The opponents of public housing

By the early twentieth century, it was clear that Winnipeg had an ongoing shortage of affordable housing. Representatives of the labour movement began calling for public housing as early as 1908. A report commissioned by the city in 1912 recommended the construction of public housing if the private sector was unable to meet the housing needs of low-income people.[1] Why then was no such housing built until the 1960s?

The simplest answer is that the city’s business elite was rarely less than visceral in its opposition to public housing. The city’s business leaders believed that all housing should be provided by the market. As one councillor summarized the argument “a man trying to provide a home for himself should not become liable through taxes for part of the cost of his neighbor’s house.”[2] For the rather substantial portion of the city’s elite that was directly involved in the real estate industry, the opposition to public housing was also pragmatic. They feared that a reduction in housing costs for low-income people would generate downward pressure on housing costs—and profits—in general. This fear led them to resist any government policies that might reduce housing costs. Finally, the business community’s opposition was partisan: it had come to associate public housing with socialism. Agreeing to public housing would, in effect, be seen as a capitulation to the socialist faction on city council.

The business community was able to hold out for so long because the political deck was stacked against the proponents of public housing. In the city’s early years, to be eligible to vote for the mayor or a member of council, people not only had to be male, over twenty-one, and a resident of the city, they had to either own property or rent property of significant value. The right to vote on money bylaws—laws authorizing significant municipal borrowing and spending—was even more restricted: only those who owned $500 worth of property could cast a vote on a money bylaw. Property owners could vote in each ward in which they owned property. In 1910, there were more than 6,000 of these “plural voters.” And no one could run for office unless they owned property: plenty of property. In 1905, one had to own $2,000 of property to run for mayor and $500 worth to run for council.[3]

The idea that tenants were less than full citizens had a long and vicious life. When in 1947 residents of River Heights succeeded in blocking a proposal to build wartime housing in their exclusive south Winnipeg community, one of their members, C.D. Heseltine told a public meeting, “I think you will agree that homeowners make the best citizens.”[4] A dozen years later, city councillor Edith Tennant said, “People living in apartments want all the privileges of voting without the responsibility of homeowning.”[5]

These hateful ideas were fostered by the property-owners political party—the Citizens’ League—and the Home and Property Owners’ Association. Both of which existed in large measure to fight public housing.

Winnipeg’s elite established created the Citizens’ League in 1919 largely in opposition to the idea of public housing. Archives of Manitoba.

In 1919, after having colluded with the federal government to crush the Winnipeg General Strike Winnipeg’s elite established its own municipal political party: the Citizens’ League.[6] Under a variety of names, it controlled city council for most of the following half-century. The League was an adamant opponent of public housing and the expansion of voting rights. In 1920 the Citizens League proposed that people be denied the vote unless they had passed an education test. This, in the view of the labour councillors, was a measure intended “to protect the landlord interests.” [7]

In the spring of 1934, leading members of the city’s real-estate and construction industry formed the Home and Property Owners’ Association (HPOA). The HPOA, which by 1935 claimed a membership of 2,000, was run out of secretary-treasurer W.J. Feilde’s real-estate office at 210 Kennedy.[8] In 1935 the HPOA opposed free Grade 12 in the public schools, called for cuts to the fire department, the public swimming pools, and golf courses, protested a ten per cent increase in the municipal food allowance for the unemployed, and opposed increases in wages to municipal employees and to the extension of the right to vote in municipal elections to renters.[9] The only form of government spending the HPOA favoured was the provision of low-interest renovation loans to homeowners.[10]

Two Citizens’ League members of council, Frederick G. Thompson and Charles Simonite served for decades as the political shock troops in the fight against public housing. A lawyer by training, Thompson had served in the Winnipeg Grenadiers and been wounded in the Amiens campaign in the First World War. He served on the executive of the Citizens Committee of One Thousand during the General Strike, founded the anti-General Strike Returned Soldiers’ Loyalists Association, lobbied successfully to have the Winnipeg police force fired because its members were not sufficiently anti-strike in attitude, and organized the violence-prone Special Constables that replaced the police.[11] As a member of council in the 1930s, Thompson opposed one public housing project because  the tenants would be “of the type who would not give their homes proper care,” and said that proponents of another housing project “were either communists or fascists.” [12]

Realtor Charles Simonite served on council from 1930 to 1955 with one two-year break, spending seventeen years as chair of the finance committee. As his obituary stated, he was a “firm believer in private enterprise and private initiative.” [13] A 1931 election advertisement in the Free Press included, among Simonite’s qualifications the fact that the was “a large taxpayer.”[14] Shortly after his election to council Simonite joined with Mayor Ralph Webb in an unsuccessful attempt to have relief for the single unemployed men reduced to a daily allowance of bread and cheese.[15] The only form of housing support he would countenance was an increase in the amount paid to private landlords who housed families on relief, a measure that he proposed annually in the later years of the decade.[16]

While the Citizens continued to dominate city council into the 1960s, the Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Board played a central role in defeating a 1953 referendum on whether to build public housing in Winnipeg.[17] The Chamber of Commerce and the Citizens eventually reconciled themselves to the concept of public housing, if only to make sure that Manitoba was able to take advantage of federal housing money. But restrictions on tenant voting rights remained in place until the 1970s. As did realtor opposition to public housing. Citizen council Jim Ernst, for example, successfully scuttled a municipal housing program in 1978.[18] But it was in the ratepayers’ votes of 1935 and 1953 that the opponent of public housing scored their greatest successes.

Back to The Struggle for Affordable Housing in Winnipeg

[1] The City of Winnipeg, City Planning Commission, in Gateway city: documents on the city of Winnipeg, 1873-1913, Manitoba Record Society publications, Manitoba Record Society publications; v. 5, Alan. A.J. Artibise, editor, Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society in association with the University of Manitoba Press, 1979, 225–264.

[2] “Bad public view stalled public housing: Danzker,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 10, 1961.

[3] An Act to Incorporate the City of Winnipeg, 37 Vic, Cap 7 Sections VIII and IX; Revised charter of the city of Winnipeg, 1918; Alan F.J. Artibise, Winnipeg: A social history of urban growth, 1874–1914, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s, 1975, 37–40. For house prices, see Manitoba Free Press, September 11, J.K. Moore and Company Advertisement, page 15.

[4] “City starts work on Howe’s rental collection offer,” Winnipeg Free Press, July 26, 1946. “Builders seek council committee to probe wartime houses set-up,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 31, 1947.

[5] “Vote for all called a great mistake,” Winnipeg Free Press, December 15, 1959.

[6] “Citizens unite in organizing strong league,” Manitoba Free Press, August 21, 1919.

[7] “Council to provide for adult suffrage,” Manitoba Free Press, October 15, 1919; “To drop plural voting in civic election fights,” Manitoba Free Press, November 8, 1919; “Ward system nears an end in Winnipeg,” Manitoba Free Press, November 12, 1919; “Mayoral elections may be abolished,” Manitoba Free Press, November 22, 1919; “Labor mass meeting to protest franchise changes,” Manitoba Free Press, February 7, 1920; “Changes proposed in Winnipeg civic rule,” Manitoba Free Press, March 5, 1920; “Winnipeg may decide its own charter needs” Winnipeg Tribune, March 12, 1920; “Vote for three wards and four more aldermen,” Manitoba Free Press, March 16, 1920;

[8] G.H. Irwin, “Home and property owners’ association,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, April 19, 1935; “Home, property owners hit city wage increases,” Winnipeg Free Press, February 15, 1935; G.H. Irwin, “Home and property owners’ association,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, April 19, 1935; “W. J. Christie dies Thursday at age of 86,” Winnipeg Free Press, 15 May 1942; “Advisory board appointed by Stevens party,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, August 19, 1935; “Manitoba citizens to receive Jubilee medals,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, May 6, 1935; “Mass meeting of property owners,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 19, 1934; “Your home” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, January 24, 1933; G.H. Irwin, “Home and property owners’ association,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, April 19, 1935.

[9] G.H. Irwin, “Home and property owners’ association,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, April 19, 1935; “Protest increase in allowance for food for jobless,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 8, 1935; “Thinks economies could be made in three civic depts.,” Winnipeg Free Press, April 18, 1935; J.F. Fielde, “Protests an increases in civic salaries,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 10, 1935; “Home, property owners hit city wage increases,” Winnipeg Free Press, February 15, 1935.

[10] “Home, property owners hit city wage increases,” Winnipeg Free Press, February 15, 1935.

[11] David J. Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations and the General Strike, Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1974, 147–149; Rheinold Kramer and Tom Mitchell, When the state trembled: How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee broke the Winnipeg General Strike, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, 124, 137–139.

[12] “Housing scheme advanced,” Winnipeg Free Press, April 21, 1938; Archives of Manitoba, Keystone Archives Descriptive Database, Frederick George Thompson,,~20Frederick~20George?JUMP, accessed July 14, 2021; “Council asks Dominion to finance big housing project,” Winnipeg Free Press, May 18, 1938.

[13] “Charles Edward Simonite,” Winnipeg Free Press, December 10, 1973; Manitoba Historical Society, Memorable Manitobans, “Charles Edward Simonite,” accessed November 10, 2020.

[14] “Re-elect Charles E. Simonite,” Manitoba Free Press, November 26, 1931.

[15] Michael Goeres, “Disorder, dependency and fiscal responsibility: unemployment relief in Winnipeg, 1907-1942,” Master of Arts Thesis, University of Manitoba, 1981, 168.

[16] “Committee to study housing of unemployed,” Winnipeg Tribune, May 13, 1936; “City council approves plan for construction of $3,200 model home,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, August 10, 1937; “House plan passes,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 10, 1937;“Rent paying policy of social welfare commission probed,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 4, 1937; “Low-cost housing scheme again debated by council but no action taken,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, April 4, 1939.

[17] “Chamber Thumbs Down Housing For ‘One Group,’” Winnipeg Free Press, 23 October 1953.

[18] Susan Ruttan and George Jacob, “Inner City’s decay may prompt action,” Winnipeg Tribune, 5 October 1978; “Gov’t. funds core housing corp.,” Winnipeg Free Press, 3 November 1978; “Apartment loss discussion delayed,” Winnipeg Free Press, 5 December 1978; Ingeborg Boyens, “City might abandon housing involvement,” Winnipeg Free Press, 12 December 1978; Ingeborg Boyens, “No-action policy on housing wins endorsement,” Winnipeg Free Press, 15 December 1978; Ingeborg Boyens, “Non-profit housing scheme scrapped,” 21 December 1978.