Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

West Broadway rooming house taps talents of tenants to improve home, neighbourhood

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Veteran tenant Cathy stands outside the Furby Street rooming house where she rents a suite on the third floor.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Veteran tenant Cathy stands outside the Furby Street rooming house where she rents a suite on the third floor. Photo Store

It might be one of the few rooming houses with pink-and-white impatiens planted carefully in its flower bed.

Trouble is, the green-thumb tenant tending the blooms may have filched a few from city parks and planters.

And the same tenant recently went on a bender, took a skill saw, hacked off part of a lilac bush and did a little pushing and shoving with his landlord, Steve Tait.

Still, for all that, the Furby Street rooming house is one of the most stable, cheerful ones in the city thanks to a progressive rookie landlord and a small but effective pilot project run by the West Broadway Neighbourhood Association.

There's a veggie garden around the side, new flooring in the bathroom and many tenants have been linked up with neighbourhood social services they never knew existed.

"We're getting there," said Cathy, a gregarious, upbeat veteran tenant who lives on the third floor. "It makes you feel a lot more homey and comfortable."

Tenants also helped to give nearly the whole house a fresh coat of glossy white paint.

"Mine's the last unit to be painted," said Sandra, a wisp of a woman with a cumbersome yellow cast on her leg. "I was sick and couldn't do it, but I've got the paint and everything."

Sandra's second-floor room, one of 15 in the building, has a small alcove kitchen, with a few dirty dishes in the sink Sandra says just to ignore. Hers is a fairly sizeable room, with space for a double bed, a small dining table a dresser and two old TVs, both playing The Price is Right so there's a stereo effect to the Showcase Showdown.

"It's quieted down a lot. We had a few bad apples in the house," including the drug dealer on the main floor, says Sandra of the rooming house. "It was a revolving door."

West Broadway has, very roughly, 75 rooming houses, likely the highest concentration in the city. But they are disappearing as property values skyrocket, landlords sell to developers who renovate the old buildings into single-family homes and the neighbourhood generally gentrifies.

This trend, while not a bad thing for the inner city, is the single biggest worry for West Broadway Community Organization head Greg MacPherson because it shrinks the number of desperately needed affordable housing units and squeezes low-income people out of the neighbourhood.

What rooming houses remain need significant renovations and repairs if they are to continue to function as decent roofs for the poor. Rooming houses tend to get demonized, often unfairly or because of a few bad tenants, so they generate a little nimbyism. And they often elude most housing policies, bylaw inspections, government social programs and renovation grants.

"We've created a system that doesn't protect the most vulnerable," said MacPherson.

He says the solution doesn't involve dramatic government-policy changes, though a few tweaks would be welcome. Instead, the solution is to go house by house trying to make things just a few millimetres better for the residents, the landlord and the neighbours.

The idea is to enlist the tenants themselves -- many of whom have secret carpentry, electrical or painting skills -- to improve the house, so they feel invested in their home and neighbourhood.

Government grant programs that help fund renovations are vital, says MacPherson, but those bricks-and-mortar fixes don't last if the tenants are left to fend for themselves.

That's where Jovan Lottis comes in.

With a key to the front door and a little money for quality-of-life improvements such as a hallway bulletin board and the veggie garden, Lottis acts as part caretaker, part social worker, part cheerleader and part friend. Key to her job as West Broadway's rooming house outreach worker is to link tenants with the myriad social services that might be just a few blocks away. That includes the Good Food Club, public and mental-health services and addictions agencies.

West Broadway's outreach program is slow going, though. They are working with two rooming houses only so far, and it's a slog to convince other landlords to let Lottis do her thing.

"Before I met Jovan, I didn't know where to turn," said Tait, who has owned the Furby Street house for about a year and has had to grapple with some challenging tenants, including a woman who pushes one of her collection of dolls through the neighbourhood in a baby stroller and whose room exhales a jungly smell of rotting food and cat litter when she opens her door.

Tait, who stops by the house nearly every day, has slowly weeded out the tenants that disrupt its fragile balance, including the volatile character on the main floor who used his back bedroom window as a drug-dealing drive-thru.

As Tait spoke to the Free Press one recent afternoon, a courier from the Residential Tenancies Branch pulled up to drop off what Tait hoped was an eviction notice for the tenant with the skill saw.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Rooming houses are starting to disappear in the West Broadway area. Are you sorry to see them go? Where will their low-income tenants find housing? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 15, 2013 B1

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Updated on Monday, July 15, 2013 at 6:47 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds questions for discussion, adds fact box

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