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This article was published 23/1/2019 (364 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — The federal government will unveil today a multimillion-dollar loan to support a large mixed-income apartment project in downtown Winnipeg, the Free Press has learned.
It’s part of a project that aims to house low-income residents, revitalize the downtown and support local artists — all while turning a profit for the taxpayer.
"I think this is a great project, and something we should have been doing in Winnipeg decades ago," said Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette (Winnipeg Centre), who will make the announcement this morning near the University of Winnipeg campus.
"I’m looking forward to cutting the ribbon."
Called the Arts District, a 14-storey building just west of the Winnipeg Art Gallery will provide housing for 119 families; 46 of those units will qualify as low-income housing.
The building will include facilities for local and visiting artists, such as a studio people visiting the city for months-long terms can use. It would allow an artist to practise an instrument in a sound-proof room and offer classes to locals, instead of renting a hotel and a separate art space.
The project has been in the works for years, but today will be the public’s first detailed look at units set to open in mid-2020. Ouellette will announce more than $26 million in federal support — though it isn’t supposed to cost the taxpayer a dime.
The loan comes from Ottawa buying bonds, and loaning the cash at a much lower rate than what banks provide, over a decades-long term. The federal government intends to get the cash back while turning a small profit from its bonds, which will likely be used to administer such projects.
Officials believe cutting this deal will save a U of W development group $4 million in interest fees it would otherwise pay if using a bank loan.
The project is led by the University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation, an arm’s-length organization created to grow the university campus in the late-2000s. It created the Downtown Commons, a mixed-income housing project that had one-third of its units as student apartments and services for vulnerable groups.
Now branded as UWCRC 2.0, this is the group’s first major project to help create non-campus housing stock. Another involves the nearby, West Broadway Commons, offering 110 mixed-income apartments in partnership with All Saints’ Anglican Church.
The funding for the Arts District comes from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, through its Rental Construction Financing initiative, which has been using cash from the Liberals’ national housing strategy to increase housing stock in larger cities, where the rental market is maxed out.
Those arrangements have CMHC offer developers a loan better than the banks, with the agreement they offer rental units at 90 per cent of market rate, with the idea this will provide middle-class families a chance to find housing.
What UWCRC 2.0 has agreed to do is pool that 10 per cent discount, and instead offer low-rent units, while charging full market rates to those who can afford them. That means offering units at an effectively subsidized rate for two decades, without actually registering as affordable housing.
Ouellette said his riding needs "a project that forces people to rub shoulders together" with different ages, incomes and ethnicities living in close proximity.
"It creates a better environment, which I think is more sustainable in the long-term," he said, comparing it with downtown areas that are overwhelmingly poor.
A UWCRC 2.0 spokesman, who would not be named, compared the approach to other universities, who often create housing at a profit, thus driving up prices and pushing students further away from campus.
"This project uses an innovative approach that will generate its own revenue and equity stream, and supports the university’s core mission of academic excellence," the spokesman wrote. "We have a track record of delivering financially sustainable projects that benefit the university and surrounding community."
The building will be located at 290 Colony St.; it was first slated at the same site but under the address of 505 St. Mary Ave.
Construction of the building’s foundation began last month, and should continue until March. Concrete beams should appear in the late spring, with the rest of the building being pieced together until July 2020.
Updated on Wednesday, January 23, 2019 at 10:32 AM CST: adds renderings credit
11:27 AM: Fixes location of project.