A hand up in St. B

New building to blend affordable apartments with market-priced suites


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In November 2012, a charitable organization purchased an empty plot on Marion Street, hoping to use it to address what was already an obvious crisis in Winnipeg: a shortage of quality affordable housing.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/01/2022 (491 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In November 2012, a charitable organization purchased an empty plot on Marion Street, hoping to use it to address what was already an obvious crisis in Winnipeg: a shortage of quality affordable housing.

The Catholic Health Corp. of Manitoba, since renamed the Réseau Compassion Network, at that point was witnessing an influx of new Canadians struggling to find adequate places to live, so they bought the land just down the road from the Norwood Hotel to build a housing complex.

For the past several years, 156 Marion St. been used as a surface parking lot for visitors to the nearby hospital. “We’ve attempted to do something with it over the years, but the conditions were never favourable for us,” said Bob Lafreniere, the network’s chief financial officer. From a funding perspective, the organization was fighting an uphill battle.

Les Suites Marion will include 20 of its 48 suites as affordable, catering to clients of related social-service organizations. All suites will be outfitted the same regardless of rent. (Architect rendering)

Meanwhile, the affordable housing crisis in the city did not go away. According to a decade-old report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the average rent for a one-bedroom Winnipeg apartment in April 2012 was $697; in January 2022, that average reached $1,165, per rentals.ca, representing a 67 per cent increase over a 10-year span during which the minimum wage in Manitoba only increased by 16 per cent to its current $11.95, well below what would be classified a living wage based on market conditions. Plus, this pandemic has certainly not made things easier for the renting Manitoban.

“(Those conditions) from 2012 haven’t changed,” Lafreniere said. “It’s just gotten worse.”

Which is why Lafreniere was relieved last week to finally confirm the decade-long wait for that affordable housing complex was nearly over: by the end of February, construction is set to begin on the $15-million Les Suites Marion, a 48-unit building with 20 affordable units set aside for renters accessing services from partner organizations Sara Riel, St. Amant and Accueil Francophone. Those units will rent for well below market rates for the area, Lafreniere said.

In a release, Réseau Compassion Network CEO Daniel Lussier said the housing crisis is apparent, but that it’s even more critical for some of those organizations’ clients: people living with disabilities, newcomers to Canada, Indigenous people and those struggling with mental health and addictions.

The reasons for the sudden positive developments, Lafreniere said, are new funding options available now that were not when the seed of the idea was planted in 2012, through the federal housing initiative, specifically, and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s flex financing program. Through the latter program, the Réseau Compassion Network is granted a certificate of insurance, which assures a higher loan-to-value ratio, along with a 40-year amortization period, Lafreniere said. When delivered to the third-party lender, that certificate leads to a more attractive interest rate, seeing as risk typically associated with a project of this nature is reduced.

In all, the $15-million project received the bulk of its funding through the flex program, with the network contributing approximately 20 per cent of the equity, Lafreniere said.

But housing is only part of the equation, he said. The building will include supportive services on-site from those three partner organizations listed above, including employment services, counselling, case management, peer support and other needs. The main floor will be divided into office space and about 2,000 square-feet of programming space, which could be used for other local community organizations in need of space.

“There’s a dire need for both brand-new housing and for different agencies to come together,” said Tara Snider, Sara Riel’s executive director. “We’re all going to do what we’re able to do to support individuals, and we know when people are supported they flourish.”

Construction is slated to begin on this $15-million project in February and be completed by spring of 2023. (Architect rendering)

Lafreniere said that’s the idea, and further, the idea is that there will be a true mix of people living under one roof, each unit with the same quality finishes, including balconies and in-suite washers and dryers. Market suites are the same as affordable ones. “What we’re trying to do is have a building that reflects the community,” he said. “We want to see that mix, and that’s what we think will make this very successful.”

The location is also helpful: it’s near bus stops, schools, grocery stores, and only steps away from clinics, the St. Boniface Hospital, and ACCESS St. Boniface. A secondary benefit to the community, Lafreniere said, will be having a minimum of 48 new people using those amenities and increasing activity on Marion Street, which remains a vital strip with plenty of potential for further community growth.

The project is in the final stages of approval, with the bid and tender process just completed. An expected side effect of the pandemic, costs came in higher than previously anticipated, but Lafreniere is confident that won’t sidetrack any progress. Construction is expected to begin in February, with substantial completion expected for the spring of 2023.


Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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