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This article was published 25/10/2017 (1179 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


Mayor Brian Bowman and Families Minister Scott Fielding, whose responsibilities include housing, are speaking in Winnipeg today at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness.

Ending homelessness obviously requires enough housing that people can afford, but adequate housing is not the reality here. Evidence shows that government investment is central to providing low-income housing, so what investments can we expect our political leaders to speak about at this conference?

Before the last provincial election, the NDP invested more than $100 million annually in preserving the aging public housing stock, and created 3,000 new units of social and affordable housing over a five-year period. It also introduced Rent Assist — a shelter benefit to help low-income people rent in the private market. This multi-pronged approach to housing addressed both supply and demand issues.

The current Progressive Conservative government has yet to announce its housing and homelessness strategy, but it has taken some action. Since being elected in April 2016, it has continued investments in the aging public housing stock. It has also invested in 50 new desperately needed shelter beds and 237 new affordable housing units, many for home ownership.

But social housing, with rents now set at 28 per cent of income, is most affordable to the lowest-income people, such as those experiencing homelessness. However, the new government increased social housing rents in July and has not approved funding to build a single new social housing unit.

A lack of social housing creates little choice but to rent more expensive private-market units with help from Rent Assist. The province reduced the benefit in July, impacting around 7,000 low-income households. A single mom with two children living at the poverty line saw her monthly benefit go from $119 to $49. Without program changes, her benefit would have increased to $148 to keep up with rising rents.

Progress toward addressing homelessness is at a standstill in Manitoba. If the province proceeds with recommendations from its KPMG report on social housing, then housing insecurity and homelessness will increase. Recommendations include further increases to social housing rents, postponing new housing construction, and further reductions to Rent Assist.

Most alarming is KPMG’s recommendation to privatize public housing. Elsewhere, privatization has heightened the housing crisis for low-income people. The United Kingdom began a process of privatization in the 1980s, only to have an all-time high public housing wait list and Europe’s highest rate of homelessness decades later.

Canada’s ongoing housing crisis is linked to the federal government’s withdrawal from public housing in the ’90s, leaving it to the private sector.

Why are we now again dabbling in this failed policy? The sale of our public housing stock is irreversible. Once it’s sold, it’s gone, and it would require many years and a significant financial investment to be built back up, depending on how far we go down that road.

Meanwhile, what has the City of Winnipeg been up to?

Mayor Bowman committed to tackling homelessness during the 2014 election campaign. City council has moved very slowly — it will soon be considering a plan to provide a tax-increment financing grant to housing developers that ensure 25 per cent of their units are affordable.

Although this would be the city’s first affordable-housing program outside of the inner city, the program targets are not nearly ambitious enough. It is looking at achieving only 50 affordable units at or below median market rent.

The city also funds some organizations taking leadership to prevent and address homelessness. This support is important, but city hall must also take leadership, and it is nowhere close to using the full range of municipal planning, regulatory, and funding tools at its disposal to provide affordable and social housing.

The city must throw this weight behind providing additional units if it wants to tackle homelessness.

Winnipeg is one of a few comparable jurisdictions in the country in which the local government is not an active participant in social housing. With the federal government once again making funding available for housing, our local governments have a significant opportunity to advocate for additional resources aimed at addressing homelessness.

Today we want to hear the mayor and the minister tell us how they intend to address homelessness through a comprehensive plan that includes preserving and adding to our existing supply of social housing, while enhancing income benefits for those who rent in the private market.

Kirsten Bernas is the chair of the Provincial Working Group of the Right to Housing Coalition.