August 18, 2017

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'The wrong building for us to invest in:' Gov't selling downtown social housing highrise

The provincial government is selling off a vacant 300-unit downtown social housing highrise because it would cost too much to fix.

But anti-poverty activists argued Monday that it would cost far more to build that much badly needed housing from scratch.

A 300-unit downtown social housing highrise at 185 Smith Street is going up for sale. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

A 300-unit downtown social housing highrise at 185 Smith Street is going up for sale. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Families Minister Scott Fielding said Monday that the 21-storey building at 185 Smith St. just south of St. Mary Avenue has sat vacant for two years since a watermain rupture forced relocation of the social housing tenants from its bachelor and one-bedroom units.

The province has issued a negotiated request for proposal (NRFP) for a realty firm to market and sell the building.

"We’ve determined this vacant property is the wrong building for us to invest in to renovate and re-tenant," said Fielding. "It requires major repairs and does not have the right configuration of units to support a quality social housing program."

Fielding said that the former NDP government left his department with $500 million in deferred maintenance.

Building systems have been repaired but given the size of the 44-year-old structure, it would cost more than $20 million for the province to completely renovate to Manitoba Housing specifications, Fielding said.

Manitoba Housing said it prefers both a housing mix and mixed neighbourhoods.

"We believe our buildings should contain a healthy mix of unit sizes that are conducive to vibrant community living. Our preferred model involves smaller projects integrated into neighbourhoods that reflect a mix of incomes and tenant demographics," said chief executive officer Steven Spry. "It is unlikely Manitoba Housing would choose to build a facility like 185 Smith today."

An aide to Fielding said that proceeds from the sale will go into social housing, but not to any specific project. The city has assessed the building and land at $12.4 million, city records show.

Josh Brandon, chair of Make Poverty History, argued that the building could be crucial to taking hundreds of homeless people off the streets.

To build that kind of social housing from scratch, "It's not uncommon for it to cost up to $200,000 a unit -- that's $45 million," he said.

"It was mostly individuals in there," who made up a large portion of the individual population of vulnerable people needing social housing, he said. "These are exactly the sort of people who need to find bachelors and one-bedrooms.

"A loss of that magnitude puts a huge dent in our ability to provide social housing," Brandon said.

"We're not surprised," said Kirsten Bernas, chair of the Right to Housing Coalition.

The coalition knew that Fielding was looking at selling some properties, but, "We were under the impression they were negotiating with non-profits -- that's alarming.

"The units could have housed a high-needs population," she said. "The private market isn't going to suddenly become affordable."

NDP housing critic Wab Kinew said in a formal statement: "The Pallister government has shown no real commitment to affordable housing – it jacked up rents for low income renters in Manitoba Housing and reduced supports for individuals receiving Rent Assist.

"This appears to solely be a money saving measure for the government. The real test will be if the government invests the proceeds of the sale in new good-quality, affordable housing. Pallister’s track record of cuts show that is not likely to happen," Kinew said.

Said Fielding: "Manitoba Housing has determined other groups are better suited to take on this project with a focus on downtown revitalization. This is a prime location and we believe someone could develop it as a mixed office and residential tower or residential space to beautify the street and allow more people to move downtown."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Nick Martin.

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