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Housing in ruins

The state of public housing in Manitoba is crumbling, tenants and advocates say

A man in a leather jacket stands in the stairwell of an apartment building with graffiti all over it.
Ted Chartrand says he thinks his building, which is owned by Manitoba Housing, should be shut down.'It’s not a place to be living,' he says.Prabhjot Lotey/CBC

As Canada faces an affordable housing crisis, a CBC investigation found Manitoba’s public housing system in a state of neglect, with thousands of Manitoba Housing units sitting vacant and thousands more people waiting in line for a home.

Not enough new units are being built, even as waitlists for affordable low-income homes hovered from 5,000 to nearly 10,000 over the last five years. For those fortunate enough to get a suite, more security is needed, apartments are in disrepair and pests are a constant concern.

There is no more significant example than 444 Kennedy St. in Winnipeg’s Central Park neighbourhood.

The 142-unit building owned by Manitoba Housing was once a thriving space built for low-income seniors, but in the last decade it fell into a state of decay, and tenants say they’re afraid to leave their suites after 9 p.m.

Security issues are so rampant that Manitoba Housing no longer places new tenants in the building and units are left empty. But that doesn’t help residents like Ted Chartrand, who has lived through this for 10 years.

“This place should be shut down,” Chartrand said. “It’s not a place to be living. I can’t even believe they are renting [this] place.”

Chartrand in his bachelor suite, where his eclectic decorations and collections make his small unit feel like home.

The 72-year-old pensioner sleeps on a couch in a bachelor suite and hopes someday for a one-bedroom apartment that could fit a bed.

Mail theft is so rampant that most residents say they get their mail sent to another address. The locks to the mailboxes have been broken for years. It’s common for residents to see copper wire stolen from the laundry room.

Stairwells are littered with garbage, and residents said before Manitoba Housing added a 24-hour security guard a few months ago, they were overrun with non-residents sleeping in them.

But Chartrand only pays $424 a month in rent for a bachelor suite, a rate that is directly geared to his income and would be near impossible to match in the private market; average rent for a Winnipeg bachelor suite was $802 in 2022, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says.

An open door that shows graffiti in the hallways of an apartment
Graffiti can be seen throughout the hallways and staircases of 444 Kennedy St. (Prabhjot Lotey/CBC)

He is one of the roughly 28,000 Manitobans who live in public housing owned and managed by the provincial government. Provincewide, the government directly manages 11,700 units, with a typical occupancy rate of 83 per cent.

Advocates have been saying for years that without an influx of investment into repairing the current stock and an emphasis on building new public housing units, the province cannot meet the growing demand for low-income housing.

A CBC News investigation found that:

  • Over 5,300 people are currently on the waitlist for Manitoba Housing, and at one point in 2020, nearly 10,000 people were waiting for a placement.
  • For the last 10 years, on average, 1,989 Manitoba Housing units have been vacant. Currently over 2,000 units sit vacant.
  • Seventy-five per cent of those units are vacant because they need to be repaired or renovated.
  • From 2015-16 on, the provincial government slashed the amount of money allotted to modernizing and improving Manitoba Housing buildings — dropping from $120 million to just $37 million in 2021-22.
  • Since 2016, over 800 new affordable housing units have been built, but fewer than half are deemed “social housing units,” meaning their rent is geared to someone’s income.

CBC News spoke to several Manitoba Housing tenants and experts to get an understanding of the current state of social housing in Winnipeg — characterized by tenants frustrated with the conditions of their suites and advocates decrying an infrastructure deficit spurred by years of neglect.

Through freedom of information requests and annual reports, CBC News tracked the spending on repairs, the number of social housing units lost over the last decade and the number of new units built.

CBC learned that in the past seven years, only a few hundred new units of social housing have been built.

A picture of a sign saying that the gym is closed
A sign says the gym at 444 Kennedy is closed because of the pandemic. Tenants say the common room is frequently closed, the pool tables are covered up and the televisions are gone. (Prabhjot Lotey/CBC)

'Not like it used to be'

Chartrand says life at 444 Kennedy wasn’t always bad. When he first moved in, it was clean and there was good management. There were computers, a television and a pool table in the common area.

But in the last few years, things changed.

In the first eight months of 2023, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service responded to 300 emergency calls and 118 fire calls at that address — nearly double the calls to that location for all of 2018.

“I’ve got nothing good to say about this place now. Not like it used to be,” Chartrand said.

CBC News requested an interview with the deputy minister responsible for Manitoba Housing, but was denied due to constraints on speaking about government programming around the upcoming election.

In a prepared statement, a spokesperson for Manitoba Housing — the provincial department responsible for the development and management of housing policies — said that Manitoba Housing’s chief operating officer is working with tenants to improve conditions at 444 Kennedy.

The COO gave his contact information to every tenant so they could share their concerns, the spokesperson said. They are also working on evicting tenants engaged in criminal behaviour.

Manitoba Housing said in January there were 143 security issues reported at 444 Kennedy, but that decreased to 35 calls last month.

A photo of a hallway filled with mailboxes that are left open and are broken.
Most residents don't get their mail to 444 Kennedy, because Canada Post refuses to deliver to a broken mailbox. Tenants say these mailboxes have been broken for years. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Multi-year waits

Rayanna MacDonald has been waiting three years just to get into Manitoba Housing.

Her family pays over $1,400 a month for a place in St. Vital, which has been a burden for MacDonald and her husband, as they aren’t working and support two children.

She said it’s been a struggle to find housing in the private market because she is on income assistance, and landlords don’t want to rent to her family.

But she got a call this month that Manitoba Housing finally has a home for her family. She described the moment she got the call as one of pure joy.

“I literally started jumping and really happy screaming,” she said.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Housing said family units in suburban Winnipeg have the longest wait times. Households are triaged using a point rating system, and people experiencing homelessness or gender-based violence are prioritized.

Dozens of people reached out to CBC News to say they were also on the waitlist for Manitoba Housing, many for multiple years.

The solution to tackling the waitlist is twofold, said Kirsten Bernas, provincial chair of the Right to Housing Coalition: build more social housing units and repair what the province already has.

Since 2016, Manitoba Housing has funded 874 new units considered affordable, but just over 30 per cent of those new units are designated as rent geared to income. These units set rent at 30 per cent of a person’s income or at the employment and income assistance rate.

Often referred to as “deeply affordable” units, rent-geared-to-income homes are needed most in Manitoba, advocates say, with 5,200 people waiting for this type of housing.

“There’s obviously a desperate shortage of that kind of housing,” said Bernas.

“We’re really concerned that we’re not adding to the supply, like building and expanding what we have.”

The coalition says Manitoba needs at least 10,000 more of these units in the next 10 years to meet the current level of demand.

A unit inside of an apartment on Rosseau
This apartment in a building on Rosseau Avenue rents out for $700 a month. It is owned by a private landlord. (Prabhjot Lotey/CBC)
The owner told CBC News he visited the building every day to fix things. (Prabhjot Lotey/CBC)
The hallway leading up the stairs at an apartment block on Rosseau Avenue that is now condemned. (Prabhjot Lotey/CBC)

Private sector not a solution: prof

Shauna MacKinnon, a professor and chair of the University of Winnipeg’s department of urban and inner city studies, said governments can’t rely on the private sector to provide low-income housing.

“People go into the development and delivery of rental housing to make a profit,” MacKinnon said.

“There’s no profit to be made from housing that is provided for people in very low incomes.”

In the private sector, low-barrier apartments — the kind that will take in someone with a poor rental history or on income assistance — can be costly, unreliable and dangerous, she said.

Last month, dozens of residents were left homeless when the City of Winnipeg shut down the Adanac Apartments on Sargent Avenue in the West End, citing safety concerns.

There had been multiple issues — including homicides, assaults and fires — in the building. Last month, fire inspectors found several violations, like a non-functioning fire alarm system, apartments without power running extension cords to hallway outlets, and blocked fire escapes.

“Often what is available at the low rents that they can afford is very poor quality housing or unsafe housing,” Bernas said.

Over on Rosseau Avenue in Transcona, two three-storey apartment buildings will be shuttered next week after the provincial government condemned the units for being unsafe.

The residents there told CBC News they were paying $700 to $800 per month to live in squalor. Half the units were abandoned, many units didn’t have doors, the entrance to the apartment building had no locks, the bathrooms appeared unusable and garbage was everywhere.

When residents spoke to CBC News, they had no idea where they would live next — one person said likely on the street.

While CBC was at the buildings, owner Solomon Hagos arrived to work on cleaning them out. He blamed his tenants for the mess and said he was at the apartments daily to fix things.

As he told a CBC reporter how much work he put into the place, a tenant screamed at him, telling him he was a liar.

Now Hagos says he’s getting out of the business of being a landlord. It’s better left for Manitoba Housing to serve low-income people, because he can’t afford it, he said.

Hagos said he isn’t a slum landlord because slum landlords have money and choose not to fix things, while he has maxed out his credit cards.

“But as a normal person working as a landlord to do everything, there is no way,” he said.

A woman in glasses sits on a bed in a crowded room filled with a bassinet and another bed.
Lisa Pommer sits in her living room, which she has turned into a bedroom she shares with her baby and toddler. Her two teenage daughters use the bedrooms. (Kristin Annable/CBC)

Families squeezed

For all of Manitoba Housing’s faults, Lisa Pommer, a 36-year-old mother of four, relies on public housing to keep a roof over her family’s head.

“This is all I got at the end of the day, and I couldn’t afford a place on my own,” she said.

“After paying for daycare, paying for school fees, paying for food, groceries, I don’t even know how some people are making it, to be honest.”

She lives in a two-bedroom unit in Central Park, despite asking Manitoba Housing for a larger suite to accommodate her family for years. She sleeps in her living room with her seven-month-old baby in a bassinet beside her and her youngest daughter in a bed an arm’s-length away.

She reserves the two bedrooms for her teenage daughters, hoping to give them a semblance of privacy.

A woman in glasses standing in a room behind two beds in a crowded room.
Savanna Huard has four children, but only three bedrooms in the apartment she shares with her husband. Two of her children sit in makeshift rooms in the kitchen area, where she uses bedsheets for privacy. (Kristin Annable/CBC)

Savanna Huard, her husband and four children live in a three-bedroom apartment in the same building as Pommer.

There aren’t enough rooms for all the kids, so her two youngest sleep in an area designed to be a pantry. Huard hung sheets from the ceiling to give her kids some privacy, but the building caretaker told her that was a fire hazard.

“They’re just not big enough, so I’ve kind of had to makeshift rooms for them, and they’re not happy about that because that’s in a common area,” Huard said. “There’s no privacy.”

She’s been on a waitlist for a bigger place for more than two years.

“They just keep telling me that I’m approved and they’re just waiting for a property manager to call me,” she said.

Several people who spoke to CBC News said they have been waiting years to transfer to a new Manitoba Housing home that fits their growing families.

Pommer said she looks around every day and wishes she had her own bedroom. There’s a vacant unit down the hall from her — nearly double the size of her apartment, with three bedrooms — an emptiness that’s been taunting her for a year.

“If you could clean up the three-bedroom and just slide me over, that’d be great, because I would love to have more room,” she said.

“It’s hard when … you’re stuck like this and you’re so close like this. There’s not a lot of growing opportunity for your children.”

Some units in her building have been vacant for over a year, she said.

CBC news found chronically vacant units in complexes throughout Winnipeg, and most tenants said it was because no one had come in to repair them.

A spokesperson with Manitoba Housing said sometimes these vacancies are caused by upgrades that require a whole floor or entire building to be vacated, while in some cases, like at 444 Kennedy, the vacancy is caused by “serious security issues.”

In need of repair

Pommer’s biggest concern is that cockroaches and bedbugs invade her apartment through cracks in her floor and roof. She uses tape, or even playdough, to stuff the cracks and keep the pests away.

One of the bedroom doors, made of thin plywood, sits off its hinges.

She calls her Manitoba Housing contact to get these things fixed, but says it rarely gets done.

“You got to call the line that they give you … and say, ‘Hey, can you come and fix this?’ or ‘This broke,’” Pommer said.

“Sometimes they show, sometimes they don’t.”

Through a freedom of information request, CBC News obtained data from the Manitoba Housing communications centre, where tenants call when they have issues with their units.

It showed that from April 2022 to early January 2023, over 23,000 calls were made to the communications centre asking for service or for something in a unit to be repaired — an average of 81 calls per day.

The most common call topics were plumbing, extermination, locksmith, electrical repairs and to fix a door or window.

The provincial government recently touted an additional $67 million for repairs for Manitoba Housing units, but this came after years of cuts to the Crown corporation’s modernization and improvement budget.

Annual reports show that from the 2010 fiscal year to 2015, over $82 million a year was spent, on average, in capital upgrades to Manitoba Housing units across the province. Over the next six years, spending was cut in half, with just over $40 million spent each year on average.

Immediate response needed

Steve Pomeroy has spent decades advising on housing in Canada, and says if society treated the affordable housing crisis the way wildfires are treated, we would respond immediately to those most in need — not kick things down the road with a promise of building more homes over the course of a few years.

“When we had wildfires across the country, we didn’t wait for a year to get the firefighters to come to the front lines and fight the fire…. It is like saying to the firefighters, ‘Hang around, stay home for the year,’” said Pomeroy, who worked for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation for a decade, then moved on to research centres with Carleton and McMaster universities.

“The problem is that [while] people can get on a plane today and arrive tonight, we can’t create [housing] supply overnight.”

Instead, he says the only way to treat this crisis is with an immediate emergency response — by upping rent supplements so more people can find a home and freeing up much-needed social housing units for people in the most desperate situations.

“The sort of the fixation that the federal government is on — ‘We just need more supply’ — more supply doesn’t create units at low rent ... and will not respond to the needs of those low-income folks,” he said.

“The market won’t build it, the public sector does. So I think we do need to get back into the [housing] business.”

This is the first in a three-part series that will look at the state of social housing in Manitoba.

Editing by Anastasia Chipelski and Lara Schroeder.

With files from Lauren Donnelly and Vera-Lynn Kubinec.

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