Quebec Montreal social housing

LogisAction and Project Genesis workers at the Empress Theatre

OPINION: Quebec needs to build the social housing units it promised, now

“The CAQ still hasn’t invested a penny in new social housing programs, a first in 20 years.”

An editorial about the dire need for social housing in Montreal and throughout Quebec, by Darby MacDonald and Saray Ortiz Torres of housing rights advocacy organization Project Genesis and Ashley Marie Arbis from tenants rights organization LogisAction.

In 2020, there were 22,652 households on the social housing waiting list of the Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal (OMHM). In boroughs like Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, families on the waiting list were already feeling the pinch of years waiting for the provincial government to react to the affordable housing crisis. Add this number to the loss of income from the COVID-19 pandemic, a record-breaking year for rent increases and landlords escalating their tactics to get rid of tenants, and Quebec’s housing crunch is very tangibly felt. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the inextricable links between housing conditions, income inequality and health. More than ever before, tenants are forced to make the impossible choice between decent housing, respecting sanitary measures and affording to live. Rent is too high to stay at home — and the numbers show it. In the last week of January, the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation announced that in 2020, only 1.6% of housing deemed “affordable” was available for rent in the metropolis. Contrast this to their calculation of the 6% average increase in rent prices for the city — a 16-year high that doubles a 15-year high announced last year — and the picture for tenants isn’t pretty. 

To all this chaos, a glaring solution: the Quebec government must build social housing. In September 2018, Premier François Legault committed to do just that: to deliver within one mandate 15,000 social housing units. More than two years later, barely 2,600 of them have been delivered to tenants and the CAQ government still hasn’t invested a penny in new social housing programs, a first in 20 years. After the ravages of a global pandemic, vulnerable tenants waiting for social housing are left to wonder if the government will ever come to their aid.

For one such tenant, Barrington Lowe, social housing would be life-changing. Evicted last year under the premise of an apartment enlargement, his landlord slipped the notice under his door while he was out of the country. Upon his return, left with no choice but to leave the apartment he could afford, Lowe was only able to secure a new apartment days before his final eviction. The situation, however, is hardly ideal: “Even where I live right now, I wish I could get out today. The landlord charges me for everything. The apartment’s not in a good condition.” 

Surviving only on his pension, Lowe has to sometimes make tough decisions between buying everyday essentials or doing groceries. “I only get $1,000 from my pension every month and I pay $800 in rent. I can’t go home back to my country. It’s hard to afford food. I usually get by with something to eat, but often when I need something, I cannot buy it. You gotta pay your rent, your insurance, your phone. For me it’s very hard.”

While Quebec’s recent announcement of the construction of affordable housing units under the Rapid Housing Creation Initiative is a positive step in the right direction, the government must also make more concerted efforts to develop and build social housing as a long-term solution in communities such as Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, where it’s needed the most. In the meantime, vulnerable tenants like Barrington Lowe are left wondering where they belong: “I would go now if I could. Anywhere where no one can kick me out.”

As members of the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), we demand that the Quebec government invest in building much-needed social housing units and renovating the many derelict social housing buildings not only in Montreal but all over the province. They must do so now — we cannot afford to wait. ■

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