News + Opinion » Nova Scotia

Window pains

The vacant, boarded-up houses in Uniacke Square suggest the project is being shut down. Lis van Berkel investigates.

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Uniacke Square is a low-income housing development with only one through-road.

Turn down Uniacke Street—which stretches from Gottingen to Brunswick—and almost immediately you’ll notice unpainted plywood, like punched-in teeth, covering the street-level windows and front doors of two brown-brick townhouses. Look a little higher and farther down the street to see shards of glass where a picture window was shattered, more plywood nailed behind that, and several other second-storey windows boarded-up. Around the corner, head south: another lower level unit with plywood over its windows and door. Squares of neatly raked grass cleared of garbage punctuate the dismal view.

Last November, provincial Community Services minister David Morse had a letter hand-delivered to residents and interested community members that stated: “Uniacke Square is not being sold and no plan of this nature is under consideration.” But the number of broken or plywood-covered windows and doors on Uniacke Street has neighbours of the housing project scratching their heads in wonder: Is the province closing the Square after all?

“Vacancies,” says Natasha Jackson, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority. “Uniacke Square is currently experiencing an unusual number of vacancies.” Jackson puts the total number of empty units at 13 out of 185, or seven percent: “But the property manager, Irvine Carvery, has told me that three are in the process of being filled.”

Jackson says Uniacke Square’s high vacancy rate—HRM’s own rate is three percent, according to December figures from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Agency—has exceeded that of the city in the past. “And it fluctuates between our high density housing,” says Jackson. “It’s more complicated than simply the time of year.” The MRHA manages 4,500 public housing units in HRM, including the Square.

Uniacke Square was constructed in the 1970s as a re-housing project for some displaced residents of Africville (a community that made new gains last week in seeking restitution from the province). Urban designers have condemned the development for many reasons: its cookie-cutter design, low-income homogeneity, dead-end streets and lack of green space.

In the past 30 years, urban planners have been

developing more heterogeneous, multi-income projects—take the Creighton-Gerrish Development around the corner. (Ironically, a to-be-renovated part of that development also stands boarded up and vacant, like four other empty, privately owned houses on Creighton Street.)

Of Uniacke Square, Jackson says placing plywood over the windows in vacant houses— “though it doesn’t look very good”—is the best thing the MRHA could do. She says it’s working on other methods of protecting the units from vandals, such as installing Plexiglas on the windows.

Another way the MHRA has handled vacancies is by renting four units to the North End Parent Resource Centre, which operates a laundromat for Uniacke residents and children’s programs for the community. Resource centre director Joan Mendes says the MRHA approached her group, which has been in Uniacke Square since 1986, when “they couldn’t rent these units because of the amount of activity out front. Now, what kind of ‘activity’ I’m not going to say.” Mendes says the space works for her group because they don’t use it at night. She also says one window in a neighbouring unit was blown out by the wind.

No one—except area city councillor Dawn Sloane—will say that the windows are being broken. Sloane, who says she has been getting calls from people asking her if Uniacke Square is being closed down, claims people are moving out of the Square because of violence, but they are afraid to talk. “The problem for the police is it’s a community within a community,” she says. “It’s a tight-knit group of people who care about each other and when one kid gets in trouble, it affects them all.”

Asked about the boarded up windows, residents say things are being resolved. A member of the Uniacke Square Tenants Association, a new group which meets at the Resource Centre, refused to comment except to say “things are looking up.”`

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