By: Stefano Grande
Winnipeg Free Press, March 13, 2010
During a recent omnibus survey conducted on behalf of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, we discovered Winnipeggers love their downtown and are visiting it more, but still want to see an end to its social challenges. The public is saying downtown can never be fully revitalized until the dangerous combination of poverty and addiction, which leads to panhandling, loitering, petty crimes, public intoxication and homelessness, is dealt with. Addressing homelessness and improving safety are two of the top three priorities of Winnipeggers.
One of the biggest reasons these issues are so prevalent in our downtown is because it is surrounded by social housing, social supports, rooming houses and single-room-occupancy units, creating a concentration of poverty and social issues. There are two steps our city needs to take before it can ever truly move forward.
The first is converting the dilapidated, single-room-occupant hotels, which many of those with social challenges frequent, and re-furbishing them into affordable and supportive housing. Eliminating the drinking and establishments, and in turn, replacing despair with hope is fundamental. We already know this model works everywhere else.
The conversion of the old Occidental Hotel on Main Street by local architect Richard Walls saw the well-known and infamous building unburdened of its bar and graced with housing for low-income artists. It has created new commercial space for local art groups, who are in turn giving back to the community through education, employment and art. The proposed conversion of the old Bell Hotel into supportive housing is also a good start. This approach, which comes with the added task of helping those with social challenges, is mandatory if we are to see real change.
The second is allowing those eligible for social housing to rent anywhere in the city. We need to use the same social housing rent formula and partner with private landlords across the city instead of forcing people and families to live in government housing projects, many of which are found in and around downtown.
The poor have been ghettoized, and cities across the world are recognizing the failure of this well-intentioned social policy, as it has destroyed older neighbourhoods and hampered the full revitalization of downtowns and the inner city. All our citizens should to be able to rent homes in any of Winnipeg’s communities, no matter what their income. While this approach may not directly address poverty, it does provide hope, it challenges everyone in a positive manner and helps build a more inclusive community.
As for those social housing complexes already in downtown, they could be sold to the private sector with the intent of conversion into mixed-income buildings, offering affordable rentals with the potential of home ownership. Young and elderly people want to live downtown, and if given affordable choices they will come. Those eligible for social housing wanting to stay, could stay.
The proceeds from the sales of these buildings could, in turn, be used to build even more affordable housing and reinvesting into inner city re-employment programs. This is a prime example of how governments can find more financial resources within existing budgets, while maintaining their current commitments to those who need social housing. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Just imagine how the Central Park neighbourhood could be transformed if the dozens of social housing buildings that surround the recently-revitalized, world-class park were opened to anyone to rent or buy. But just one level of government can’t do it alone. Changing government operating agreements and policies are all impediments. The vision of social and economic transformation for our downtown and inner city clearly needs to come from its citizens, with the private sector playing an important role. And from this, leadership or a champion is needed.
The economic and human cost of leaving these issues unchecked makes itself evident on the front page of the newspaper every day. If the perceptions of downtown safety and the challenges of our city are to change forever, this is where we need to start.
Stefano Grande is executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone.