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Quebec sending mixed signals on affordable housing

by Kelsey Litwin March 24, 2015
Quebec sending mixed signals on affordable housing

Those with lower incomes lack affordability and accessibility

Montreal seemed one step closer to creating widespread affordable housing when Mayor Denis Coderre introduced his action plan to combat homelessness in September 2014. The optimism continued into December when the provincial government added $4.6 million to the annual budget for their homelessness action plan, with a particular focus on a Housing First approach.

The approach, as described in Canada’s Economic Action Plan, “involves first giving people who are homeless a place to live, and then providing the necessary supports (e.g. for mental illness) to help them stabilize their lives and recover as best as possible.” Their webpage goes on to say that this approach “has been proven to be an effective way to reduce homelessness.”

However, just two months after the provincial government announced their commitment the action plan they revealed that they would not be renewing funding for another government sponsored affordable housing project, AccèsLogis.

AccèsLogis is a program that helps fund new affordable housing projects around the city and is administered by the Société d’habitation du Québec (SHQ). A statement on their website reads that the program, “aims to promote the construction and maintenance of social and community housing for households with low to moderate incomes.”

Although the SHQ has promised to aid AccèsLogis in finding other sources of funding, there is an undeniable feeling that government support is faltering. While it is true that the province of Quebec and the city of Montreal have many issues to tackle on an economic level, social housing is not one we can afford to give up on.

First, it is necessary to understand what affordable housing means. “The conventional measure [of housing affordability] is to use 30 per cent of income,” says Nick Revington, a graduate student in Concordia University’s Department of Geography, Urban and Environment studies. “If you’re spending more than that, your housing is unaffordable or you’re in a situation of affordability stress and that’s problematic for a number of reasons.”

Revington is currently studying the accessibility of affordable housing in the rental markets of Vancouver and Montreal, with a focus on lower income households. Although he is just completing the primary analysis of his findings, he can tell, “lower levels of income are where the problem is more serious.” Seeing as that is the case, there is no question that subsidized housing is crucial in keeping housing accessible to the entire population.

“The main [issue] being that a household might be spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing but their income is so high that they still have enough income to pay for it and everything else that they need,” Revington continued. “Whereas on the other hand, a household might be spending less than 30 per cent of their income on housing but their income is so low that they might not be able to pay for their basic necessities.”

Thankfully, Montreal does have a track record of maintaining successful social housing complexes—such as Habitations Jeanne-Mance, a facility that has been running since 1959 in downtown Montreal. Despite what many may say, this is a credit to how well the provincial and municipal governments have worked together on such issues in the past.

“Montreal has been fairly successful, with the collaboration of the provincial and the federal government,” says Mario Polèse, Canada Research Chair in Urban and Regional Studies. He cited the work done on social housing as a specific example of success. “Especially if you compare what we’ve done here with [cities] like Paris or New York, where social housing has turned into ghettos. We, with some exceptions,” he continued, “have managed not to do that. It’s been done intelligently. So we can be pretty proud of that.”

Polèse says we must thank the planners who designed social housing in the city for that pride. “We tended to disperse [social housing complexes] around the city in fairly small units, which was exactly the right thing to do,” he explained.

However, the number of low-income households is growing, as the unemployment rate is current floating around 8.1 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. That number, roughly estimated, comes out to a few hundred thousand people in Montreal. If unemployment continues to grow, affordable housing will become even more necessary. A push for more housing is inevitable. Instead of just asking, “Can the city of Montreal afford it?” we will also be forced to ask, “Where can we put it?”

Gentrification is not a new topic in Montreal. As neighborhoods become trendier and “more fashionable to live in,” as Revington puts it, there is more of a struggle to find affordable housing in those areas. “There is a certain interest in maintaining the character of a neighbourhood,” said Revington, “and excluding a certain “others,” including those who require subsidised housing.”

This pushes affordable housing away from the traditionally more expensive city center. As that is done, even more problems arise with access to public transit. “If the only affordable housing is in areas that are not serviced by public transit,” explained Revington, “then you’re either dependent on a car, so you’re adding a major expense, or you’re simply cut off in a sense that you can’t access things or it takes you too long to access them.”

As Montreal is a city that has over 200,000 students, it’s important to remember that low-income households often include students. It is not uncommon to hear of students being mistreated by landlords, like being forced to pay illegal deposits or having their rent increased during their lease. Student residences are also limited in the number of students that they can accept on a yearly basis, often being limited to first year students, and can cost you a pretty penny.

This then leaves students in trouble when it comes to look for a place to leave. As Revington says, “The greater your income, the more choices you have … the greater resources you have to spend time looking.”

There is a proposed student-housing co-op at Concordia that will be funded by the Concordia Student Union with help from the Chantier de l’économie sociale. Unfortunately, there isn’t much reason to get excited just yet: it still has to pass a referendum vote and would only hold 100 to 150 beds once built.

It’s also important to note that it—like other social housing complexes—would rely on government funding. With the government apparently flip-flopping in the last few months, it is difficult to understand what their commitment really means.

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