, dirty clothes, mangy chairs, saggy boxes and bags.
"I'm living in a dump," said the 75-year-old, who still has an accent from his native Hungary. "I can't find anything better."
Joe has been living in the Pritchard Avenue rooming house with at least three other men for more than two years. He has a bath once a week in the grimy communal washroom, fries an egg or two on his hotplate and, stooped and slow-moving, clambers over his recliner to get into his debris-filled bedroom. He pays $350 a month.
Asked whether he could clean up a little, he said, "What for?"
"It's going to be the same tomorrow or next week, so forget it."
The dearth of clean, safe housing for the poor is arguably Winnipeg's most serious and entrenched social problem; one that hasn't improved much despite a decade and millions spent on modest, small-scale affordable-housing projects. In interviews with half a dozen inner-city housing experts, all agree Winnipeg's housing shortage stymies many other attempts to lift people out of poverty.
In the last decade, millions have been spent through a confusing bevy of tri-level government grants to build or renovate a duplex here or a small apartment block there. Those added up to more than 8,000 units, and the province is now more than halfway finished a commitment to build 1,500 more affordable units before 2014.
But all that hasn't made much of a dent in the vacancy rate, which still hovers below one per cent for a one-bedroom suite and is typically among the lowest of any Canadian city. The private sector is building few apartments and even fewer affordable ones, and rents are going up. The average two-bedroom apartment is nearly $60 more expensive this summer than it was last summer, and roughly 20,000 units win an exemption from rent control every year.
Every time politicians cut a ribbon on a new affordable triplex, a new batch of units is taken off the market thanks to the condoization craze, which has turned more than 2,200 apartments into condos in the last five years. Or, what was once an affordable, if slummy, unit undergoes renovation, allowing landlords to jack up rents beyond rent control and beyond what the poor can pay. Meanwhile, there's simply more demand for rentals, especially the scarce two- or three-bedroom units, because of the province's aggressive immigration strategy.
"If we weren't making those investments, the situation would be much worse," said Manitoba Housing Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross of the millions spent on new rentals and on renovating the province's inventory of public housing. "I do accept the fact that we have a lot more work to do."
In the North End especially, the rentals exist mostly in decaying 100-year-old houses, many of which are owned by indifferent, absentee landlords.
Just as often, say housing experts, they're owned by well-meaning people hampered by tenants on social assistance or disability, whose housing allowance is stuck as low as $285 a month, including utilities. People with disabilities get a little more, but the rate hasn't changed much in two decades. "Where does that leave you?" wondered Dale Harik, housing program supervisor at the North End Community Renewal Corp.
It leaves many robbing their food budgets to pay for rent, and it condemns many to rooming houses such as the one on Pritchard Avenue.
Above Joe, on the third floor, another tenant named Stan was trying to spruce up his sweltering apartment with a little paint, despite peeling drywall, crumbling plaster and rooms jammed with debris. Despite the conditions, Stan was fairly optimistic about his apartment, saying he's getting a break on the rent if he does some repairs.
And, it's much better than his previous rooming house on Furby Street, which was infested with crackheads.
The three or four men who live in the rooming house were not overly critical of the landlord, and they are not ideal tenants.
Their housekeeping skills range from haphazard to hoarding. At least two acknowledge some cognitive or mental-health problems, and there are many two-litre Stone Cold beer jugs scattered around the rooms.
But, it is hard to imagine anyone suggesting they deserve to live in such squalor.
Chris, who is almost poetically candid about his life, was moving out of the rooming house the day the Free Press dropped by. Before being "gibbled" by a knee and shoulder injury, Chris lived in the house for free for several months in exchange for doing repair work on the rooms. For the last two months, he'd been paying $325 a month for the main-floor room with a boarded-up window and no lock on the door.
"I was behind in my rent, so I tried unsuccessfully to do things around the house... I don't like to get things for free unless I've earned them," he said. "As much of a hellhole as it is, I don't want to see other people suffer because of my shortcomings."
The owner of the house could not be located for comment.
Citing privacy rules, the city would not say whether inspectors have visited the home or issued any cleanup orders.
Vacancy rates and rents
Winnipeg's overall vacancy rate this spring was 1.2 per cent, up a little from 0.7 per cent one year ago because more people were buying homes or leaving the province.
Vacancy rate: 1.8 per cent (0.9 per cent last year)
Average rent: $552 ($511 last year)
Vacancy rate: 0.9 per cent (0.6 per cent last year)
Average rent: $697 ($657 last year)
Vacancy rate: 1.5 per cent (0.7 per cent last year)
Average rent: $901 ($843 last year)
-- source: Canada Mortgage and Housing
After years of government programs and millions spent, there is still an affordable-housing crisis in Winnipeg. Inner-city residents say it's the biggest issue they face -- the lack of safe, clean, affordable rentals. Private developers are building few apartments and virtually no affordable ones. A single mother looking for a one- or two-bedroom apartment in the $600 to $800 range is facing a vacancy rate of effectively zero. And, since 1992, Winnipeg has actually seen a net loss of 5,700 units, thanks in part to the "condoization" phenomenon, a shortage made worse by the influx of new immigrants. It's been 20 years since the province significantly tweaked the welfare allowance for housing, even though rents in the city have gone up as much as 70 per cent.
Coming up: solutions
If the federal government got back in the business of funding housing, that could help solve the crisis, especially since the shortage of affordable housing is a problem in most major cities in Canada. It's not likely Ottawa will ever create and fund a national affordable-housing plan. But, there are some smart ways to finally tackle Winnipeg's problem, from simple tax changes that could spur private building to the surprise rebirth of one of Winnipeg's most troubled social-housing projects. Stay tuned this week for more solutions.