Public Housing Climbs Ladder On City Council Priority List
It sparked my interest last year when it was disclosed, with some fanfare, that the City of Windsor had shortlisted an expression of interest from the Windsor Express pro basketball team and the YMCA to revitalize the mothballed Windsor Arena (“The Barn”) and Windsor Water World facilities.
What intrigued me more was the revelation that “submissions may also address the potential impact and opportunities regarding surrounding properties.”
That would include the often discredited Glengarry social housing complex which occupies the six acre block bordering Caesars Windsor. Whatever any redevelopment plans for that property might be, none have been shortlisted, and they remain hush hush behind the in-camera cloak of City of Windsor Council.
Glengarry is 100 percent Rent Geared to Income (RGI) housing which was designed for a bygone era similar to other downtrodden Windsor Essex Community Housing Corporation (CHC) projects like Bloomfield/St. Joseph on the west end and Fontainebleau Row on the east side. The units are clustered together, segregated from nearby neighbourhoods, not reflective of the whole community.
Glengarry is comprised of 482 units, including the 56 row houses in Glengarry Court, fronting on the 300 block of McDougall Avenue, across from the spanking new City Hall.
Glengarry Court primarily accommodates families in bachelor, one, two, three, four and five bedroom units. These were built in 1961, as was the 80-unit Dr. Roy Perry apartment building at 395 University Avenue East containing bachelors, one and two bedrooms.
Engulfed in the development are three other stark apartment buildings, some minus balconies — Wheelton Manor, Cameron Montrose Apartments and Chateau Masson — built in 1966-67. About half of those units are occupied today by single male tenants. The vacancy rate for the 482 units is a measly 4.2 percent.
Ironically, when Glengarry was built, it was considered state of the art, replacing a poor residential area of the city core, populated by pockets of Windsor’s under-privileged black community. The replacement project was reserved for seniors and single mothers only.
In 1965, the National Film Board of Canada featured Glengarry Court in a documentary, along with exemplary redevelopment projects in three other cities — Halifax, Toronto and Montreal.
Today’s standards and realities are much different.
Undesirables and drug peddlers from inside and outside the community tend to hang out there, prompting the managers to install security cameras, two years ago.
Marina Clemens, forever Chair of the region’s Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee, has long championed the benefits of subsidized social housing mixed with market rent households.
Glengarry would seem to be a candidate for relocation. The inhabitants of those 60 year old buildings, however, need not fear being rudely uprooted.
Two things prevent it. The money isn’t there, and provincial legislation requires one for one replacement of social housing units. That dictum has shooed away private developers in the past.
On an encouraging note, affordable housing is now on City Council’s priority list. For decades, various councils, including ones I sat on, have been tone deaf to pleas from social housing advocates for more money to build modern, mixed housing.
Capital spending has been stagnant for 10 years, topped up by the odd one-time spending from the senior levels of government.
Now, affordable housing has been declared a crisis as Council, no doubt feeling the political pressure, recently adopted an updated Housing and Homelessness Master Plan.
“We are at a turning point in our organization, especially in light of aging stock,” Clemens writes in CHC’s 2018 annual report. She is Chair of the CHC board, which has laid out an ambitious 15 year plan for the regeneration of its buildings, with public details still to come.
As Chair of the Advisory Committee, Clemens is open to out-of-box strategies, such as waiving development charges, relaxing building codes to permit affordable houses without driveways, and accommodating granny suites, inexpensive shipping containers and tiny houses.
“I’m excited,” gushes Clemens, sensing that Council is finally fully engaged in fixing the problem. So what has changed?
“The physical assets built five decades ago no longer meet the requirements of today’s applicants or residents,” writes Jim Steele, Chief Executive Officer of CHC, in the annual report.
Recent data calculates that the CHC, a non-profit provider of housing and rent supplements funded by Windsor Essex municipalities, is the service manager for 732 buildings with a replacement value of $605 million, encompassing 4,707 households sheltering 12,000 residents.
“We’re a money loser,” intones Kirk Whittal, CHC’s Chief Operating Officer. “Public housing is very expensive.”
Every year the city cuts the CHC a cheque for $13 million or so to cover annual expenses over and above revenues.
“That’s a very heavy responsibility for property taxpayers,” Whittal reveals, echoing the cries of Ontario Mayors since the province, under Premier Mike Harris, downloaded social housing costs on to municipalities in 1998.
Since then, the city has not had the money or the will to build affordable housing. The last project, providing 106 units in Remington Park, was constructed in 1987-88. The money CHC receives from its sole shareholder, the City of Windsor, goes into maintenance and repair to sustain the existing stock.Until now. Council recently decided to shuffle the deck on its capital budget priorities and expend $12 million on a $38.8 million, 10 storey mixed market building at 3100 Meadowbrook Lane on the east side.
Two circumstances brought this about.
One is the re-entry into the social housing realm by the federal government, which is financing the bulk of the project with low interest loans and cash. The other factor is the raised profile of homelessness and the desperate need for affordable housing.
The region’s Central Housing Registry, managed by CHC, has a climbing waiting list in the range of 5,800 households. A portion of people on the list, including those who are working, can’t afford safe and clean housing because rents have spiked as they channel crazy increases in entry level housing prices.
The tight rental market is good for private sector landlords, but horrendous for the poor, drug addicted and homeless who have percolated onto our streets. The Windsor Star recently reported there are 488 individuals or households on the waiting list experiencing homelessness issues.
The general population has become more aware of the crisis through persistent media attention, including the bombshell news that The Downtown Mission of Windsor is taking over the city’s central library.
The Meadowbrook Lane project should help, offering a full range of subsidized and market rent units in a totally energy efficient (dubbed passive) building. When it is built, it will offer bachelor to three bedroom units.
Unfortunately, that will lessen the burden by only 150 units.
“We need 20 more Meadowbrooks,” laments freshman City Councillor Kieran McKenzie, who sits on the Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee.
at brings us back to the Glengarry dilemma. The city tapped into the federal government’s $40 billion National Housing Strategy to build Meadowbrook. The CHC is submitting another bid in the second year of the competitive program, but it’s a good bet that a big chunk of money will be for maintenance and repair of old stock, not capital to build new housing.
Using more money to sustain Glengarry is comparable to resurfacing our roads with asphalt rather than digging up the road and splurging on a concrete base that should last 30 years or more.
“We can’t build a Glengarry like we have in the past,” warns Clemens. “That’s a bad model.”
McKenzie offers the other side of the coin.
“Speaking personally, and without making reference to any specific proposal, the notion that there would be a mass relocation of folks living in public housing is not something I would be very interested in pursuing,” he declares.
That reads like wheel spinning to me. Why not relocate willing Glengarry tenants to the cleared 6.2 acre Grace Hospital site on University Avenue West at Crawford Avenue? The city has received expressions of interest on that property also.
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