Manitoba Housing sells downtown highrise that's been vacant for 3 years
Management company has big plans for building, but former tenants, housing advocates disappointed by sale
The Province of Manitoba has sold a long-vacant building in downtown Winnipeg which used to provide social housing — a move criticized by former tenants of the building.
The highrise at 185 Smith St. was sold for $16.2 million to a private property management company, which plans to turn the building into new apartments.
"I'm disappointed. I really am, because what's really needed is more low-income, even rent-geared-to-income style housing," said Todd Donohue. He lived in the building before it was evacuated in April 2015 after a broken water pipe flooded the basement and caused damage to plumbing and elevators.
Donohue and nearly 200 other low-income renters who lived at 185 Smith never returned home. They were initially put up in temporary accommodations by Manitoba Housing, including hotel rooms, and are now in private rentals or different social housing suites.
The province said Thursday there were 3,981 people waiting to get into Manitoba Housing.
CBC reported last May the province had spent about $3 million fixing the building and more than $237,000 in utility costs for the vacant tower.
At the time, the province was scrambling to find housing for asylum seekers entering Manitoba from the U.S.
'It was still our home'
Conrad Morissette and his wife had a suite in the highrise and were under the impression they'd return after repairs were completed.
"That was the plan. I mean, it was a nice place. It had its problems but it was still our home."
He shared Donohue's concern about the loss of low-income housing units.
"This building should stay Manitoba Housing. Obviously it's not going to, but I know a lot of people who were there with me living in that building, and some of them are living in shelters because they've lost the ability to get a place," Morissette said.
Al Wiebe, a housing advocate who used to be homeless on Winnipeg's streets, also said he was disappointed to find out the building had been sold.
"I know there was a lot of talk about it being turned back into subsidized housing, which is really, really what should have been done, because we have a dire lack of affordable housing right now in the city."
Edison Properties, a Winnipeg property management company which owns several buildings, including the Fort Garry Place apartment towers in downtown Winnipeg, bought the building and took possession a couple of weeks ago.
Families Minister Scott Fielding said in a statement that proceeds from the sale will let the province support thousands of Manitobans in the housing market with additional options.
Part of the proceeds will cover debt repayment on the building, a spokesperson elaborated in an emailed statement, and the province will retain $7.6 million in profits.
That money can be applied to cover portions of the province's budget, she said, including previous increases to Rent Assist, temporary housing costs for asylum seekers, financial support to End Homelessness Winnipeg and property repairs to community-based affordable housing.
"As the property at 185 Smith did not fit our current housing model of smaller projects that are better integrated into communities, we decided the property was better suited toward a group with a focus on downtown revitalization," she wrote.
Buyer excited by purchase
Edison Properties has big plans for the highrise, said vice-president Frank Koch-Schulte, and hopes the company will be able to help the building reach its full potential and be part of revitalizing downtown.
Koch-Schulte didn't want to get into specifics about the future of the building but said the company is looking at creating apartments that would rent at regular market rates.
He said the entire building has already been gutted and estimates it will be 18-24 months before it's turned into a new apartment building.
That will come with challenges, he said — the building's suites were tiny and it has a history of bedbug problems and crime.
"We just like a challenge. It's a neat building. It's got quite a different program than a lot of other buildings given that the suites are quite small originally, and so it's kind of a neat challenge to see what we come up with."