Housing, affordability, and, more often, the lack of both of these things, were topics of discussion for much of the past year. Canada is in the midst of a housing crisis, but what does that look like here in Winnipeg?

Housing and Homelessness in Winnipeg – a whole bunch of numbers

We need to start with some data. Housing and homelessness cannot be discussed without referencing some sector-specific information. So, let’s look at costs. 

Based on data gathered from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) Rental Market Survey, the median rental rates in Winnipeg from 2019 – 2023 were as follows:

October 2019 October 2020 October 2021 October 2022 October 2023
Bachelor $740 $770 $795 $800 $828
1 Bedroom $947 $982 $1,000 $1,030 $1,080
2 Bedroom $1,195 $1,241 $1,294 $1,329 $1,387
3+ Bedroom $1,508 $1,575 $1,650 $1,728 $1,723

Looking at this table we can see that rent is increasing for all sizes of apartments. And, while wages have also been increasing, so have costs in other areas. According to the Manitoba Consumer Price Index from May 2023, the cost of food and shelter are both up. This means some people may have to choose between the two – especially if an unexpected cost comes up. 

In 2022, the largest cause of housing loss was reported as a lack of money for housing. But how did we get this information? The 2022 Winnipeg Street Census, asked respondents to name the causes of their housing loss. People were encouraged to list all the causes they experienced and 29.2% of respondents indicated it as a reason.

The Winnipeg Street Census is a survey conducted by volunteers in a 24-hour period to create a snapshot of the extent and nature of homelessness in Winnipeg. It’s a format that other cities have also used. 

The 2022 Street Census reached 1,256 people. However, based on our understanding of how other cities conduct their street censuses and count their unhoused populations, it’s very likely that this point-in-time methodology undercounts approximately 3,000 people. So if we were to estimate the total number of unhoused people in Winnipeg, it’s likely over 4,000. 

So, what do all of these numbers mean?

We’re in a housing crisis, resulting in folks working hard towards housing, staying for prolonged times in shelter, because there simply are not enough vacancies available to house them. 

Nothing exists in a vacuum — context is important.

How did we get into this situation?

Let’s start shortly after WWII. The Canadian government invested in building “affordable” housing (quotation marks are because the term affordable has changed, as most things do throughout history). Multiple systems also made getting and maintaining housing easier, even for relatively low-income earners. 

Over the next several decades (but mainly in the 60s and 70s), The Government of Canada built 10,000 – 20,000 social housing units annually with rent geared to income. At this time the term homeless also had a different meaning – someone residing in housing with inadequate social support. 

When we moved into the 1980s the government began cutting funding to programs. Instead, they started to rely on private markets to provide housing. And after 1993 fewer than 2,000 social housing units were built by the government annually. 

These changes to housing and program funding cuts led to the beginning of the housing crisis we’re in currently. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is also when the modern understanding of the word homeless entered Canadian vocabularies

If it started so long ago, why are we only experiencing the worst of it and talking about it now?

Well, like most larger issues, it started very small. The housing situation also stayed stable long enough for the people who implemented the changes to claim their new systems worked. 

It turns out, though, that we are only at the beginning of the tipping point. In the 80s and 90s, the government made funding agreements for non-profits to own and operate buildings while the government subsidized the rent for low-income tenants. As those agreements expire, buildings are being sold to the private market and rent increases. Already 5,000 units have been lost this way, with another 10,000 facing the end of their agreement in the coming years.

Where are we now?

Fortunately, in 2012 there was a resurgence in building affordable housing. To incentivize some new development of affordable units, builders can receive tax grants provided 10% of units in a new build are affordable. 

But, as we already mentioned, the definition of affordable has changed.

Remember how post-WWII up to the 80s, affordable housing was built primarily with rent geared toward income? Well, today, affordable means median market rent – which, as we saw above was $799 for a studio, $1,030 for a one-bedroom, and $1,325 for a two-bedroom as of October 2022.

It’s also important to remember that none of these requirements of “affordability” are law. This means they aren’t always followed, even when subsidies are granted. And none are rent-geared-to-income. 

As you can likely guess, “affordable” is no longer affordable. This has led to a new term, “deeply affordable,” which uses the original definition and most common calculation: 30% of someone’s income.

Where do we go from here?

All of this information is just scratching the surface of the housing situation. The good news is that everyone who works in the sector in Winnipeg has come to the same conclusion: We need housing. 

We’ve started creating foundations for change. And, as we continue through 2024, we hope to frame out some of these changes and continue building a brighter future.