The Manitoba government has taken the axe to renovation plans for a downtown Winnipeg social housing highrise that's sat empty for more than two years, despite pouring about $3 million into fixing it up and more than $237,000 in utility costs for the vacant tower.

Some housing advocates say the building's 373 units could be put to use for people in need of low-income rentals and for the influx of asylum seekers into the province.

Nearly 200 residents were forced from their apartments at 185 Smith Street in April 2015 after a broken water pipe flooded the building's basement and caused damage to plumbing and elevators.

Repairs to the 21-storey highrise were supposed to take about six months, but tenants never moved back in. A government spokesperson said the province paid approximately $4.3 million in repairs to the building. Of that, about $1.3 million was covered by insurance.

The rest of the repair costs were unrelated to the flood. Mechanical and electrical work was done, asbestos removal and the deconstruction of old interiors and mock-ups of new units.

While the building sits unoccupied, a spokesperson said the province paid the following in utility costs for the empty building:

  • $169,400 from 2015 to 2016
  • $103,900 from 2016 to 2017
Todd Donohue

Todd Donohue lived at 185 Smith and doesn't understand why repairs haven't been done. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

The province has put all further work on the building on hold until further notice pending the outcome of a long-term Manitoba Housing strategy, a government spokesperson said.

Todd Donohue was forced out of his suite in the building after the flood and Manitoba Housing put him up in a hotel after the evacuation before eventually moving him into another housing complex. Not only was he affected personally, he sees the need for housing at his job at a downtown drop-in centre.

"Every day I have people coming in looking for low-income housing and it's just not available," Donohue said.

"That's a lot of units that are empty and there's so many people that are in need of low-income housing. They should have had it fixed two years ago."

185 Smith Winnipeg

The province has put all plans on hold to reopen 185 Smith. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Donohue is happy he has a roof over his head but said his new Manitoba Housing unit has problems. 

"There's always that issue of bedbugs and cockroaches and things like that and they never seem to get that under control," he said.

The Right to Housing Coalition estimates 7,500 affordable housing units are needed in Winnipeg to house the city's homeless population alone and Manitoba Housing says there are currently 1,699 people on a wait list to get into government-assisted housing.

"To have a building like that sit idle and vacant seems like we're really missing out on an opportunity to house a really vulnerable population," said Kirsten Bernas, chair of the Right to Housing Coalition.

'Such a shame'

She said the unoccupied units at 185 Smith could help make a dent in the need for affordable housing in the city.

"It's such a shame to have that large place being unoccupied."

Kirsten Bernas, chair of the Right to Housing Coalition

Kirsten Bernas said there's a huge need for housing for low-income individuals living in Winnipeg. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

"There's a demand out there."

Bernas said the province also isn't making any money having no renters in the building.

"If we're talking about value for money, which is something we hear a lot from this government, we see that as a no-brainer to address that situation as quickly as possible," Bernas said.

Housing for asylum seekers

Housing for asylum seekers crossing into Manitoba from the U.S. has been in hot demand this year.

The province has struggled to find housing for refugee claimants and just converted a former seniors' home in Gretna, Man. to a reception centre for asylum seekers to help with the issue. Gretna is a community of 550 on the U.S. border, about 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

The Salvation Army in Winnipeg has been taking in asylum seekers. Most nights, the shelter's beds are full. When CBC stopped by one morning, there were 50 refugee claimants at the shelter.

Salvation Army Maj. Rob Kerr said he would support the building being used for asylum seekers if possible.

"Even beyond the refugee claimants ... there is a need for more affordable housing in this city," Kerr said. 

"It puts pressure on us because we have more people in our facility until they can find a place to go."

Salvation Army's Major Rob Kerr

The Salvation Army's Major Rob Kerr says beds are full at the shelter most nights with asylum seekers. (CBC)

A government spokesperson said tenants from 185 Smith are now living in other Manitoba Housing properties or in private rentals.

The spokesperson wouldn't say if the government has plans to sell the building."The issues with the building are significant and would require a major investment to address," she said in an email.