By Doug Smith
The February 2021 revelation that the federal government was unable to build a single unit of low-income Indigenous housing in 2019-20 is a clear reminder that the federal government’s housing strategy is long on promises and short on delivery. According to the Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing report prepared by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, only 143 units of affordable housing have been built in Manitoba since the announcement of the federal housing strategy in 2017. The pathetic nature of this response is best understood by looking at the history of Flora Place: one of the more creative elements of the City of Winnipeg’s response to the housing crisis at the end of the Second World War.
The return of tens of thousands of soldiers to civilian life at the end of the Second World War brought the city’s housing crisis to a boiling point. By the spring of 1945, over 800 Winnipeg families had been served with court orders to leave their rented lodgings. In 1946 only 1,317 of the 16,482 families on the city’s housing registry had been accommodated. According to the Canadian Legion, in February 1947, 206 people were living in “stores, garages, tourist cabins, and stables.”
As a result, the city, with some help from the federal government began housing families in former military barracks and the old railway immigration halls near the downtown railway stations. Life in emergency housing was cramped, bleak, and unhealthy. The 100 children living in the Water Street immigration hall were at risk of outbreaks of diseases and distant from any city schools.
Face with these conditions, William Courage, the head of emergency housing for the city spearheaded the development of Flora Place on city-owned land in the city’s north end.
Courage initially proposed the construction of several three-story brick-and-concrete apartment blocks on the site of the former Exhibition Grounds that would provide low-income provide housing for 750 households. This was too ambitious for city council. But in the summer of 1947, council agreed to build 100 units of tiny, prefabricated housing on the site. The cost per unit was $2,500, with Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation providing a grant of $1,000 a unit. The housing was meant to be temporary. The rents at Flora Place were set at $22 a month, which amounted to a three-dollar a month subsidy. In December 1947, less than half a year after the project was approved, the first units were ready for occupancy. Courage had concerns about the quality of construction at Flora Place, warning that “low construction costs inevitably result in a rapid rate of deterioration of buildings and ultimately high operation and maintenance costs.” But, he said, “the real significance of these homes is that they stand as a concrete example of public recognition of the community’s responsibility for the maintenance of the integrity of the family.”
The construction of Flora Place did not mean the end of emergency housing. As late as 1953 there were still 140 families living in former barracks. While twenty families had been served with eviction notices in Tuxedo, Courage noted that there was no affordable housing available for them.
The housing at Flora Place proved to be far from temporary. Nor could the city escape the consequences of its decision to skimp on size and quality. The houses had been built to accommodate two adults and two children, as long as the children were of the same sex. In 1959, fifteen of the families living at Flora Place had an average of seven children. The city wanted to evict these families on the grounds that they were living in overcrowded conditions. But there was nowhere in the city they could get better housing at the same price. The families facing evictions had incomes of between $150 a month for a family of eight and $270 a month for a family of ten. None were paying more than $50 a month in rent, a rent that was covering the city’s costs. One father said that if his family was forced to move back into what he termed the “slums,” he would turn over his seven children to the Children’s Aid Society. He said the only market housing that he could afford was in dilapidated houses on Jarvis Street. He recognized that his family was too large for the tiny Flora Place houses but said “I won’t live among bootleggers and prostitution. That sort of place has done me enough harm.”
In 1980 responsibility for operating Flora Place was transferred to the federal and provincial governments. Twenty years later 72 of them were demolished. The remaining units were knocked down in 2006, to make way for the construction of 28 units of low-cost housing that opened in the following year. Winnipeg Housing Rehabilitation Corporation manages Flora Place as low-income housing for senior citizens.
One need not romanticize the quality of the original housing at Flora Place to note that one-hundred units of housing were built in six months and that a decade later low-income people found that, whatever their limitations, these tiny houses were still preferable to low-income housing provided by the market. When one compares the accomplishments of 75 years ago with those of today, it is apparent that our current federal, provincial, and municipal governments stand indicted in a league of shame, bewailing the lack of partnerships while people freeze in the streets for lack of leadership.
 Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing, Ottawa: Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, 2021, 27 43.
 “Share-the-home appeal planned in Winnipeg,” Winnipeg Tribune/Winnipeg Free Press, January 4, 1946; “The crisis in housing,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 16, 1946.
 “Housing shortage in Winnipeg,” Winnipeg Tribune, February 6, 1947.
 “206 persons in unlawful homes,” Winnipeg Tribune, February 27, 1947.
 “No shelter relief, says committee,” Winnipeg Tribune, September 6, 1945; “Ottawa hears from Ald. Scott,” Winnipeg Tribune, October 30, 1945; “600 to get homes in Immigration Hall,” Winnipeg Tribune, October 31, 1945; “City sees grim housing picture,” Winnipeg Tribune, July 23, 1946; “Repair depot units available to city,” Winnipeg Tribune/Winnipeg Free Press, March 6, 1946; “Alderman Scott obtains revision,” Winnipeg Tribune, July 12, 1946; “Families to move into Flora Place,” Winnipeg Tribune, December 6, 1947; “City gets $135,000 aid for emergency shelters,” Winnipeg Tribune, March 7, 1947; “Emergency shelter costs city $48,547,” Winnipeg Tribune, July 3, 1947; “Fires brightly burning in Flora Place homes,” Winnipeg Free Press, December 15, 1947. For information on Jameswood, see: Manitoba Historical Society, Historic Sites of Manitoba: Repair Depot No. 8 / Jameswood Place (Winnipeg), http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/sites/repairdepot8.shtml, accessed 9 December 2020. This site was also known as the No. 5 Release Centre. See: Manitoba Historical Society, Historic Sites of Manitoba: Repair Depot No. 8 School / Jameswood Place School (Winnipeg), http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/sites/index.shtml, accessed 9 December 2020.
 “Aim to safeguard shelter dwellers,” Winnipeg Tribune, November 7, 1945.
 “Courage report urges cheap, public housing,” Winnipeg Free Press, December 22, 1948.
 “City council votes to build 100 new emergency houses,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 26, 1947.
 “Central Mortgage agrees to emergency shelter grant,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 1, 1947; “Flora Place project going ahead rapidly,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 29, 1947.
 “Flora Place rents set at $22 a month,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 4, 1947.
 “Fires brightly burning in Flora Place homes,” Winnipeg Free Press, December 15, 1947.
 “Courage report urges cheap, public housing,” Winnipeg Free Press, December 22, 1948.
 “Courage urges slum clearing plan,” Winnipeg Free Press, December 17, 1947.
 “Flora Place housing plan given city,” Winnipeg Free Press, May 22, 1953; “Quit-shelter notices sent by city,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 4, 1953.
 “20 families get notices,” Winnipeg Free Press, May 14, 1953.
 “14 families must find new homes,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 22, 1959; “Tenant fights eviction ‘What about others?’” Winnipeg Free Press, February 3, 1959; “Eviction hangs over their heads,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 18, 1959.
 Pat Benham, “Says he’d give up family rather than live in slum,” Winnipeg Free Press, July 4, 1959.
 Kari Schulz in collaboration with David Dessen, Flora Place, Winnipeg: Integrating the Public and Community Sectors in a Place-based Approach to Affordable Housing, Case in Point 2007, University of Manitoba, Department of City Planning, 2007.