Here's a phrase you don't hear often about the North End or its most troubled housing project: "It's gotten a heck of a lot better."
That's how Shawn Sullivan described his longtime home in Lord Selkirk Park, the maze-like Manitoba Housing complex in the William Whyte neighbourhood. Earlier this summer, Sullivan was one of 13 graduates from Lord Selkirk Park's innovative new adult high school, and just before that he moved his wife and five children to a bigger, better place near Grant Avenue.
"This area has gone from 'you stand outside and get shot' to you can be outside having BBQs and being social and you don't have to worry," said Sullivan, who hopes to attend Red River College next. "The community has helped out lots."
Lord Selkirk Park was once a classic 1960s public housing project -- well-intentioned, but bleak.
The townhomes and the apartment tower nestled between some of the city's toughest thoroughfares -- Selkirk Avenue and Main Street -- were arguably one of the city's worst ghettos, plagued by gangs, violence, drugs and poverty. The median household income was half that of the rest of the inner city. Dozens of units were vacant or boarded up. "The Developments" gave Manitoba Housing a bad rap.
Now, after a $17-million overhaul based on the input of residents, it's a model of what public housing could become. Advocates for inner-city renewal, including University of Winnipeg Prof. Jim Silver, are calling on the province to replicate Lord Selkirk Park's model in Manitoba Housing complexes.
"If it can work in Lord Selkirk Park, it can work anywhere because that has been a pretty difficult neighbourhood for decades," said Silver, who has been involved in the rejuvenation process since 2005.
Housing and Community Development Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said the province is no longer building large-scale residential complexes. Instead, smaller, mixed-income projects are the new goal. And, she said money is an issue. She said she is open to trying to replicate Lord Selkirk Park's success in other Manitoba Housing complexes. "I agree Lord Selkirk Park is a model that we really need to strongly look at," she said.
A couple of years ago, every one of the 300-odd apartments and townhomes got a major renovation, including new kitchens, floors and low-flow toilets and high-efficiency furnaces. The construction work was done almost entirely by local people who got training and job skills out of the deal.
And, the enclave became more than just housing. A daycare opened, building on the family resource centre that's become a problem-solving hub. And, the Kaakiyow li moond likol adult-learning centre opened.
"I heard a lot of family friends who came through here saying nothing but good things," said Sullivan of the adult school. "That, and it was right out my front door."
Joining Sullivan at the school's graduation ceremony was Eleanor Chartrand, who graduated from the adult program with her daughter, Rayanna. Eleanor said she tried finishing high school years ago when she was a young mom. This time, thanks to the help of on-site tutors and the flexibility of the school, she was successful.
"I hate math, but I whizzed through that, which I find shocking," laughed Chartrand, who hopes to take Red River College's cooking program next.
In the improved Lord Selkirk Park, there are community gardens, a drop-in literacy program, safety patrols, better recreation programs and a neighbourhood advisory group. The idea is pulling people out of poverty requires many solutions, not just one.
It's not perfect -- there were street-gang problems this summer -- but there's a waiting list of potential tenants.
Rochelle Moss, who worked for the North End Renewal Corporation and assisted in redeveloping Lord Selkirk Park, said the ethnic diversity has been the most positive change. "You've got all different kinds of people here, you've got Guyanese people, Chinese people, white people, native people, black people. It's lovely, it's strong and it could get stronger," she said.
-- THE PROBLEM: After years of spending millions on government programs, there is still an affordable-housing crisis in Winnipeg. Inner-city residents say it's the single 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 zero. And, since 1992, Winnipeg has suffered a net loss of 5,700 units thanks, in part, to the rush to build condominiums, a shortage made worse by the influx of immigrants. It's been 20 years since the provincial government significantly tweaked the welfare allowance for housing even though rents in Winnipeg have gone up as much as 70 per cent.
-- COMING UP -- SOLUTIONS: Most local housing experts say the federal government needs to get back into the business of fully funding affordable housing, especially since the crunch exists in nearly every city. That's not likely to happen. But, there are some smart ways to tackle Winnipeg's housing crisis, from tax changes that could spur private building to a unique inner-city renovation program some call a "game-changer." Stay tuned this week for more solutions.