This house is not a home

housing-2014

It’s a challenge to find affordable housing in good repair in Winnipeg’s North End.

A key North End community-housing agency says its lack of funding means it’s not uncommon for it to be left with little choice but to offer run-down housing to lower-income tenants.

“The poorest people who need the housing the most are going to take whatever they can get,” said Dale Harik, housing program manager of the North End Community Renewal Corporation, or NECRC.

Many people who walk through their doors are looking for a place to rent between $500-600, which can be hard to find. The median market rate for a bachelor apartment in Winnipeg in 2014 was $579, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported.

Once they get into a place, NECRC will work with them to see what upgrades can be done, but again, many of their clients won’t file claims against their landlord because that would mean dealing with the provincial Residential Tenancies Branch.

Harik says many won’t do this because of “institutional distrust.”

Those receiving help with rent from the province’s Rent Assist program only just started receiving enough to cover 75 per cent of the median market rent. Changes to the program took effect November 2015.

Subsidies like these help, but being unable to afford market housing and a lack of social housing leaves people looking for housing with few options.

“Of course that is going to support a system of sub-par housing,” said Harik.

In the 1900’s, the North End started out as an area of Winnipeg where many immigrants and working-class families lived. With a sudden increase in population leading up to the First World War, developers built properties quickly and cheaply.

“The poorest people who need the housing the most are going to take whatever they can get.”

Dale Harik
North End Community Renewal Corporation

By 1904, just 45 per cent of homes in the North End had running water — compared to 80 per cent of homes in Winnipeg overall, according to Russ Gourlack’s North End-history book, The Mosaic Village.

Also, the North End was crowded, housing 43 per cent of Winnipeg’s population by 1906 even though it amounted to only one third of Winnipeg geographically. Many homes built for large families ended up providing shelter to as many as 25 people.

This neighbourhood has a long history of poverty and prejudice. It was known not only as the North End but also, ‘the foreign quarter’, ‘CPR town’, ‘New Jerusalem’ and ‘Jew Town’.

Some of that prejudicial history is mirrored in the modern day North End. Many residents are low income, immigrants and minorities. In areas like Dufferin, William Whyte, Lord Selkirk Park and North Point Douglas over 40 per cent of respondents to the City of Winnipeg’s 2011 Census and National Household Survey Data identified as Aboriginal, a historically marginalized people.

When Harik lived at Selkirk Avenue and Aikins Street several years ago, he would see prostitution every day. He notes that he witnesses less crime today, but that it’s still very much a reality in the North End.

“Anywhere you see marginalized people you’re still going to see that kind of thing because it’s an opportunity to make money,” Harik said.

In areas where crime was particularly evident in the North End, the property values reflected the demand to live in the area. Harik recalled you could buy many properties for near $10,000.

Low property values made it easier for people to buy them for use as personal and rental properties.

“When I was young, it was all about gangs, you’d get beaten up for wearing the wrong colour.”

Randy Piere
North End renter

Gourlack explained how it was common for North End families to rent apartments and houses before purchasing their own. In areas like Lord Selkirk Park and South Point Douglas — over 80 per cent of properties were rented and not owned according to the 2011 Census and National Household Survey Data.

There are areas like William Whyte where the percentage of rental properties is closer to 40 percent but in some areas like Lord Selkirk Park and South Point Douglas — over 80 per cent of properties were rented and not owned according to the 2011 Census and National Household Survey Data. / Chloe Ross-Rogerson

Areas like William Whyte the percentage of rental properties is closer to 40 percent but in some areas like Lord Selkirk Park and South Point Douglas — over 80 percent of properties were rented and not owned according to the 2011 Census and National Household Survey Data. / Chloe Ross-Rogerson

Randy Piere was raised in the North End and now rents his own home there. Piere also works with youth in the North End at the Andrews Street Family Centre and notices a difference in his community. When he was growing up, kids would come up to him and ask what gang he was affiliated with, not if he wanted to play.

“When I was young, it was all about gangs,” said Piere. “You’d get beaten up for wearing the wrong colour.”

Different generations have different perceptions of how the North End is today and if it has really changed for the better.

“My mom still, to this day, has to have an alarm,” said Piere. “Even though she doesn’t live in the North End any more.”

Piere said his mother didn’t feel safe in the North End after she was robbed in her home. She’s now moved out of the area. But his experiences haven’t altered his views. In fact, he says he feels safer in the North End at night then he does in Winnipeg’s Downtown.

The closing of the notorious Merchants Hotel on Selkirk Avenue, a busy beer vendor and bar, was seen as a turning point for many people, who Pierre has said have since noted a marked positive change in the neighborhood.

“Before there wouldn’t be a day where you wouldn’t be approached by somebody, now it’s more calm,” said Piere. “Seems like a neighbourhood where you say hi and they say hi back.”

What was the Merchants Hotel and is to re-open as the Merchants Corner in 2017. / Chloe Ross-Rogerson

The former Merchants Hotel is to re-open as the Merchants Corner in 2017. / Chloe Ross-Rogerson

Harik says a lot of properties in the North End — ones with unmowed lawns and boarded up windows — might look like they are operated by slum landlords to outsiders but that’s not always accurate.

“In a lot of the cases, those landlords are very small portfolio landlords,” said Harik.

These landlords in many cases have had the same tenant for years and don’t increase rent because they know they can’t afford it. Because of this, they don’t have enough money to properly maintain the property.

NECRC deals with many landlords who get into the business without understanding the full scope of what that job entails. This is one reason they started the Tenant Landlord Cooperation (TLC) program to help either party with rental issues through education on legislation and representation at Residential Tenancy Board (RTB) hearings.

Researcher Rachel Gotthilf wrote a paper on the TLC in 2013. She found 86 per cent of their clients were female, 81 percent earned less than $19,000 a year and 81 percent self-identified as Aboriginal. Harik said they went at least one year without losing a case at an RTB hearing.

“It was that blatant that people were operating outside of the legislation through ignorance or by willfully choosing not to abide by [it].”

A graph showing statistics taken from the City of Winnipeg's 2011 Household and National Survey Data showing the percentage of renters by area in South and North Point Douglas. / Chloe Ross-Rogerson

A graph of statistics from City of Winnipeg’s 2011 Household and National Survey Data showing the percentage of renters by area in South and North Point Douglas. / Chloe Ross-Rogerson

Most cases NECRC deals with are solved through mediation while only a small percentage of cases escalate to a hearing. They had roughly 30-35 hearings a year when starting out in 2007. Last year, they had around 15.

Piere takes issue with landlords who don’t take pride in their properties, and instead just buy them to make a quick return.

“We need more [government controlled] Manitoba Housing, where there is structure, they make sure the right people get in. These landlords don’t really care who comes to move in,” said Piere. “They rent them, rent them, rent them until the house dies.”

The 2011 Census and National Household Survey Data from the City of Winnipeg indicated an increase in home-ownership rates. For Harik, the data doesn’t add up.

“I don’t quite trust the new Census that came out,” said Harik. “I have a hard time believing it’s much different from the 60/40 split we’ve traditionally had.”

NECRC would like to see the rental to ownership ratio in the North End be similar to the rest of Winnipeg which would be 60 per cent owned, 40 per cent rental — the opposite of its current state.

A black board at the Merchants Corner on Selkirk Avenue with chalked messages saying what people love about the North End and why. / Chloe Ross-Rogerson

A blackboard at the Merchants Corner on Selkirk Avenue with chalked messages saying what people love about the North End and why. / Chloe Ross-Rogerson