Between a school, a long-closed church and a red public housing building in Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighborhood stands an imposing gray stone with the Virgin Mary watching over it.
The old convent on Adam Street, which was a girls’ school before becoming a nuns’ retirement home, is now being converted into an affordable housing project.
The historic building will become a lifeline for low-income Montrealers.
“This is not a project to be met with a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude,” said Jean-Pierre Racette, Director General of SHAPEM. “We will accommodate people with low incomes, older people, have a day care center, that’s very mixed.”
SHAPEM is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating and managing inclusive and sustainable community housing. With the help of the FTQ Solidarity Fund, SHAPEM spent around $2.5 million in December 2019 to buy the building from the nuns, who refused to sell it to private developers.
The plan is to gut the monastery, convert it into about 80 units of affordable housing, and convert the large courtyard into a park for the community and a daycare center.
“I just feel good being in here,” said Racette as she toured the monastery’s colorful rooms.
SHAPEM is one of nearly a dozen large Montreal organizations working to keep housing affordable by buying or building housing units and keeping them off the speculative market.
But given the skyrocketing construction costs and the need for more funding, that may not be the case for years – and that’s a problem shared by many groups with similar goals.
These organizations all have different missions, funding models, and serve different communities. But at their core, they all fight gentrification by protecting housing units from private developers and keeping them affordable over the long term.
CBC News spoke to seven of these organizations – SHAPEM, SOLIDES, UTILE, Interloge, Bâtir son quartierAccueil Bonneau et al Brique by Brique — which collectively have either bought or built around 23,800 housing units over the last three decades, with around 6,200 more on the way.
In Montreal, about 40,000 people are on a waiting list for public housing, or affordable housing.
François Giguère worked on a housing committee in Châteauguay and pushed for the construction of social housing in the early 2000s. When this demand was not met, the committee looked for an alternative: the socialization of existing buildings.
This is how SOLIDES came about, and today the organization owns more than 600 residential units. Giguère said they had another 600 families on their waiting list in Châteauguay, Verdun, Lachine and Longueuil.
Their latest acquisition is a building containing six apartments and a restaurant at Bannantyne Street and 6e Avenue in Verdun, bought in early May.
“We are finding financing to purchase existing buildings with the intention of providing housing for the tenants who are currently there, helping them stay in their apartment, their building, their neighborhood if they choose to do so,” said Giguere .
They do this through regular maintenance, renovations, and controlled rent increases that never exceed two percent per year.
Although SOLIDES has drawn on government funds in the past, many of the programs to support the construction of affordable housing – like AccèsLogis – have dried up. They mostly use the equity of the buildings they already own to make acquisitions. However, other groups still rely on various programs from all three levels of government.
“François Legault wants to help people who make more than $60,000 a year and doesn’t really care about people on minimum wage, people on welfare or blue-collar workers. It’s very obvious in their policy that they’ve done as little as possible in the housing sector and they’ve just looked at so many ways to deny the housing crisis,” Giguère said.
“It’s just incredible.”
Taking a few thousand units off the speculative market plays a crucial role in easing the housing crisis, but it doesn’t absolve the government of responsibility, said Véronique Laflamme, spokeswoman for housing group FRAPRU.
Sectors that are left behind
In Parc Extension, Gentrification is on the rise Since the arrival of Université de Montréal’s new MIL campus in 2017, the neighborhood known to many as Park Ex has seen a surge in renovations and abusive rent increases, pushing people out of their homes.
However, there is little affordable or social housing available. 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’s still gutted and sealed.
The Neighborhood Housing Committee, the Committee d’action de Parc Extension (CAPE) and the Monde Uni cooperative have been pushing for the city to buy a building on Jarry Street. after a cooperation project was blocked for it.
“I think there is an absolute need at this point to look at other ways to create social and community housing,” said CAPE spokeswoman Amy Darwish.
“There have been a number of sites in Park Extension that have been acquired through first refusal in recent years. But if there is no funding, it becomes very, very difficult to develop it.”
Brique par Brique, a non-profit organization dedicated to community housing and diversity in Park Ex, recently acquired an old paint factory that will be converted into 31 affordable housing units.
But there is still a lot to do before moving in, and 1,000 people are waiting for apartments in the area.
“The city is too little too late, and the province does nothing,” said Allessandra Renzi, professor of communications at Concordia, who co-authored 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 get projects off the ground, she said.
Their biggest challenge is a lack of funding and government support.
Non-profit organizations cannot stand in for the government
As many of these groups buy existing buildings, they compete with private developers for the same lots. Many sellers are looking for prices above market value, making it difficult for nonprofits. Construction costs have also skyrocketed in recent years.
FRAPRU’s Laflamme said it would be ideal if a government program could be set up to fund organizations that buy or build affordable housing.
Housing groups like FRAPRU and CAPE have criticized the Coalition Avenir Quebec government’s recent housing program, which aims to provide subsidies to private developers to add affordable units to their housing projects.
They say that the private and non-profit sectors should not compete for public funds and stress that the government must keep the AccèsLogis program running.
Avi Friedman, a professor of architecture at McGill University who has researched the conditions for public housing, said government programs provide a route to accountability for how funds are managed.
Anyone who receives government funding, be it nonprofit organizations or private developers, must report how they use the funds.
This week the Minister for Local Affairs introduced Bill 37 which would give local authorities the right of first refusal when land or buildings are put up for sale. The bill would also reduce the number of years that the owner of a new building can increase the rent (Section F of a lease) from five to three years.
Non-profit organizations that use public money to buy buildings 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 housing is so scarce in Quebec right now, “anything that promotes affordable housing is good,” Friedman said.
However, he does not believe that the private sector can solve the housing supply problems.
Community groups “are going to be extremely important because they respond to market niches that developers aren’t interested in,” such as low-income people, single parents, the elderly, and people with disabilities, Friedman said.
Housing committees have requested 50,000 units of various types of social and affordable housing in recent years. These include cooperatives, but also public housing, so-called HLMs, and housing for people affected by homelessness or health problems.
“We have always said that there needs to be more social housing or HLMs. These respond to important needs,” said Laflamme. In her opinion, non-profit organizations and cooperatives cannot replace public housing.
Since 2018, the CAQ government has built more than 8,000 social and affordable housing units and invested more than $1.8 billion, according to Bénédicte Trottier-Lavoir, a spokeswoman for Housing Secretary Andrée Laforest.
Some construction could begin as early as this summer through the new Quebec Affordable Housing Program, she said.
But Laflamme is grateful that groups like SOLIDES exist because the government “didn’t take action” and without them “there are areas where nothing at all would happen”.
“We need to find ways to do this work on a larger scale,” she said.
“This is the only way to prevent further housing units being lost that have been bought by big companies looking for profit. […]Those units that we’re losing aren’t coming back.”