Spence neighbourhood residents count dozens of vacant lots amid housing shortage

Cheryl Martens wanted to know just how much housing Winnipeg’s Spence neighbourhood has lost in recent years.

Martens, who has lived in the core neighbourhood for more than 30 years, says fires and demolitions over the last decade have devastated the housing stock, with little in the way of new construction to replace it.

“These vacant lots are kind of discouraging,” Martens said. “We’re getting to look a bit like Detroit or something, with the big gaps between the buildings.”

To get a better idea of the loss, and the potential impact of rebuilding, she and another resident drove up and down streets in the Spence neighborhood, counting the missing buildings.

In an area covering nine streets — bordered by Agnes and Balmoral streets on the west and east, and Notre Dame and Portage avenues north and south — they counted 54 empty properties, occupying 63 lots. That includes six former apartment buildings and three houses occupying double lots.

The count didn’t include structures that are vacant and boarded up, or empty lots that have been converted into community gardens. 

But Martens estimates the properties they did count add up to nearly 500 lost housing units.

“I think it’s a low estimate, but I think it’s kind of important, given the amount of homelessness that we have,” she said.

Replacing that lost housing could go a long way to addressing Winnipeg’s shortage of affordable housing, Martens said.

“It would also, I think, bring some renewed spirit and enthusiasm for the inner city, that people would see it as a place that they wanted to live, that there was vibrancy.”

Plans for more housing

Martens would like the City of Winnipeg to come up with a plan for addressing the issue of housing in the Spence area, similar to what was recently proposed for Point Douglas.

Daniel McIntyre Coun. Cindy Gilroy, who represents the Spence neighbourhood, said the estimate of lost housing in the community is surprising.

“That is a huge amount for that little area,” she said. 

“But at the same time, we are seeing a lot of fires in the community that have been adding to that.”

Last year, the city introduced tougher rules meant to discourage owners from sitting on vacant properties, and instead encourage them to fix them up and make them inhabitable. 

Gilroy says the city is also looking at ways it can make vacant land that it owns available for housing development.

A City of Winnipeg spokesperson said there are a number of federal funding programs available to create new housing, including the Rapid Housing Initiative and Housing Accelerator Fund.

Those programs, along with “strong capacity in the non-profit housing sector” and government partnerships, “can help create conditions that encourage positive change in the neighbourhood,” Kalen Qually wrote in an email.

The Spence Neighbourhood Association worked with the city to develop a five-year housing plan, and received money from the Rapid Housing Initiative to create six new housing units on two lots.

“This is the first time in a long time that we’ve tried to tried something new like this, and so it’s a bit of an experiment for us too,” said interim executive director Michele Wikkerink. “We want to make sure it’s manageable and that it works out well.”

The association also has plans for its own housing count. The association’s project will aim to tally every building in the neighbourhood and its condition. The final results will be presented in the fall.

Martens compiled the data she collected into a report, titled “The Housing Audit of the Dying Heart of Winnipeg.”

“It’s sad, really,” Martens said.

“This is what’s happening and this is the inner city for the whole of Winnipeg. And people who live here love it, but this is what’s happening.”