Montreal

As Montreal families desperately hunt for affordable housing, advocates warn of looming crisis

Even though the City of Montreal unveiled a new bylaw to address the lack of affordable apartments for families earlier this week, housing advocates say the changes may not come in time for those who need places to live right now.

New rules for developers will come into effect in 2 years, but new homes can't be built fast enough for some

Neelam Chandla, left, and her family live in a one-bedroom apartment in Côte-des-Neiges. The four of them all share the bedroom. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Neelam Chandla shares a bedroom with her husband, son and daughter.

Her son, who is 12, and her daughter, 8, share bunk beds. To get into them, they have to climb over their parents' bed.

Her family's Côte-des-Neiges apartment only has one bedroom. Chandla applied to Montreal's social housing agency for a three-bedroom apartment four years ago. She was recently told it could take another four years before one comes up.

"I don't have no space. I don't know where I put clothes for my kids or toys," she said.

Montreal introduced a bylaw Wednesday aimed at helping families in situations like Chandla's.

The bylaw would require developers to build social and affordable housing in projects of five units or more, or contribute to a fund to finance social housing.

The city hopes the plan will allow for the construction of 600 new social housing units every year, as well as 500 family units (three-bedroom apartments) at market price and 1,000 affordable housing units — 300 of which would be set aside for families.

The new rules are expected to come into effect in 2021, but the new homes can't be built fast enough for those desperate for affordable housing right now.

Chandla injured her back in 2013, and her husband has a neck injury. They both depend on social assistance.

Right now, Chandla is paying $510 monthly for her apartment. The building is managed by Montreal's municipal housing corporation, the Société d'habitation et de développement de Montréal, but it isn't social housing.

She acknowledged her rent isn't high but pointed out her apartment is small.

Chandla has a herniated disk, and living on the third floor of her apartment building presents challenges for her, as she finds it difficult to climb the stairs. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Chandla wants to move, but she can't find anything affordable. So, she and her family will wait for their social housing request to be approved.

"I don't have any choice," she said.

Echoes of a past crisis

Despite the city's efforts to address the problems, housing advocates warn that Montreal is inching toward a housing crisis, and the city's new housing bylaw won't do enough to stave it off.

The vacancy rate in the Montreal area dropped to 1.9 per cent in 2018, compared to 2.8 per cent a year earlier. For three-bedroom apartments, the vacancy rate in 2018 was 0.8 per cent.

Despite that, Mayor Valérie Plante said Wednesday she doesn't believe the situation has reached crisis level yet.

"We do have the resources and the tools to support people who are having trouble."

Youssef Benzouine, an organizer for the anti-poverty group Project Genesis, said the last time there was a housing crisis in Montreal, in the early 2000s, authorities downplayed the problem until it was too late.

At that time, the vacancy rate hovered around one per cent. Montrealers had to turn to emergency housing, staying in schools and at the downtown YMCA because they had nowhere to go.

Youssef Benzouine said he is afraid history might repeat itself if the city doesn't do more to address a looming housing shortage. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Benzouine said this year, Project Genesis has seen an increase in the number of people coming to them for help finding a place to live.

"Something is really going on," he said.

He said the agency's outreach workers report that it's common to see families of four, five or six people living in one- or two-bedroom apartments. And other social housing groups have told him they're meeting people who fear they'll be homeless come July 1.

"The problem is not that they can't find housing, but it's so expensive, and it doesn't respond to their needs," said Benzouine. "For large families, it's very hard to get a hold of something."

Chandla said ideally, her family would be approved for an apartment on the first floor of a building or in a building with an elevator, as her herniated disk makes it painful to climb the stairs.

And she wants to stay in Côte-des-Neiges — her doctor, physiotherapist and a friend who drops by to help her out all live in the neighbourhood.

But if leaving the area means getting a bigger apartment — an apartment with bedrooms for both her kids — she said she would do it.

About the Author

Kamila Hinkson

Journalist

Kamila Hinkson is a journalist at CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter at @kamilahinkson.

with files from Jaela Bernstien

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