Neighbourhoods Alive! demise was inevitable

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It was only a matter of time. Manitoba’s popular Neighbourhoods Alive! (NA!) initiative has been cut by the Pallister government, wiped from the province’s website.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/05/2019 (1311 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was only a matter of time. Manitoba’s popular Neighbourhoods Alive! (NA!) initiative has been cut by the Pallister government, wiped from the province’s website.

Soon after releasing its 2019 budget and poverty-reduction strategy, the Manitoba government announced an overhaul of its community-development funding programs, effectively bringing an end to NA!. This in spite of a 2010 evaluation by Ekos Research that described NA! as a “best-practice example of a comprehensive, community-led revitalization program.” It embraced a holistic approach toward improving a number of social, environmental, cultural, physical and economic conditions.

NA! strategically targeted poor neighbourhoods. It was designed in collaboration with the inner-city development community, initially focusing on Winnipeg’s major improvement zones. Brandon and Thompson were included early on, followed by Flin Flon, The Pas, Portage la Prairie and Selkirk. NA! was one component of a long-term social and economic strategy to support community-driven revitalization and renewal efforts. In addition to multi-year operating funding to Neighbourhood Renewal Corporations (NRCs) and strategic community-based organizations (CBOs), NA! provided program grants in key areas: housing and physical improvements, employment, training and education, recreation, and safety and crime.

In April 2019, the Progressive Conservative government replaced NA! with Building Sustainable Communities (BSC). Some NRCs will continue to receive operating funding — for now. But the radically altered criteria for project funding NRCs and other CBOs rely on will make it near-impossible to access funding for existing programs.

BSC is described as a “streamlined, more flexible” initiative that will “reduce red tape.” Some CBOs say these sweeping changes will create more red tape. The program offers the same funding ($7.9 million), but it will now be spread across the province. Projects eligible for funding must be “new community initiatives”; this means a number of existing cost-effective projects will no longer be eligible. BSC will not cover the cost of salaries, and funding for administration is capped at 2.5 per cent.

Unlike NA!, BSC does not target low-income communities, and the new criteria will effectively exclude communities in greatest need. NA! encouraged, but did not require, organizations to seek funding from multiple sources. BSC will not fund projects unless proponents can demonstrate 50 per cent of project costs are funded from other sources, with a minimum 10 per cent from non-government sources.

This means more affluent communities will have an edge over poor neighbourhoods with less capacity and access to volunteer and financial resources. Unlike NA!, which was exclusively available to non-profit organizations, municipalities across the province are eligible for the new BSC. They will have the greatest capacity to match funds and staff programs. We might predict the BSC will become a program aiding local governments rather than community-based organizations working on the ground and better connected with vulnerable people.

The loss of NA! is a devastating blow to inner-city neighbourhoods and other low-income communities, but it should come as no surprise. NA! was a flagship initiative introduced by the NDP government in 2000 and is known widely as part of the “NDP brand.” The Pallister government began to chip away at NA! soon after it took office, and the decision to eliminate it is purely political. No government likes initiatives associated with the government that preceded it.

Despite evidence NA! was a cost-effective initiative that created jobs and built capacity in Manitoba’s poorest neighbourhoods, it was destined for the chopping block. Historically, it is also the case in Manitoba that Progressive Conservative governments don’t prioritize neighbourhood-revitalization initiatives focused on poor urban neighbourhoods because those neighbourhoods tend to be NDP-friendly.

The Filmon government cut funding to 56 community-based organizations in 1992, leaving a 10-year void of services. The NDP government began to reinvest in neighbourhood revitalization when elected in 1999, and there is a long list of programs supported through NA! that have made an important difference.

This year, as required by legislation put in place by the previous government, the Pallister government released its new poverty-reduction plan, Pathways to a Better Future. It highlights “facilitating partnerships and supporting community-based organizations” as one of its six priority areas and an essential component of a poverty-reduction plan. The design of BSC contradicts this aim by making it difficult for communities that need help the most.

NA! did not solve poverty, and it was far from perfect. But it contributed immensely to engaging people living in poverty. It created employment opportunities and provided supports and encouragement. Strategically targeted, comprehensive revitalization initiatives themselves will not end poverty, but can make an important contribution, as evidenced by the success of NA!

Shauna MacKinnon is an associate professor and chairwoman of the department of urban and inner-city studies at the University of Winnipeg.

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