The recent death of an elderly man in a St. Boniface rooming house is tragic. More tragic is that this fire was not an isolated event.
Rooming houses across Winnipeg are in poor condition and disappearing off the market. Collaboration among all levels of government, community organizations, tenants, and landlords is needed to address the situation.
Rooming houses are an important, unique type of housing that provides homes to thousands of citizens. Many of these once large inner-city homes, subdivided into small suites with shared bathrooms, are deteriorating. While a number of buildings are well-run, safe and affordable, others are ignored, overcrowded and in grave disrepair. Operating revenues for landlords are low as many tenants are working poor or collecting Employment and Income Assistance. Rents this low rarely cover rising maintenance costs on old buildings. Leases are often verbal, turnover is high and rents go unregistered with the Residential Tenancy's Branch, leaving tenants unaccounted for and vulnerable. Fire and other safety risks are frequently concerns of tenants and landlords alike.
A complex and unfocused regulatory framework allows rooming houses to fall through the cracks and this latest tragic fire is a result. Rooming houses are subject to regulation from four city departments and several more provincially. The federal government's departure from social housing in 1990s has created a deficit of social housing and it has done little to coordinate national strategy. A lack of policy and regulatory co-ordination has meant that rooming houses and their tenants languish with few supports.
Left unchecked, the decline of rooming houses will result in both homelessness and overcrowding. In the past nine years the neighbourhoods of Spence and West Broadway alone lost approximately 930 rooming house units due to decay, conversions and fires. The cost of building new housing to replace this stock is huge: $930 million. The only federal/provincial fund available to keep rental housing in use through repairs is capped at $2.4 million per year and landlords have a hard time battling red tape to access this money. Serious investment from all three levels of government is needed to address this crisis.
Challenging problems require collaborative responses. One example of this approach is found at West Broadway Community Organization, which has had real success operating a small pilot project involving tenants, landlords and social service partners. The Rooming House Outreach Project connects with tenants in their homes, providing links to existing social services and engaging tenants themselves in practical fix-ups to their housing units. One female tenant was worried her cancer had returned but did not have a doctor, with the support of WBCO she was able to receive health care, her cancer has been addressed and is in remission.
With supports and encouragement available, tenants are able to make lasting changes in their dwellings and in their lives. As the pilot project has shown, no one person, organization, or government can address these issues alone.
Community organizations and researchers are calling on the city, provincial and federal governments to create a collaborative community-government committee that will work together to improve rooming house conditions.
Left unaddressed, more fires will occur, housing units will vanish, and marginalized people will be overcrowded in unsafe housing. All of this will be devastating economically and socially for our city.
For information on new research on Winnipeg rooming houses, to be released on May 27, go to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Kaufman is a research associate at the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies. Molly McCracken is the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba