Home on the range

On Monday, Louis Riel Day, our Manitoba winter, one day holiday, a large number of people came out to the Neepawa Winter Wonderland event. It’s actually a low key affair that seems to be mainly driven by a mid-winter desire to “do something”, a kind of antidote for cabin fever. With temperatures hovering near -25 degrees Celsius that morning, one would have to question the sanity of anybody wanting to be outside. But in true Manitoba fashion everyone proclaimed, “It’s not bad out here.” And it wasn’t. The sun shone, the wind stayed down and if you stood very still and turned your face just at the right angle to the sun, you could feel “strength” in the sunshine, a promise of a spring that’s surely coming.
Kids skated, horse drawn sleigh rides were staged, hot chocolate and hotdogs were served up. A good time was had by all. 
But there’s more to this story. I’m sure similar scenes were played out all across Manitoba and people went out for an hour or two or three to enjoy the sunshine. After a long hard winter, one that’s far from over, people have a lot of pent up energy that needs to be let out. Energy that needs a place to be burned up. Spring will be a very busy time and we may need all that energy very soon.
There’s almost no doubt that there will be flooding in many parts of Manitoba. With the snow levels we have now in place, there will likely be severe flooding. Farm lands, already fairly wet from last season, will likely be very wet this spring. Seeding may be delayed. Pastures will likely be delayed too, so feed supplies may be stretched to get cattle through to green grass. In short, there’s a lot of work to be done between now and summer time.
Speaking of work to be done, hopefully somebody somewhere is planning to build more housing. Across the Banner coverage area and in many other parts of south-western Manitoba, there’s a need for housing. In Neepawa, there’s only 35-40 units of housing actually being built or being firmly planned for 2011. That’s hardly enough to house the wave of immigrant workers, the long line of Canadians wanting housing in the area and plus the new wave of immigrant workers coming in the next 12 months.
Strangely enough, it was during the Winter Festival, while standing in the slightly warming sunshine, that it came to me again that we are on the wrong track with housing. It’s a recurring thought. Housing in cold climates can take two extremes. The Aboriginals and Inuit of olden days housed themselves in very primitive ways. They built igloos or tents, primitive shelters for sure, but they did survive. It was just as cold two or three hundred years ago as it is now and they survived. Fast forward to today and a family of two with a couple of kids think they need a $300,000 mansion to survive in this environment. Somewhere, there has to be a compromise in between mansions and tents. Primitive shelters don’t cut it, but do we have to spend as much money on housing as we do today?
One needs to understand that the first-time home owner’s needs could be filled with a much smaller home. Drive down any street in a small town or in Winnipeg and you will see some very small homes that were built in the 1940s and 50s. Homes as small as 550 square feet or even 700 square feet served families well in days gone by. There are houses still being lived in comfortably in Winnipeg that are only 500 sq. feet or less. We need to re-adjust our thinking.
Entry level housing needs to be smaller, more efficient and expandable. A home needs to have the structure and roof line that will allow expansion in the years ahead. Let’s face it, a 24’ x 24’ home allows for a 12’ x 12’ bedroom, a smaller second bedroom with a bathroom beside it and a 12’ x 24’ kitchen/dining living room area. Hundreds of older homes have space dimensions like that. And there’s good reason for it, they were affordable.
We need to look at many different housing options including size adjustments, having on-slab construction with no basements and other options.
Let’s face reality, if we were forced to be out on the tundra in a blizzard, an igloo would look pretty good. Our reality is that we can do a lot better than an igloo or a tent but we need to stop thinking in castle mode for at least a portion of our housing market.
Neepawa needs another 250 units of very affordable housing in the immediate future. We will either find a way to build them or we will lose a major opportunity. The same problem, to varying degrees, faces almost all rural towns. It’s been said, “Build it and they will come.” We are past that stage. “They”, meaning both immigrant and Canadian folks, are already here. If we don’t build it, they will leave.

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kwaddell@kenwaddell.ca This is a Sunrize Group internet solution (204)226-2247