After fleeing his second house fire in just six months, a Winnipeg man is urging political parties to provide more affordable housing.
"Our system is failing us," said Mark Olfert, whose was evacuated last week from the Main Street hotel he’s lived since February, when his Langside Street rooming house caught fire.
Activists, agencies look for government help as they struggle with Winnipeg's critical shortage of affordable housingClick to Expand
Posted: 7:00 PM Aug. 13, 2021
The two-bedroom flat just north of the Main Street railway underpass costs Mark Olfert $575 a month. There’s no charge for the constant wail of emergency-vehicle sirens.
It’s slightly cheaper than the $625 he paid a month to live alongside drug dealers at a Langside Street rooming house. He lived there for two stressful years until a fire ripped through the building last February, destroying almost all of his possessions. One of his three cats went missing in the aftermath.
Olfert appeared in a Free Press article on Aug. 14 about the shortfalls of the national housing strategy in Winnipeg, where few can find safe living arrangements at a monthly cost of less than $800.
The article examined how the Trudeau government’s promise to bring Ottawa back into the affordable-housing market doesn’t match the rate of federal support that existed up until the 1990s. It also looked at how the Pallister government in Manitoba has diverted federal funds intended for creating new public-housing units into covering the cost of repairs instead.
Three days after the article, Olfert woke up to the knock of firefighters and a blaring fire alarm. An adjacent apartment building at 802 Main St. had caught fire, risking the whole block going up in flames.
Olfert, 58, used his cane to make it down the stairs. The Humane Society took his cats for temporary safe-keeping. The Red Cross put him up in a hotel for three nights with a $52 daily stipend, and he’s been sleeping at a friend’s Norwood house this week.
"It was like déjà vu, happening all over again," Olfert said Wednesday.
He’s among thousands of Winnipeggers whom social-service groups say are falling through the social safety net.
Olfert had lived and worked in St. Vital for 12 years, until his landlord renovated his apartment building enough to increase the monthly rent from roughly $650 to $800, just as an injury left him on assistance.
He spent two years in an unsafe rooming house on Langside Street until it caught fire this February, leaving him sleeping at friends’ places and relying on donations from his Mennonite church until he moved into his current two-bedroom flat, just north of the Main Street railway underpass.
"I wouldn't be surprised if I get PTSD from this, because I am just so scared right now," he said.
"We need decent housing, and no slum landlords."
Olfert is an avid newswatcher, and has been distraught at what federal parties have been putting forward to help with affordable housing.
"We need decent housing, and no slum landlords." – Mark Olfert
On Tuesday, the Liberals unveiled a suite of measures targeted at homebuyers. For affordable housing, the party has pledged to build 100,000 new units, and expand renter subsidies.
The Conservative platform similarly focuses on homebuyers, calling for various grants and tax breaks to encourage the building of more housing in general. It also promises to explore "converting unneeded office space to housing."
The NDP have numerous pledges on affordable housing, meant to fast-track the Liberals’ housing strategy and have Ottawa build 500,000 affordable housing units, half of them within five years.
Olfert is critical of the Trudeau government, whose housing strategy has only created 63,000 new homes since late 2017, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
"They always say things on a campaign but do they deliver on their promises? No," Olfert said.
"They need to get a better grip on this."
Olfert counts himself lucky. Firefighters held back the blaze, and his Main Street hotel is structurally sound. The area feels dangerous, but it’s the only place he can find for a monthly rent of $575.
He wants Canadians to think about the strength of the safety net, and how easy it is for people lose their housing, and their dignity.
"If there was a high school reunion right now, I would be embarrassed to go, because of what happened to me," he says, his voice rising in anger.
"People would probably look down at me and say, 'He's just a failure.’"