Between a school, a long-closed church and a red social housing building in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district of Montreal, stands a majestic gray stone over which the Virgin Mary watches.
The former Adam Street convent, which was a girls’ school before becoming a retirement home for nuns, is being transformed into an affordable housing project.
The heritage building will become a lifeline for low-income Montrealers.
“This is not a project that will be greeted with ‘not in my backyard’ attitudes,” said Jean-Pierre Racette, chief executive of SHAPEM. “We are going to house people on low incomes, the elderly, have daycare, it’s really mixed”,
SHAPEM is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating and managing inclusive and sustainable community housing. With the help of the Fonds de solidarité FTQ, SHAPEM disbursed approximately $2.5 million in December 2019 to buy the building from the nuns, who did not want to sell to private developers.
The plan is to gut the convent, turn it into about 80 affordable housing units, and turn the large yard into a community park and daycare center.
“I feel good when I’m here,” Racette said as he toured the convent’s multicolored halls.
SHAPEM is one of approximately twelve major organizations in Montreal working to keep housing affordable by buying or building homes and keeping them away from the speculative market.
But, with skyrocketing construction costs and a need for additional funding, that might not happen for a few years – and it’s a problem shared by many groups with similar goals.
These organizations all have different missions and funding models, and they serve different communities. But, at their core, they all fight gentrification by protecting homes from private developers and keeping them affordable for the long term.
CBC News spoke to seven of these organizations – SHAPEM, SOLIDES, UTILE, Interloge, Build your neighborhoodHome Bonneau and Brick by brick – which together have bought or built about 23,800 homes over the past three decades and about 6,200 more are on the way.
In Montreal, there are approximately 40,000 people on a waiting list for social or affordable housing.
François Giguère worked within a housing committee in Châteauguay to build social housing in the early 2000s. When this request was not met, the committee began to look for an alternative: to socialize existing buildings.
This is how SOLIDES was born, and today the organization has more than 600 accommodations. Giguère said he has 600 other families on their waiting list in Chateauguay, Verdun, Lachine and Longueuil.
Their most recent acquisition is a building with six apartments and a restaurant on rue Bannantyne and 6e Avenue in Verdun, acquired in early May.
“What we’re doing is finding the financing to buy existing buildings with the goal of providing housing for the tenants who are there right now, helping them stay in their apartment, their building, their neighborhood, if that’s what they choose,” Giguère said. .
They do this through regular maintenance, renovations and controlled rent increases that never exceed 2% per year.
Although SOLIDES has used government funding in the past, many programs designed to help build affordable housing – like AccèsLogis – have run out. They mainly take advantage of the equity in the buildings they already own to make acquisitions. However, other groups still rely on various programs from the three levels of government.
“François Legault wants to help people who earn more than $60,000 a year and doesn’t care about people who earn minimum wage, welfare recipients or workers. It’s very evident in their politics, they’ve done as little as possible on housing and they’ve just looked at so many ways to deny the housing crisis,” Giguère said.
“It’s just amazing.”
Removing a few thousand units from the speculative market plays a vital role in easing the housing crisis, but that does not absolve the government of its responsibility, the housing group’s spokeswoman said. FRAPRU, Véronique Laflamme.
Sectors left behind
At Parc Extension, gentrification is on the rise since the arrival of the new MIL campus of the University of Montreal in 2017. The neighborhood, known as Park Ex, has seen an increase in renovations and abusive rent hikes, pushing people out of their homes.
However, few affordable or social housing units are present. In 2020, the City of Montreal purchased a building across from Parc metro known as the Johnny Brown Building or Plaza Hutchison. But, two years later, it is still empty and locked.
The neighborhood housing committee, the Parc-Extension Action Committee (CAPE) and the Mont-Denis cooperative are pushing the City to buy a building on Jarry Street. after blocking a cooperative project.
“I think it is absolutely necessary at this point to look at other possibilities for the creation of social and community housing,” said CAPE spokeswoman Amy Darwish.
“In Parc-Extension, there have been several lots that have been acquired by right of first refusal in recent years. But if there is no funding, it will be very, very difficult to develop them.
Brick by lightere, a non-profit committed to community housing and diversity in Park Ex, recently acquired a former paint factory which will be converted into 31 affordable housing units.
But there’s still a lot of work to do before anyone can move in, and there are 1,000 people waiting for apartments in the neighborhood.
“The city is too little too late, and the province is doing nothing,” said Allessandra Renzi, a communications professor at Concordia and co-author of a report on the impact of artificial intelligence in Parc-Extension.
But grassroots organizations can work independently and are aware of the needs of their communities, which puts them in a good position to initiate projects, she said.
Their main challenge is the lack of funding and government support.
Non-profit organizations cannot replace the government
Since many of these groups buy existing buildings, they compete with private developers for the same properties. Many sellers are looking for above-market prices, which makes it difficult for nonprofits. The cost of construction has also skyrocketed in recent years.
Mr. Laflamme of FRAPRU said that it would be ideal for a government program to be put in place to finance the purchase or construction of affordable housing by organizations.
Housing groups like FRAPRU and CAPE have criticized the government’s latest housing program Coalition Avenir Québec, which is dedicated to providing grants to private developers to add affordable units to their housing projects.
They say the private and not-for-profit sectors should not compete for public funding and stress that the government must maintain the AccèsLogis program.
Avi Friedman, a professor of architecture at McGill University who has researched social housing conditions, said government programs provide a way to account for how funds are managed.
Anyone receiving government funding, whether non-profit organizations or private developers, will have to report how they used the funding.
This week, the Minister of Municipal Affairs tabled Bill 37 which would give municipalities a right of first refusal when selling land or a building. The bill would also reduce the number of years during which the owner of a new building can have carte blanche to increase rents (section F of a lease) from five to three.
Non-profit organizations that use public funds to buy buildings would also need the minister’s approval before selling them. Under the proposed law, the social and community character of these buildings must be preserved.
Because the current housing supply in Quebec is so low, “anything that promotes affordable housing is good,” Friedman said.
That said, he does not believe that the private sector can solve housing supply problems.
Community groups “will be extremely important because they cater to market niches that developers don’t care about,” such as low-income people, single parents, seniors and people with disabilities, Friedman said.
Housing committees have called for 50,000 units of various types of social and affordable housing in recent years. This includes cooperatives, but also social housing called HLM, and housing for people experiencing homelessness or with health problems.
“We have always said that we need more social housing, or HLM. These meet important needs,” said Laflamme. According to her, non-profit organizations and cooperatives cannot replace social housing.
Since 2018, the CAQ government has built more than 8,000 social and affordable housing units and more than $1.8 billion have been invested, according to Bénédicte Trottier-Lavoir, spokesperson for Housing Minister Andrée Laforest.
Some construction will be able to start this summer thanks to the new Quebec Affordable Housing Program, she said.
But Laflamme is grateful that groups like SOLIDES exist because the government “didn’t step up” and without them, “there are areas where nothing would happen at all.”
“We need to have ways to do this work on a larger scale,” she said.
“It’s the only way to avoid losing more homes bought by big corporations in search of profits. […]These homes that we are losing will not come back.”