Low-income housing under review

Manitoba Family Services and Housing and the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation hosted a think-tank session this week with a number of key housing stakeholders. The aim was to seek their input and feedback on the progress thus far to rehabilitate and develop housing for low-income people. 

It was a day well spent. There were informed speakers and plenty of opportunity to raise questions and pointing out concerns in areas needing attention. 

Credit should be extended to Family Services and Housing Minister Christine Melnick for holding a session where input is welcome — even if that means criticism of the ways things are done now.

So, what were some of the conclusions, suggestions and determinations if you will from the collective brain trust on low-income housing?

Accessibility to low-cost housing is still very much an issue. There is a lack of new construction and a tight existing rental supply, especially larger three-bedroom units that are necessary to accommodate larger families that may be looking to immigrate to Winnipeg.

Remarks were made by a number of housing rehabilitation organizations, including the various inner-city neighbourhood associations, that Winnipeg has been very effective in upgrading housing stock, but the market is still fragile. Part of the fragility comes in realizing housing is only one component — albeit a key one — in rejuvenating a neighbourhood. Other issues such as safety, commercial business vitality, income mix, social stability, recreational opportunities, etc., also come into play in an overall neighbourhood strategy. You need to create non-shelter outcomes when dealing effectively with affordable housing. 

A brand new infill home or completely rehabilitated home will only be well received by a potential home buyer if other community issues are being successfully dealt with in a neighbourhood. The larger goal is safe, healthy and inclusive, and sustainable communities.

Housing rehabilitation programs may raise property values in an area, but without addressing the social issues, these programs can, and often do, lead to displacement of low-income people. One solution offered clearly identified was the need for more single-room occupancy.

Another point made by Steve Pomeroy, who has an in depth and broad background in affordable housing policy, is that Winnipeg — Manitoba for that matter — has not done enough in the supportive housing area. This is, housing that directly relates to individuals with health-related issues. Of course, a number of them are also income challenged.

Talk revolved around the need for more training of people involved in the “provision infrastructure” referred to by Professor Ian Skelton. Housing providers for low-income people need to understand and be better equipped to handle issues specific to them. They need to know where and how to access credit counseling, job training, addiction services, and other education and government support services. 

Participants agreed that as housing providers, more expertise has to be developed in areas of finance, accounting and all of the technical issues around rehabilitation of distressed properties (e.g., building codes, bylaw requirements). As well, the ability to communicate at various levels of discourse from clients to community activists to government officials is critical to move projects forward.

There was certainly agreement that more co-ordination is required among all  the housing providers to facilitate the sharing of information so that existing or new groups, coming along to provide low-income housing, do not repeat the same mistakes. These mistakes vary in magnitude but can be very costly, if not fatal, to one’s organization’s continued existence. One of the problems identified in this area was the lack of horizontal integration of providers and government departments involved in supporting them. There should be a clearing house where information can be exchanged on the various aspects of low-income housing across the city.

Everyone understood there is never enough money to meet the present demand. Nevertheless, how can you maximize the resources you do have to help provide housing for low income people? 

Without going into a lot of detail, areas of focus including:

• Encouraging more private-sector participation.

• Developing more creative financing instruments. 

• Income mixing to enhance project/neighbourhood viability. 

• More thorough client needs analysis. 

• Lower rates of financing provided by government. 

• More funding in general (have experienced significant cutbacks over the years), 

• Recycling money government from  social housing programs back into a affordable housing.

• Considering equity financing where investors can be rewarded through tax benefits

• Setting up an arms length housing foundation

• Creating incentives and conversely disincentives to reward positive tenant behaviour with respect to all of the costs and investment that goes into low income housing.

• Providing longer term, predictable levels of funding.

• Looking at some of the financial models (e.g., tax credit system) south of the border which have stimulated the private sector to one-million units of low-income housing.

There was recognition of specific target groups such as aboriginal people and new immigrants and a realization that the current delivery system is not keeping up with the growing need to service these groups. 

As for the delivery system itself, it was acknowledged that there needs to be a more consistent set of standards for all housing providers to follow and hold all of them accountable for meeting them satisfactorily.

There was consensus amongst all participants that more can be done by working together as opposed to working apart, and that the government is willing to listen to all stakeholders to improve on the delivery of low-income housing.