Share the wealth or stoke the boom? Where the mayoralty candidates stand on social housing

Valérie Plante wants to fix Montreal's affordable housing shortage. Denis Coderre says her plan will hurt the economy. Here's a closer look at their proposals.

Projet Montréal wants to see more social housing, but Denis Coderre says their plan will hurt the economy

Developers in Montreal are investing billions of dollars in new condominium and office complexes. The candidates for mayor disagree over how much private developers should be forced to put toward social housing. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Montreal's economy is booming. There are, as Denis Coderre likes to point out, 150 cranes dotting the city's skyline, representing an estimated $25 billion in investment.

Developers are pumping out new condominiums and retrofitting old buildings. Last month, real estate sales matched an eight-year high for September. 

But what's the best way to harness this growth? Should the city push developers to ensure their properties are available to low-income earners, or should it keep its intervention to a minimum, lest it spoil the boom?

The different answers offered by the two front-runners in the Montreal mayoralty race strike to the heart of their contrasting visions for the city.

Valérie Plante's Projet Montréal wants to ensure more of those new housing units are available to families and low-income residents, while Coderre warns her plan would hurt business. 

Missed opportunities, Projet says

The demand for social housing has steadily increased alongside the rise in real-estate prices. It is estimated there are currently 25,000 families on the waiting list of the Office municipal d'habitation de Montréal (OMHM).

Plante often cites that figure when arguing for the need to expand Montreal's affordable housing supply. 

If elected, Plante would force developers to set aside 40 per cent of units for social and affordable housing.

"Over the last four years, the city has missed many opportunities to build affordable housing for Montrealers," Plante said earlier this month, when she announced the policy.

Montreal mayor candidate Valérie Plante greets passerbys this week. Her party wants to boost the number of social housing units in the city. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The laws would apply to buildings with five or more units. Developers on projects with fewer than 50 units have the option of paying into a housing fund instead.

The changes would lead to the construction of 12,000 social housing units over the next four years, Projet estimates.

The party is also pushing for more units with three or more bedrooms to keep more families in the city. Recent figures suggest Montreal's suburbs are growing at a faster rate than its more central neighbourhoods. 

Coderre stresses economic growth

Coderre, for his part, has repeatedly argued that Plante's social housing proposals would have a chilling effect on the hot real-estate market. He hammered that point home again Thursday.

"Projet Montréal has no idea about economic development," he said.

Denis Coderre shakes hands at Montreal's Armenian cultural centre earlier this week. Coderre has stressed the economy in the days of the campaign. (Steve Rukavina/CBC)

Équipe Coderre promises 5,000 units instead.

Under the existing rules, in place since 2005, developers are required to set aside 30 per cent of units to social and affordable housing or pay financial compensation.

The Coderre administration extended those rules to projects with over 100 units, from the previous 200.

Other factors at play?

The difference between the two policies is, to a large extent, a "question of ambition," said Raphaël Fischler, an urban planning professor at McGill University.

Both approaches, however, remain dependent on the investments of private developers, as well as contributions from the provincial and federal government, he said.

"We depend on the private sector to build affordable housing, forcing developers to include it in their projects," he said.

"That dependence means we are not ready to invest very large sums of money in affordable housing."

The municipal government plays only a small role as a driver of growth in the housing market; broader economic trends, disposable income and low interest rates are more important factors.

One area where both candidates could do more, he said, is in determining what kinds of projects get the green light.

"Here the city has a lot to say because the city controls land regulation and zoning," he said. "Should we be building tall condominium towers? Personally I don't think that's the case."

FRAPRU, a social housing activist group, has been pressing the city to reserve more land for affordable housing.

According to the group, getting a subsidized apartment takes an average of four years, and more than 100,00 people spend more than half their income on rent.

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