Amid rising rents in Parc-Extension, activists mobilize to preserve affordable housing

After decades of serving as a landing place for new immigrants, housing advocates worry that low-income housing in Parc-Extension could soon be a thing of the past.

New Université de Montréal campus driving transformation of traditionally low-income neighbourhood

Parc-Extension, one of the city's most diverse neighbourhoods, is undergoing a shift driven, in part, by the development of a new university campus. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Parc-Extension was, for decades, a landing spot for new immigrants. But community groups worry that low-income housing in the neighborhood could soon be a thing of the past.

The new Université de Montréal campus nearing completion nearby, along with the city's booming real estate market, has contributed to a steep increase in rent and housing prices, say housing advocates.

"Day by day, I'm seeing it get worse," said Mahmood Baig, a longtime Parc-Extension resident and community activist.

Baig was among a group of several dozen people who gathered over the weekend at a local community centre to discuss their housing concerns.

The new campus, which is set to open this fall, straddles the southern border of Parc-Extension. It will only be a short walk from the Acadie Metro station on Beaumont Avenue.

Students, Baig said, are coming to the neighborhood with money to spend and landlords are trying to push people out in the hopes of driving up rent or selling their buildings.

Housing alternatives

Faiz Abhuani, the general manager of Brick by Brick, a local community housing project, likened the new campus to Columbia University's controversial expansion into West Harlem, a traditionally low-income area of blacks and Hispanics in New York City. 

"We fear that a similar thing is going to happen here," said Abhuani, who lives in Parc-Ex.

Faiz Abhuani is one of the founders of Brick by Brick, a local community housing project. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

The organization is hoping to offer affordable, well-maintained apartments to low-income residents with proceeds from the sale of community bonds.

The idea, according to the group's website, is to "generate a steady revenue for investors and offset the negative impact of gentrification by building accessible housing for low-income tenants." 

But while they've sold out two bond issues, finding a building to buy for the project has proven difficult.

Small apartment buildings close to the campus are being snatched up quickly at high prices, Abhuani said. ​

Negligent landlords

Parc-Extension routinely ranks as the poorest neighbourhood in Montreal and one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada.

The new Université de Montréal campus is set to open this fall. It straddles the southern border of Parc-Extension. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

It's also one of the most diverse. Nearly 80 per cent of the population has a mother tongue that is neither French nor English, according to a 2016 report from Centraide.

More than half of the neighbourhood's recent immigrants come from South Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Often, advocates say, new arrivals are reluctant to challenge their landlord or don't know where to turn, making them vulnerable to negligence.

Shabana Amir, a refugee claimant from Pakistan who was also at Saturday's meeting, settled in Parc-Extension with her three children and husband six months ago. She lives in a two-room apartment.

She pays only $600 per month, but says the landlord has done nothing to address the cockroaches, faulty kitchen cabinets and broken windows.

"I signed a 12-month lease. I'm not sure how to get out of it," said Amir.

The neighbourhood hasn't had a new subsidized development in more than a decade, despite a waiting list more than 1,000 households long.

Good, bad and ugly

Saturday's housing meeting was followed by a neighbourhood talk about the transformation underway in Parc-Ex.

Sasha Dyck, a member of the community organization Comité d'action de Parc-Extension, led the tour, which was part of the Jane's Walk series (named after author Jane Jacobs).

The talk, titled "The good, the bad and the ugly of housing in Parc-Extension," showcased some of the worst cases of landlord neglect and overpriced apartment buildings, including one in the process of being sold for more than $1 million.

"It is clear that somebody has purchased this building with the intent of kicking out renters," Dyck told the crowd at one point, gesturing to a multiplex with a broken garbage bin near the entrance.

Sasha Dyck, left, a member of the community organization Comité d'action de Parc-Extension, speaks during a Jane's Walk on Saturday. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Dyck ended the tour at 7300 Hutchison St., commonly known as Hutchison Plaza or the Johnny Brown Building, which has become a rallying point for local housing activists.

For years, the building opposite Parc Metro has housed small local businesses, religious spaces, community groups and several floors of residential apartments.

The new owner, however, is hoping to convert the building into "fully loaded" apartments near some "culturally diverse, trendy and artistic Montreal neighbourhoods," according to Dyck. 

He said his organization and local residents plan to fight the change in court this fall. "We're not ready to give up just yet."