Quebec budget neglects housing crisis once again, with homelessness on the rise

The affordable housing shortage in Quebec is at crisis levels, say advocates. But for the third year in a row, the Quebec government has allotted only paltry sums to address the situation.

CAQ government allotted only paltry sum for new affordable units despite shortages

'Going to a landlord when you're on the street is hard,' said Laura McRae of her search for an apartment she can afford. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

Laura McRae has been looking for an apartment in Montreal that she can afford for nine months. At the start of her search she was living in a tent. When the weather turned cold, she moved into a women's shelter downtown.

"I was born and raised in Pointe-Saint-Charles. Even working, I couldn't afford it anymore," McRae, 49, said in a recent interview.

She and her boyfriend had to give up their apartment in the once-working class neighborhood after he lost his job at the start of the pandemic. She's hopeful that with the help of a case worker at the shelter, Chez Doris, she'll be able to find a new apartment soon.

"It's been long and hard," she said of her search for a place to live. "Going to a landlord when you're on the street is hard."

The supply of affordable housing in Montreal is short and demand is high, and only rose higher during the last year.

Several community organizations in Montreal, including Chez Doris, report homelessness among the people they help has doubled since last March.

Even before the pandemic, though, these groups were warning the city was in the grips of a housing crisis.

In Montreal alone, there are 24,000 families or people on the city's waiting list for subsidized housing. It's not uncommon for the wait to last years. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Vacancy rates were hitting 15-year lows on the island, while rents shot up past inflation. Last year, average rent in the greater Montreal area increased by 4.2 per cent, the largest annual increase since 2003, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

In Montreal alone, there are 24,000 families or people on the city's waiting list for subsidized housing. It's not uncommon for the wait to last years.

And the shortage of affordable housing is not only a Montreal problem. Gatineau declared a state of emergency last fall to draw attention to its needs. Sherbrooke and Quebec City are seeing severe shortages too.

But so far the Coalition Avenir Québec government has been unmoved by the urgency of the situation.

The government's first two budgets provided no funding for the construction of additional affordable housing units.

Last week's budget did commit to building 500 new units in the province by 2026. But most of that funding won't arrive until 2024, leaving mayors on the frontlines of the crisis frustrated at the meagre sums and slow timeline.

"The request I made to [Finance Minister Eric] Girard … was 1,500 units for this year only in Montreal. So it's far from what we need," Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said Friday during a visit to Chez Doris.

Finance Minister Eric Girard, left, tabled the government's 2021 budget on Thursday. It detailed $5.2 billion in new spending measures for the coming fiscal year. None of that will go toward building new affordable housing units. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Gatineau's mayor, Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, called the government's funding for new units "just about insignificant" given the demand his city faces.

An umbrella group of non-profit housing organizations in Quebec, the RQOH, said meeting current demand in the province requires 5,000 new units per year.

In a statement released after the budget, the group said it was "surprised and disappointed" so little money was set aside for social housing.

An overview of the causes

There are roughly 12,000 social housing units in Quebec promised by previous governments that are awaiting completion.

The 2021 Quebec budget only provides enough funding to ensure that 5,000 of those units will be completed in the coming years.

It's money that will likely allow Chez Doris to resume construction on a 26-unit apartment complex for women that stalled two years ago when higher construction costs burned through their existing funding.

But without significant long-term investment in the construction of new social housing units, the housing crunch of recent years looks set to become permanent.

Experts attribute the current shortage to several different factors, some historic, some more recent.

Forty years ago, the federal government was still actively involved in social housing. But that started to change in the 1980s and 1990s, when it shifted responsibility to provincial governments, said David Wachsmuth, who holds a Canada Research Chair in urban governance at McGill University.

Jacques Brochu, 59, places a sign demanding social housing in front of his tent in an encampment that appeared along Notre-Dame Street last summer. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The provinces, in turn, downloaded responsibility onto cities, who have few revenue tools at their disposal.

"What we have been living with since the 1990s is a system where there is very close to zero dollars spent on building and maintaining subsidized social housing here," Wachsmuth said.

The private sector, in the meantime, has shown little interest in meeting demand at the low-income end of the market.

In recent years, developers mainly built condominiums as opposed to multi-unit rental properties. And while the construction of rental units has picked up lately, it is only higher-income renters who have the luxury of choice.

The 2020 vacancy rate for households earning between $52,000 and $80,000 per year was 8.9 per cent. For households earning less than $25,000, it was 1.7 per cent.

"There is always this tension between housing as a commodity that you can draw profit from, and housing as a right that is essential for quality of life. That tension is really noticeable in the current context," said Julia Posca, a researcher who has studied the Montreal housing market for the progressive think-tank IRIS.

What happens if the problem isn't solved?

The consequences of Montreal's housing crisis have been visible throughout the pandemic.

When large parts of the economy was shut-down last spring, a make-shift homeless camp surfaced along Notre-Dame Street, just east of downtown. Many of the residents were people experiencing homelessness for the first time.

The use of food banks also jumped and remains high, a sign that households are devoting large amounts of their income to other basic needs, such as housing.

Moisson Montreal, one of the largest food banks in the city, distributed nearly $12 million worth of goods last month, its highest ever monthly total. "The demand for food assistance is not diminishing but, in fact, increasing each month," the food bank said.

Housing activists in Montreal have linked the need for more affordable housing to other pressing social issues, including violence against women. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

If the affordable housing shortage continues to go unaddressed, it will permanently alter Montreal's demographics.

One effect, said Posca, will be gentrification and the loss of social diversity in certain neighbourhoods.

With that comes urban sprawl, which entails costs for the environment and government. Housing, too, she pointed out, is a determinant of health, social stability and a host of other issues that governments should be concerned about.

"Housing is not only a real-estate question," Posca said. "It affects things like schools; domestic violence; or immigration and whether newcomers have decent living conditions."

For McRae, after months of sleeping outside and in shelters, an apartment she can afford means something even more basic.

"It would be a place where I don't have to worry about being safe at night," she said.

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio