City of Montreal to exercise right of first refusal to turn properties for sale into social housing

Montreal acquired the pre-emptive right to acquire property in 2016, in landmark legislation called Réflexe Montréal, but until now it's only used that right to buy land for large parks.

Announcement part of city's plans to build 12,000 more social and affordable housing units by 2021

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, with Coun. Robert Beaudry, who is the executive committee member responsible for housing, said owners will lose nothing by selling to city. (Radio-Canada)

Mayor Valérie Plante says Montreal has identified 300 properties that it will attempt to buy and develop into social housing, using the city's right of first refusal.

This means the city will have, before anybody else, the chance to buy land or buildings in areas where rental housing is particularly scarce, she told reporters on Monday.

She described the right of first refusal as another tool to respond to the city's rental housing shortage and "offer quality housing at affordable prices and to maintain the diversity in our neighbourhoods."

The mayor stressed that exercising the right of first refusal is not the same as expropriation, as it only applies to properties that are already on the market and have an interested buyer.

Once a buyer makes an offer, the city has 60 days to step in on the sale and match whatever offer is on the table, Coun. Roger Beaudry explained.

"It's going to make no difference," said Beaudry, who is the executive committee member in charge of housing. "It's going to be the city or the private owner that is going to own the land for the exact same price."

The city acquired the pre-emptive right to acquire property in 2016, in a landmark piece of legislation dubbed Réflexe Montréal, which was aimed at giving the city more powers over its own economic and social development and urban planning.

Since then, city has only exercised this power to buy land for parks and other public infrastructure while the rental housing vacancy rate has continued to erode, finally hitting a 15-year low of 1.5 per cent citywide this year.

Plante said the city has zeroed in on neighbourhoods where rental units are particularly scarce, though most of the properties the city is hoping to buy are not yet on the market.

The city will send out letters to the owners of 300 properties which it would like to turn into social housing, informing those owners that it has the right of first refusal should they put their property up for sale.

The properties are in the boroughs of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Plateau–Mont-Royal, Sud-Ouest, Verdun and Ville-Marie.

The mayor said there is a particular focus on the traditionally low-rent neighbourhoods of  Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension where rents have been driven up by the new Université de Montréal campus in the nearby borough of Outrement.

Housing advocates applaud initiative

Amy Darwish, a tenants' advocate with the Comité d'action de Parc-Extension, said she was pleased to learn that Montreal has targeted her area for social housing development as there are many residents living in dire situations.

The neighbourhood, she said, has a vacancy rate of about one per cent, and apartments large enough to accommodate an entire family are nearly impossible to find.

In some cases, multiple families are cramming into two-bedroom apartments, or people are staying in terrible housing conditions because they feel have no other choice, she said.

Amy Darwish, with the Comité d'action de Parc-Extension, says people are being pushed out of Parc-Extension where affordable apartments are increasingly scarce. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Darwish said others are moving to the fringes of the city away from their services, schools and social networks. And in a neighbourhood as diverse as Parc-Extension, residents there often face discrimination when apartment-hunting, she said.

Montreal has also identified properties in Côte-des-Neiges for potential development, which is welcome news to Sheetal Pathak, a community organizer with the tenants' advocacy group Project Genesis.

"It feels like the city is taking the housing crisis seriously," she said. "But we still feel the provincial and federal government still need to step up because those units are not going to be built without significant support from the higher levels of government."

This call for provincial and federal support is something Plante has  reiterated several times in recent weeks.

"I am calling on the other levels of governments to help us reach our goals," she said during Monday's announcement. "We are ready to build. We have the team. We have the structure to make it happen."

With files from Sean Henry