'Historic' $170M plan to repair community housing comes after decades of deterioration

Windsor city council has approved a $170 million plan to renew and repair its community housing between now and 2028.

CEO says waitlist for housing has topped 5,500

Windsor city council has approved a $170 million plan to repair its aging community housing stock, like this bathroom inside a unit at 395 University Avenue East, which likely hasn't been upgraded since the 1960s. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

There's a time capsule of sorts inside the community housing building at 395 University Avenue East.

Walking into Unit 107 is like stepping into the past.

The kitchen cabinets, bathroom tile, and even some of the door handles harken back to the early 1960s when it was designed. In those days, the apartment offered the cutting-edge of accessibility.

WATCH: Cathy Nantais and Kirk Whittal share why housing is worth investing in.

Residents happy decades old buildings to get revamped

3 years ago
Duration 1:05
Community housing resident Cathy Nantais and COO Kirk Whittal are grateful for the new investment.

Today, it's uninhabited, and has been for years.

"These units are typically very difficult to rent because it doesn't meet the accessibility needs most people require," explained Kirk Whittal, COO of the Windsor-Essex Community Housing Corporation (CHC).

While the unit sits empty, the wait list for housing in the city has topped 5,500.

CHC currently covers more than 4,700 units in 735 buildings. Much of its stock is decades-old, with construction of some facilities dating back to the 50s, 60s and 70s.

But changes are coming. Windsor city council has approved a $170-million plan to renew and repair its community housing between now and 2028, after years of underfunding.

It's a "historic investment," according to Ward 2 councillor and CHC board member Fabio Costante.

Mayor Drew Dilkens also took to Twitter, where he described the decision as the "largest investment" in public housing in more than 10 years.

About $90 million of that funding would come from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The city and county would cover $40 million, adding another $40 million in the years to come.

"I'm happy. My staff refer to it as 'He's happy, happy, happy!' This is great," said CHC's CEO Jim Steele.

The corporation has been underfunded for years, he added.

"You do the best that you can. More for less has been the motto we've worked with. But over time you move into tomorrow the problem you should have paid for today."

Funding has swung like a 'pendulum'

Windsor isn't alone when it comes to a long waitlist and aging facilities.  Housing advocates say many cities have struggled to properly fund affordable housing and have not had support from other levels of government. 

Province-wide research carried out by the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association before the pandemic found a need for 69,000 more rental housing units and called for repairs in 260,000 others.

"What Windsor is experiencing is the story across Ontario and I have to tell you across Canada as well. Ontario and British Columbia are in very dire need," said CEO Marlene Coffey.

The CEO of the Windsor Essex Community Housing Corporation says some of the funds are earmarked for improving accessibility. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Funding for housing across the province has swung like a "pendulum" over the years, she added.

"What we've seen is ... there have been periods of investment and expansion and then, over time, in the 1990s there was devolution, which lead to additional constraints, which put housing into the municipal portfolio mostly," she said.

"There has been a long time of under-funding in the sector."

That lack of support is now being compounded by the need for repairs in older buildings, yet another result of a housing system that was cobbled together over 30 years and not by design — It just sort of happened.

The cost of maintaining housing is often too much for municipalities to bear and Coffey said her organization is looking for the federal and provincial government to supply stabilization funding.

A chance at a 'clean slate'

Forced to focus on big-picture problems such as roofing, fire safety and trying to keep the elevators running, the interiors of many local units have been come outdated and tired, according to Steele.

Tenant complaints about everything from kitchen cupboards to heat and security have piled up for years. Now the CEO hopes the massive injection of funding could help make its properties more comfortable.

"To be able to get in there and just take everything out and just start with a clean slate, we can talk to the customer, and we can say 'How best should we do this for you? What do you need?'"

Cathy Nantais has lived in community housing for roughly 15 years.

Cathy Nantais has lived in community housing in Windsor for 15 years. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

In all that time she's heard about and witnessed a range of problems from water issues and fires to complaints about other occupants.

Some of the CHC sites are in need of serious work, she said, speaking generally.

"The floor has been there since the building was built. It's all cracking, it's all getting mould in it that you can't get it out. It's got to be replaced. And it smells," she said.

"Then you look up and there are ceiling tiles and they're leaking and there's water stains and mould up there too."

'We're people, just like everybody else'

While $170 million might seem like a lot to most people, Nantais anticipates it will only be enough to cover the major issues in each building.

Beefing up front-door security, energy management and alarm systems are among the changes that are anticipated, said Steele.

Improving accessibility, beyond what's offered in spaces like Unit 107, also represents a large portion of the planned funding.

"We're excited. It's a tremendous amount of work. It's going to be difficult work, but we're ... looking forward to the idea of trying to make an improvement to our portfolio," said Whittal.

Kirk Whittal is the chief operating officer of the Windsor Essex Community Housing Corporation. He says fixing up its facilities will be a daunting, but exciting task. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

As for those who might question spending so much on social housing, Nantais has a simple answer.

"B.S. Just because some of us end up in community housing doesn't mean we're anything less than someone who lives in Russell Woods or South Windsor or wherever. We're people, just like everybody else, except, this happens to be our home," she said.

"If it wasn't for CHC and housing there'd be a lot more of us out on the street."