Wait list soars for Manitoba Housing units — and so do the vacancies
While 9,000 people are waiting, there are 1,700 units empty, housing advocate says
The demand for subsidized housing units in Manitoba is rising — and so is the number of those units sitting empty, which has some advocates worrying the province is planning to rid itself of more affordable housing stock.
New statistics from Manitoba Housing shows the interest among potential tenants is climbing. There were 9,049 households on the waiting list as of June — nearly 2,200 more applicants than at the start of 2019.
Meanwhile, 1,770 units were vacant at the end of June, which the provincial government confirmed in an email is higher than the usual number of vacancies at any given time.
Families Minister Heather Stefanson said in an email that Manitoba Housing usually counts 1,100 vacancies as part of its regular turnover of units.
The additional vacancies this summer are the result of units being pulled off the market due to "planned or ongoing capital improvements, or are in a low-demand area with chronic vacancies and may be available for sale," Stefanson said.
The vacancy and wait list totals from the summer were revealed through a freedom of information request by the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents some Manitoba Housing workers.
MGEU resident Michelle Gawronsky said it's shameful that thousands are looking for a home while so many units are vacant.
"They need to come forward and they need to explain to these 9,000 families, they need to explain to the taxpayers of Manitoba, why there's 1,800 vacant units that are not being filled and why the upkeep has not been kept for these facilities."
Housing advocate Kirsten Bernas said she isn't surprised more people are going without the shelter they want.
She noted Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government has been selling some of its housing stock. The province signalled in March that it wants to transition to the role of funder and regulator of public housing, rather than landlord.
"If you're … actually taking action to reduce the supply, which is what we're seeing happening in the province's plans to get rid of our provincial housing assets, it's no surprise we're going to see the demand increase," said Bernas, chair of the Right to Housing coalition's provincial working group.
Province may be planning to sell units: advocates
The province would not specify how many units are subject to renovations or a potential sale when asked by CBC News.
Stefanson announced this summer her government would spend $31.2 million to improve housing units available to low-income Manitoba. The funding announcement would turn over 800 vacant units for new tenants, 400 of which would be in Winnipeg.
"Our government is also working to provide Manitobans with access to safe and affordable housing, which is why we have invested more than $100 million in new social and affordable housing rental units, creating 631 new units for Manitobans who need them," the minister wrote.
Bernas, however, is troubled the government seems to be trying to sell units. The Manitoba Liberals noted last year the province has sold 94 Manitoba Housing properties since 2016.
"If they're sitting vacant because they're waiting to sell them … that is consistent with the provincial government's plan to divest of these units," she said.
"That's really unfortunate that people who are waiting for this housing and really need it can't access it."
Gawronsky suggested the province is preparing to sell more properties, especially after the government announced last month it was looking for a firm to appraise the value of each of Manitoba Housing's 4,000-plus properties, which have over 16,000 units between them.
She alleged the province has let its housing properties languish by putting off needed repairs.
Properties depreciating: MGEU
"They've left them for the last four years to decline in value, which is going to be wonderful for anyone that's going to go into the business and wants to purchase them," Gawronsky said.
In turn, the Tories say when they were elected in 2016, they inherited $1 billion in deferred maintenance from the previous NDP government.
As the private sector takes a greater role in assuming low-income housing, Lucille Bruce with End Homelessness Winnipeg said the government shouldn't shirk its responsibilities to ensure that people have shelter.
"They still need to be involved in finding ways of supporting the private sector and the not-for-profit groups to be able to successfully operate those units so that they can maintain them for people who are living with very low income," she said.
Bruce said her organization is in conversations with the provincial government about offering help. Mental health and addictions supports are also needed, she said, as well as culturally sensitive housing arrangements.
Last Wednesday's speech from the throne said the province would partner with Ottawa to create a housing benefit for vulnerable Manitobans that is "portable" — meaning the payment is tied to an individual, rather than a rental unit.