Montreal’s housing crisis

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Montreal appeared to be in better shape on the housing front than other major Canadian cities early in the year 2000. At the time, the vacancy rate was three per cent, compared to 0.7 per cent in Ottawa, and 0.9 per cent in Toronto and Saskatoon. Moreover, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $506, compared to $916 in Toronto, $864 in Vancouver and $739 in Calgary.

Nevertheless, one in ten Montreal tenants had to spend more than 80 per cent of their income on housing; according to the 2001 census, nearly 50,000 households found themselves in this untenable condition.

The situation has deteriorated in the last four years. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) reveals a vacancy rate of one per cent in the greater Montreal area, giving the city the unhappy distinction of ranking third with respect to the rental-unit shortage in urban areas in Canada. First and second place went to two other cities in Quebec: Quebec City and Sherbrooke.

The Impact

Scarce rental housing has many adverse consequences. For the fourth consecutive year, the authorities had to take emergency measures on July 1, Quebec’s traditional moving day. Families with children were given shelter, furniture and belongings were placed in storage, and 24-hour hot lines were set up. Hundreds of those stranded in the moving-day housing crunch stayed with relatives or friends, for anywhere from a few days to a year.

Rents, still lower than elsewhere in Canada, but catching up quickly, have been rising year after year.

Discrimination is also becoming a bigger problem. Many landlords are taking advantage of the low vacancy rate to refuse to rent to welfare recipients, families with children, or members of visible minorities.

More and more tenants are forced to leave the neighbourhoods where they have support networks of family and friends in order to find a place to live. Sometimes they must even leave the island. Furthermore, gentrification already underway in certain neighourhoods has accelerated.

Homeless shelters are now inundated all year long, as are the centres providing assistance to new immigrants and shelters for women who are victims of domestic violence.

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No End in Sight

With the boom in residential construction, the rentalhousing shortage will eventually come to an end, as it did in other Canadian cities. However, the housing crisis will persist. Instead of an overall shortage of rental units, there will be a lack of affordable housing for low-income individuals and families.

This is already happening. CMHC’s last Rental Market Survey revealed a vacancy rate of 3.5 per cent for units renting at a monthly average of $900 or more, compared to a vacancy rate of only 0.6 per cent for units renting at $600 or less.

Real-estate developers are willing to build rental housing, but they are simply incapable of building housing that that can accommodate poor tenants’ limited financial means. Unfortunately, it is precisely this category of tenant that is growing in Montreal.

It would be a mistake to look for a solution to the lack of affordable housing in the construction of more private housing, since current prospective tenants are not sufficiently affluent to sustain market demand. The only solution is non-market or social housing.

5,000 Units and Beyond

The paucity of rental housing in recent years, combined with the pressure brought to bear by various housing committees active in many Montreal neighbourhoods, led government officials to step up investment in social housing–contrary to what happened elsewhere in Canada. In January, 2002, Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay launched Solidarity 5000, a program aimed at building 5,000 low-cost housing units in Montreal by the end of 2005.

The program is still far from meeting its objective: to date, only 1,000 units have seen the light of day. However, there will be major follow-up action. During the City of Montreal’s public hearings on its new urban plan, Quebec housing-rights coalition FRAPRU argued that social housing should comprise half of all the housing units built in the next ten years.

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To reach this goal will require a firm commitment by the City, as well as funding from higher levels of government. While the overall shortage of rental housing prompted the Quebec government to maintain or increase funding for social housing, with media interest in the housing crisis waning, how long can it be before social housing becomes the target of cutbacks by Jean Charest’s Liberal government?

The outcome will depend in large part on the ability of community organizations in Montreal to adapt their strategies to changing realities. It is neither the first time, nor is it likely to be the last, that these groups have faced such a challenge, but at this juncture, the stakes–the fate of Montreal’s low-income tenants–are particularly high.

For the last 25 years, Francois Saillant has been the coordinator of FRAPRU, the Front d’action populaire en reamenagement urbain, Quebec’s housing-rights coalition, which represents 90 groups across the province.

(translated by Andrea Levy)