Affordable seniors’ housing must be priority
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On July 26, the residents of Lions Place at 610 Portage Ave. received a letter from the management of Lions Housing Centres indicating the facility would be put up for sale on the private housing market.
The sale of this longtime non-profit housing facility for seniors is yet one more example of the declining supply of not-for-profit housing in Winnipeg.
Lions Place is a 287-unit housing development that was built for low-moderate income seniors in 1982 with financial support from the federal and provincial governments. It was described by its executive director as an important development, considering the growing need of an aging population.
At that time, the Lions Club of Winnipeg had made caring for the elderly a priority. The building now houses a mix of low- and moderate-income seniors and students.
The sale of Lions Place is not particularly surprising. The funds required to operate public and non-profit housing dried up several years ago as governments made failed attempts to let the market take care of housing supply for low-income households.
The federal and provincial governments have since recognized the need for government intervention, and now have “housing strategies,” but neither has reinstated the ongoing subsidies required to ensure housing affordability to low-income households.
Billions of dollars have been spent in Manitoba and across the country to stimulate rental-housing development. However, with the exception of a relatively small number of units funded through the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative (a program established in the height of the pandemic), according to the National Housing Council, a very small amount — three per cent of the federal Rental Construction Financing Initiative — has gone toward units affordable to low-income households.
At a time when housing affordability is among the most urgent issues across the country, the end of long-term federal/provincial social-housing funding agreements, along with the aging life cycle of these 40-year-old facilities which require major renovation/upgrading work, has placed a great deal of pressure on organizations such as Lions Housing Centres and the non-profit housing sector as a whole.
Lions is not the first non-profit housing provider to put its property on the market.
Neither the federal strategy nor provincial strategies are addressing the ongoing operating challenges of non-profit housing providers, and the provincial government’s continued pursuit of privatization is adding fuel to the fire.
The Manitoba government made clear its plans to get out of the business of housing low-income Manitobans in 2016. One of the earliest victims of the Conservative government’s privatization plans was the Manitoba Housing seniors complex at 185 Smith. In 2018, that rent-geared-to-income housing facility was sold to a private developer for $16.2 million.
The building was redeveloped into Smith Street Lofts., a new development that targets an urban professional demographic with one-bedroom units leasing for $1,600/month and two-bedroom units for up to $2,000/month.
By comparison, the one-bedroom rent for Lions Place is $844/month and a two-bedroom unit is $1,064/month. Despite housing advocates’ calls that all new rental housing developments include a number of affordable units, there are none at Smith Street Lofts.
Two hundred low-income housing units were permanently lost as a result of the privatization of this primely located building, previously owned by the Manitoba government, at a time when the need for affordable seniors’ housing options and supports continues to grow.
According to the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), seniors now outnumber children for the first time in Canada’s history. By 2056, one-third of the population will be 65 or older. This demographic shift is already having an impact on health care, as the CMA identifies that seniors account for nearly half of all health-care spending.
Housing adequacy has long been identified as an important determinant of health outcomes, so ensuring seniors have access to affordable housing and relevant home-care supports is an important preventive strategic investment.
Although Winnipeg Lions Housing Centre appears to have abandoned the Lions Clubs International slogan “Together We Can” make the impossible possible, the Lions Place Residents Council has embraced it as it mobilizes its efforts to ensure Lions Place remains a non-profit housing provider.
The council is urging Lions Housing Centres to work in collaboration with non-profit housing organizations, along with the provincial and federal governments, to ensure this important, centrally located building remains a not-for-profit and affordable to low- and modest-income seniors.
Given the ongoing projected growth of an aging population in our province, the need for innovative approaches to meet the housing and health needs of seniors will continue to grow. Lions Place provides an opportunity for governments to invest in a non-profit housing solution that would provide housing, home care and health services for low-, fixed- and modest-income seniors.
Gerald Brown is a resident at Lions Place and chairperson of the Lions Place Residents Council Seniors Action Committee. Shauna MacKinnon is professor of urban and inner-city studies at the University of Winnipeg and a member of the Manitoba Right to Housing Coalition.