Provincial funding gives Brandon Housing co-op a boost, but more needed to keep rents affordable: manager

For 30 years, Irene Thiessen has had predictable and affordable rent living at Brandon’s Spruce Woods Housing Co-op — but expensive repairs needed on the western side of the complex may place some of those affordable units in jeopardy.

Every week, Thiessen — who lives on a fixed income — stops by the Spruce Woods coffee hour, where residents “sit around, drink coffee and gossip,” she said. 

Right now, the biggest topic of conversation is the future of the co-op complex, which offers housing in Manitoba’s second-biggest city to qualifying low-income families and seniors.

The 160 residents of Spruce Woods want their apartments to remain affordable, and to see much-needed repairs for aging infrastructure, Thiessen said. 

“It needs to be kept up or it will be very expensive,” Thiessen said.

An old woman sits at a table.
Irene Thiessen has called the Spruce Wood Housing Co-op home for 30 years. She says she needs affordable and predictable rent because she is on a fixed income. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

A new five-year deal inked between Manitoba Housing and Spruce Woods will see the province help with operational costs. But co-op manager Eva Cameron says it will still be an uphill battle to keep rents affordable, due repairs the 39-year-old building needs.

Cameron worries if they can’t raise capital they may have to shut 28 units, displacing residents in a year or two because it will no longer be a safe place to live. Spruce Woods’ funding comes from rent and grants.

“Things are falling apart,” she said. Some units have water damage, stucco is falling off walls and the price of repairs continues to grow.

The Manitoba Housing operational funding is based on the 81 units at Spruce Woods, along with inflation and the co-op’s operating expenses, Cameron said.

It will help keep units affordable for families, after the co-op faced a 9.4 per cent property tax increase in the 2024 Brandon budget on top of other rising costs, Cameron said. 

That translated to a rent increase of 3.5 per cent starting June 1, she said. With the increase, rents will range between $646 a month for a one-bedroom apartment to $871 a month for a three-bedroom townhouse with a basement.

Now, “at least we can keep our heads above water and keep moving forward,” Cameron said. “The hope is that we’re going to be able to get some capital funding … to fix our buildings before we have to say we’re done.”

A provincial spokesperson said under the new funding model, Manitoba Housing and Spruce Woods Housing Co-op entered into an agreement effective from April 1, 2023, to March 31, 2028. The agreement provides annual funding to help ensure units remain affordable, and to invest in the capital needs of the building, the spokesperson said.

Neither Cameron nor Manitoba Housing would disclose the funding amount.

A parking sign lies broken on a deteriorating sidewalk.
Cameron wants to repair the deteriorating sidewalks and parking stalls at the complex, along with aging walls on its 39-year-old buildings. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

But Cameron said expenses are adding up, including about $2.5 million worth of repairs to fix up townhouses, and to repair the sidewalks and the parking lot. Ideally, the co-op needs another $1 million to move its office area and complete other repairs.

The complex’s circulating pumps also recently went out. The co-op had to replace piping under the block, the HVAC system and about 20 toilets.

“The longer we, you know, leave it, the worse they’re getting … and the more expensive it’s going to be to fix,” said Cameron.

Lobbying for help

Cameron says Spruce Woods has been lobbying all levels of government for help since March 2023. 

In May 2023, Cameron spoke to Brandon city council, asking for the municipal portion of property taxes to be waived for five years as the co-op grappled with the repair costs. While the city does offer tax credits for new affordable housing developments, there’s currently no tax credit available for existing housing.

During 2024 budget discussions, Ward 1 Coun. Heather Karrouze made a motion for $30,000 be given to the co-op for renovations — but it was not included in the final budget.

“Our mayor and council, and our provincial and our federal government. need to step up,” Cameron said. “There needs to be a collaboration.”

The City of Brandon planning department declined an interview with CBC News, saying housing information will be presented to council at a June 17 meeting.

Cameron wants the city to designate some money to the co-op to extend the lives of its buildings for another 35 or 40 years through the federal Housing Accelerator fund — a federal program that provides funding to municipalities like Brandon for projects that accelerate housing development.

A woman stands smiling in plaid.
Cameron says all levels of government need to collaborate to keep aging affordable housing units like Spruce Woods open. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Thiessen thinks the city should place more emphasis on taking care of established housing like Spruce Woods.

“We need to be able to keep things repaired,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of money.”