The struggle to create social housing in Quebec

By Tracey Arial

Verdun borough mayor Jean-François Parenteau recently agreed to build only social housing on a municipally-owned lot on Gaetan Laberge instead of a larger project containing both condos and social housing.

Making the project a reality could take a while. There are many emotional and financial barriers to building fully-subsidized apartments for vulnerable and impoverished people.

Besides, neighbours don’t like them.

People don’t want those units too close to home,” said a condo developer in response to a question about integrating social housing into his projects. “They’re afraid their property values will go down.”

Boroughs don’t like lower property values either, nor do they appreciate handling security and social problems that can develop in large impoverished neighbourhoods. Despite a 2005 City of Montreal policy that requires 15 per cent of social housing and 15 per cent of affordable housing in all new developments with more than 200 units, boroughs and cities can make exceptions and require cash payment instead.

And they usually do. The result is a waiting list of 22,000 people for social housing while there’s a glut of condominiums for sale.

Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island each have more than a year of inventory to absorb,” wrote Robert Kavcic, a senior economist with BMO Financial in June. “In most cases, those are decade highs that exceed even levels seen at the height of the Great Recession.”

Maintaining social housing after it’s built can also be a challenge; tenants pay only 25% of their income in rent, regardless of how little they earn.

Some non-profit housing options exist, but most of today’s pure social housing units were created with federal and provincial government financing in the sixties and seventies. In 1969, the federal government set up social housing neighbourhoods across the country through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

By 1982, people weren’t as concerned about social housing as they had been earlier. The CMHC began selling all of its buildings to local non-profits, a process they completed in 1994.

Some imaginative local politicians reacted to ensure that the units remained accessible to low-income people. In Pierrefonds for example, local politicians helped tenants turn a 750-unit building called Cloverdale into Canada’s largest housing cooperative.

As inspiring as that project was, other regions didn’t duplicate it. LaSalle Heights was owned by the same person, but instead of following the coop creation model, it was sold to private for-profit interests in 1988. The Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation battled the decision in court for years, but ultimately lost the right to keep the units reserved for low-income tenants. Instead, the CMHC set up grants for tenants and partnered with the owners to keep the complex open for another fifteen years. That agreement officially expires next year and locals worry that the site is targeted for major gentrification, especially since the 750 units are no longer tracked by any public agency.

The only social housing that is tracked carefully is that managed within the provincial HLM program. The Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal (OMHM) operates 20,810 low-rent apartments within this program, while the Office municipal d’habitation de Laval (OMHL) operates another 1,120.

Unfortunately, almost all of the apartment buildings in the program were built in the seventies, so they require annual maintenance and occasional renewal projects that creates inconveniences for everyone and give the program a bad name.

Hundreds of former residents of a building on Plamondon, for instance, are currently housed elsewhere while the building gets decontaminated from mold and renovated. The process is expected to take two years. For now, the OMHM has fewer units to rent, waiting lists are longer and tenants who are chronically financially, physically or emotionally stressed are in crisis.

People in crisis inconvenience their neighbours, which helps increase a word-of-mouth campaign against social housing. It takes guts to propose new projects in that ambiance. Verdun’s experiment could be a model for everyone.

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