The struggle to create safe clean social housing in Quebec

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

It isn’t built yet in part because the land in question has to be decontaminated before residential units can be built. Add that price, which is likely to be in the millions of dollars to the cost of the social housing buildings, whatever form they take, and you get a challenging fundraising goal.

And that’s in addition to the many emotional and security barriers to building fully-subsidized apartments for vulnerable and impoverished people.

No matter where they live, or what their income might be, people can occasionally experience personal crises due to addiction, mental health challenges, and uncontrolled anger. Unfortunately, it can be much harder to hide these kinds of crises in a public building, even when most of the residences within it are private. That means that neighbours find out about every incident, and assume that unusual situations occur more often than they do. The stigma makes it hard to build social housing into the fabric of communities.

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 when I first looked into this issue four years ago. “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 are difficult to hide in large impoverished neighbourhoods.  Despite a 2005 City of Montreal policy that requires 15% of social housing and 15% of affordable housing in all new developments with more than 200 units, boroughs and cities can make exceptions. Often, they require cash payments towards parks and public spaces instead.

The result is a waiting list of 25,000 people for social housing while there’s a glut of condominiums for sale. That’s 3,000 more people on the waiting list than when I covered this issue four years ago. And things then were bad:

Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI each have more than a year of inventory to absorb,” wrote Robert Kavcic, a senior economist with BMO Financial in June, 2014. “In most cases, those are decade highs that exceed even levels seen at the height of the Great Recession.”

Maintaining pure social housing after it’s built can also be a challenge; in that model, tenants pay only 25% of their income in rent, regardless of how little they earn. Today, the social housing banner also includes low-income apartments, cooperative housing projects and seniors’ residences run by non-profit entities.

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. Renovations, when they occur, cost millions of dollars.

Hundreds of residents of a building on Plamondon, for instance, only just moved back into their units last June after three-and-a-half years and $10 million dollars in renovations that included removing mold.

Many other buildings need the same treatment. At the same time, Montreal faces a severe shortage of affordable family-sized rental units.

Verdun’s project remains one to watch to see whether any social housing solution can be found.

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Tracey Arial

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Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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