Home-grown solution for city’s new housing policy

by Christina Maes Nino and Gord McIntyre
The city of Winnipeg is in the process of updating its housing policy. With a new development plan for the city, population growth expected and the lack of affordable housing reaching critical levels, the time is right for the city to take a more active role on the housing front.
Winnipeg’s existing policy on housing was created in 1999 and focuses mostly on inner-city revitalization. 
Throughout the late 1990s, Winnipeg had little to no population growth. With urban sprawl, neighbourhoods like William Whyte and West Broadway were losing up to 16 per cent of their residents. Arson had become rampant and owners of boarded-up houses were giving them away in exchange for charitable tax receipts. 
To prevent Winnipeg from becoming like Detroit and other hollowed-out cities, residents’ associations and neighbourhood revitalization organizations were established in five Housing Improvement Zones (HIZs). Though there are still challenges in Winnipeg’s inner city, this community development approach has built local capacity, improved and increased the value of housing stock, and led to new affordable housing in inner city neighbourhoods.
A new housing policy for the city of Winnipeg should build on past successes, while working to increase the supply and diversity of housing throughout the city. Many Canadian cities have policies for housing and homelessness, as the lack of appropriate housing contributes to homelessness. Therefore, we see the need for the housing policy to include three areas of focus: concentrated revitalization of inner-city neighbourhoods, effective support for the development of affordable housing and collaboration to end homelessness. These are interrelated areas, but each requires different partnerships, resources and approaches.
Community revitalization
The current housing policy concentrates scarce resources to areas with the highest need and allows communities to set priorities for their own revitalization. The geographic concentration of resources has a noticeable effect, and, therefore, has encouraged private investment in areas where it was once in decline. This investment in housing, through programs, such as the Minimum Home Repair, has preserved affordable housing while it improves the safety and desirability of the HIZ communities. It has also achieved higher property values in these neighbourhoods, thereby increasing their contribution of property taxes. 
Affordable housing
With its Housing Rehabilitation Investment Reserve, the city became a key player in helping to create new infill housing. City programs, such as the Development Cost Offsets, have been instrumental in developing vacant lots into affordable housing, while giving community organizations a lead role in the management of these initiatives. 
However, with the federal government’s continuing withdrawal from housing, the role of the city and province becomes even greater in regards to the creation of affordable housing.  
While the population of Winnipeg has grown by over 40,000 in the past 10 years, the total number of rental units has decreased by about 1,000. Existing affordable housing is rapidly being demolished or converted to condominiums.  Furthermore, many of Manitoba’s social housing units run by co-operatives, non-profits and urban native organizations are at risk with subsidies about to expire. 
There are tools, ranging from financial and tax incentives to regulations and enforcement, that can be packaged to increase the affordable housing supply. Winnipeg can learn from municipalities across Canada which have found that these tools depend on political will and require mechanisms in place to support and monitor their implementation.
Ending homelessness
The city of Winnipeg has only been directly involved in homelessness through the provision of emergency services (police, ambulance). Some cities, including Calgary and Hamilton, have community plans focused on ending homelessness rather than simply managing it. Homelessness is a complicated issue, as it requires support and other social services that are not the responsibility of the city. The city can gain committed partners who bring resources, expertise, and commitment towards ending homelessness, if it takes a collaborative, community-based approach.
All implementation strategies — to revitalize neighbourhoods, create affordable housing and end homelessness — will only be effective if there is support, commitment and continued dedication from those stakeholders who are affected and active. This is why it is important to watch and contribute to the development of the new Winnipeg Housing Policy. Community consultations on policy options will happen in mid-October and will be advertised at www.speakupwinnipeg.com.
(Christina Maes Nino is with the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and Gord McIntyre is with the Winnipeg Rental Network.)