Agencies relieved Tory government does 180 on housing strategy
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Front-line agencies have welcomed an about-face from the Progressive Conservative government, which said Tuesday it plans to build 300 new social housing units and fund another 400 while providing supports to people who are homeless or have an addiction.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires unveiled a so-called whole-of-government homelessness strategy at Circle of Life Thunderbird House. It promised $58 million in new funding for 2023-24 on top of the $68 million it had pledged this fiscal year.
In 2020, the Tory government budget unveiled a five-year plan to transfer ownership of public housing units from the Manitoba Housing Renewal Corp., a government entity, to the non-profit sector. Squires said Tuesday construction of the 300 new units may be led by the province. It issued a request for proposals in the fall.
“(It) will be a partnership of whoever can provide us with the housing. It might even be provincial-led housing,” Squires told reporters.
“We’re pretty excited the commitment is there to build new housing,” said Jamil Mahmood, executive director of nearby Main Street Project.
“We’d rather see the investment in non-profits than the private sector,” he said.
Rather than invest in new social housing, the provincial government has relied on the private sector to increase the supply of housing, then subsidize the higher rents that are charged. “That’s the big switch we’re seeing in this approach — where all the money previously would go to the private sector, and then not actually be for low-income housing for folks that are homeless,” Mahmood said.
The NDP was skeptical of the government’s change of mind.
“Manitobans have been calling for solutions to the homelessness crisis for years, but it took an election year for the PCs to pretend to care,” NDP housing critic Nahanni Fontaine said in a statement Tuesday.
An election is slated for the fall.
“(Premier) Heather Stefanson was Brian Pallister’s housing minister as they sold off social and affordable housing units, slashed the maintenance budget for Manitoba Housing and raised rent for thousands of Manitobans.”–Nahanni Fontaine
The NDP pointed out the PC government sold 387 Manitoba Housing units to for-profit companies since forming government in 2016: 374 units at 185 Smith St. in 2017-18 for $16.2 million and 13 units at 356 Assiniboine Avenue in 2018-19 for $1.45 million.
“(Premier) Heather Stefanson was Brian Pallister’s housing minister as they sold off social and affordable housing units, slashed the maintenance budget for Manitoba Housing and raised rent for thousands of Manitobans,” Fontaine said.
Squires said Tuesday her government will increase the maintenance budget for existing social housing units, including repairing vacant rental units and overall upgrades.
In August 2020, there were approximately 1,800 vacant Manitoba Housing units and 8,400 eligible households on the waiting list in 2021. The government housing agency said at the time that more than half of Manitoba Housing’s vacant units were being repaired or renovated. It said one-quarter of vacant units were empty due to a lack of demand.
“We will be ensuring those with the greatest priority will get rehoused,” the minister responsible for housing said at Tuesday’s news conference.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the 700 additional social housing units announced are “nowhere near enough.”
“We know for sure there at least 1,500 people just in Winnipeg who are homeless and the actual number might be much higher,” Lamont said.
“This isn’t really doing enough to end homelessness and prevent homelessness because it’s not dealing with the things that cause it.”
He blamed the previous NDP and current PC governments for clawing back federal benefits for children in care, a practice that came to an end with the Tories in 2019. More than half of those unhoused were in CFS care at some point, the 2018 Winnipeg Street Census found.
Squires said the strategy, titled “A Place for Everyone,” is the result of months of collaboration and includes helping young adults who are leaving Child and Family Services’ care.
The minister told reporters there is money available through the Canada-Manitoba housing benefit for those aging out of CFS or people who are homeless, but it is underused.
“We need to see people using that fully. We need to get on the ground and tell them about the benefit and help them access it,” Squires said.
Few details were provided in the 23-page strategy. In addition to funding for housing, there will be emergency income support, funding for more around-the-clock shelter spaces in winter, and more services.
“We’re taking a person-centred approach and meeting people where they’re at,” Squires said.
Select agencies will be able to provide “microloans” for a damage deposit and their first month’s rent to get people housed while they’re in the process of applying for social services and help with their basic needs, she said.
Front-line agencies, such as Main Street Project and St. Boniface Street Links, that help people with addictions while putting a roof over their heads are waiting to see how the funding is rolled out and to whom.
“Announcements are one thing, but it’s the action that really matters,” said Mahmood with Main Street Project. “We’re still waiting to see the dollar figures attached to the announcement.”
Marion Willis of Street Links called the strategy “hopeful” but said “the devil’s in the details.”
“We’ll see how this all rolls out and who decides on who’s going to be funded,” Willis said.
End Homelessness Winnipeg is co-ordinating the delivery of services. Its chief executive officer, Jason Whitford, said the organization looks forward to “a continued respectful relationship working in partnership with the Manitoba government to ensure this plan is successful. As an Indigenous organization, I think it bodes well that (the government recognizes) the importance of reconciliation and Indigenous-led resources in this process.”
Willis agreed but said substance use and homelessness is a citywide issue that affects every demographic, and she hopes the funding is inclusive.
Mayor Scott Gillingham praised the strategy for tackling both homelessness and addictions — two of the biggest issues in Winnipeg.
“You cannot effectively treat … someone’s addiction while they are living in a bus shelter,” Gillingham said at the news conference.
— With files from Kevin Rollason
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.