Montreal’s social housing plan taking longer than expected to get off the ground

Why Mayor Valérie Plante’s plan might be too ambitious

Why Mayor Valérie Plante’s plan might be too ambitious. Graphic Joey Bruce

Montreal mayor Valérie Plante has been talking about developing more social housing since she first ran for office in 2017. As of March 2022, the government has yet to reach even half of their objective to develop 6,000 social housing units by the end of last year. Growing concern has Montreal residents demanding the government to speed up the process.

The number of households on the waitlist for government-subsidized units has risen to over 24,000. In the last year alone, 800 more households have been added to the list, according to Véronique Laflamme, organizer and spokesperson for Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain.  

Though construction has recently started on a $19.9 million social housing project in Outremont, many residents from other parts of the city remain worried. Evictions are becoming more frequent under the guise of needed renovations, while vacancy rates are at the lowest they’ve been in years. To top it off, Canada’s inflation rate has risen to 5.7 per cent, the highest it’s been since 1991, forcing many people to downgrade and move out of their homes and sometimes even neighbourhoods they’ve been living in for years. All without any security of finding an affordable place to move to.

While Plante’s social housing plan is meant to offer a level of security among lower-income Montreal residents, there remains a lack of programs designed to help specific groups of people.  “[The plan] needs to have targeted projects specifically to support the different types of problems, but it also needs to have general social housing,” said Catherine Lussier, who is responsible for the housing files in Montreal at FRAPRU. 

With a lack of social housing, private organizations and landlords can get away with discriminating against certain potential tenants, such as single women with children, said Lussier. These families are being faced with rent increases they cannot afford and left with no other choice but to move out and try to find something more affordable, only to be turned away or unable to find something in their budget—an issue that’s contributing to the growing population of unhoused people in the city.  

“It’s a huge problem that we need to tackle from different angles, and social housing is one of the angles, but we also need to find ways to make landlords more responsible in their rent hikes.” — Kaïla Amaya-Munro

Kaïla Amaya-Munro, a Verdun city councillor and president of the Commission on Economic and Urban Development and Housing, also believes there needs to be more specific mandates put in place to help address the housing crisis. Amaya-Munro is helping with the development of the new responsible landlord certification, a registry that will require buildings with eight or more rental units to be registered online and renewed every five years. 

Amaya-Munro said she is set on making the new rent registry as sustainable as possible. She expressed concern for the younger generation and how they will cope with the increasing costs of rent. Her long-term hope is to expand the certification to eventually cover every rental unit in the city. 

“It’s a huge problem that we need to tackle from different angles, and social housing is one of the angles, but we also need to find ways to make landlords more responsible in their rent hikes,” she said. 

Initiatives such as the rent registry will provide some security for those currently in a rental unit, but concern over the slow development of government-subsidized housing is still heavily on the minds of those on the waitlist. 

Sonny Moroz, city councillor of the Snowdon district in Côte-Des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-De-Grâce, sees the rent registry as more of a half measure. 

“When [the rent registry] goes into effect, which is maybe in five years, we are already going to be past the point of no return,” he said. “A version that would work better would be something that was less dependent on building bureaucratic structures, and something that allowed people to report more openly.” 

Plante’s government often points fingers at low levels of funding from the provincial government, but Moroz said it’s hard to nail down who is responsible for the slow progression of development. He said both the Auditor General Michèle Galipeau and Chantal Rouleau, the provincial minister responsible for Montreal, have expressed concern over the low number of social housing units developed with the amount of money that has been invested. 

“They don’t want to give more money into a system that’s not producing numbers for them,” said Moroz. “So, they end up investing off island to produce the kinds of numbers they need to say that they did build provincially, and Montreal loses out.”

Moroz also pointed out that some of Montreal’s demerged cities which are in the heart of the island, such as the Plateau-Mont-Royal, Côte Saint-Luc, and Hampstead, aren’t obliged to abide by the city’s 20-20-20 bylaw. The bylaw requires new residential developments with five units or more to contain 20 per cent social housing, 20 per cent affordable housing, and 20 per cent family housing with a minimum of three bedrooms.  

On March 22, Finance Minister Eric Girard presented the highlights of the newly tabled Quebec budget for the 2022-2023 year. To promote access to housing, Quebec is devoting $634 million over six years to increase the supply of social housing. This new budget will make it possible to complete the development of 3,500 new social housing units under the AccèsLogis program. Amaya-Munro worries this is still not enough to cover all of Montreal’s boroughs, and Moroz said the concern is trying to get development to catch up with the number of households on the waitlist.  

“Let’s say in a magical world we’re going to build three times as much affordable housing as we do social housing to get through the numbers faster. The needs for social housing aren’t the same for affordable housing and those 24,000 people are still going to have those same needs. They aren’t going to be able to enter the market through affordable housing,” said Moroz. 

The right intentions are there, and there is no denying that everyone wants the same thing: accessible social housing. But government officials are quick to lay the blame for the slow turnaround on other people and departments, leaving no one to be held accountable in ensuring that the plan actually gets off the ground and running. 

This article originally appeared in The Sidewalk Issue, published April 5, 2022.