Residents, supporters of Winnipeg’s Lions Place call on province to step up before sale of building completed

Residents of one of the largest non-profit housing complexes in Manitoba say the fate of their building — which could be sold to an Alberta firm as early as January — will be a moment of truth for the provincial government.

The Lions Place residents council seniors action committee held a news conference on Tuesday to call on the provincial government to install a five-year moratorium on rent increases for residents before the sale of the building can go through.

The conference came after notices slipped under residents’ doors Friday revealed that Lions Housing Centres accepted an offer from an Alberta firm to purchase the 287-unit building, and that the sale could be completed by late January.

The senior action committee at Lions Place has been part of a push to find a new non-profit organization to operate the building since learning the building was for sale in July.

“I don’t trust these people who are taking care of my mother’s interests anymore,” said Tom Simms, a member of the committee. His 93-year-old mother has been living at Lions Place, at the western edge of downtown Winnipeg, for 25 years.

Since the sale is not yet official, a moratorium on rent increases would hopefully slow the process, buying the committee time to pursue legislative change, Simms said.

The committee is pushing the province to introduce legislation in March that’s similar to Quebec’s Bill 37, which requires ministerial approval before the sale of non-profit housing funded by federal and provincial dollars.

“The provincial government in Quebec is a conservative government, so this isn’t some kind of radical government that is bringing this legislation,” Simms said.

Public dollars, private woes

A 35-year mortgage agreement with Manitoba Housing allowed residents to pay rent based on a percentage of their annual income, Simms said. It ended in 2018, leaving Lions Place mortgage-free but responsible for maintenance costs amid high inflation.

Members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly sparred over the situation during Tuesday’s question period — for a second day in a row.

“The minister has had months of warning,” said Union Station MLA Uzoma Asagwara. “Why hasn’t she lifted a finger to help the seniors at Lions Place?”

Asagwara referenced a Winnipeg Free Press article quoting Gilles Verrier, executive director of Lions Housing Centres, in which he told Families Minister Rochelle Squires to stay in her lane, and stop making “absurd, possibly illegal, comment about no rent increases for Lions Place.”

Squires maintained the province is continuing to do all it can to help the residents of the seniors complex.

“Our government has been working diligently to ensure that all the seniors at Lions Place are taken care of, and we do want to extend our commitment to them,” she said. 

“We are going to ensure that they have the housing that they need,” Squires said. 

The province has said it will provide rent assistance to keep rents the same at Lions Place, which Simms sees as a problem.

“Manitoba taxpayers are going to have to pay what amounts to be corporate welfare to a firm in Alberta to pay for that rent subsidy,” he said. “We don’t think, as Manitoba taxpayers, that makes a lot of sense.”

They would like another agreement between Lions Housing Centres and the federal and provincial governments to be put in place so residents are able to pay rent based on their incomes, Simms said.

Tuesday’s news conference was held at a former Manitoba Housing building in downtown Winnipeg, now known as Smith Street Lofts.

That building once provided low-income housing, but the province sold it for $16.2 million in 2018, and the new owners turned the units into luxury lofts.

The action committee is concerned that Lions Place will become another Smith Street Lofts. (CBC)

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