Housing advocates unimpressed by budget

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

As provincial budget day approached, Martin Bécotte of the Fédération régionale des OBNL en hébergement de la Montérégie et l’Estrie (FROHM) was hoping for massive government investment in affordable housing, to counter what he says is a growing gap in the region between housing availability and affordability.

“We’re dealing with an unprecedented crisis – it’s worse than in the early 2000s, when we lacked rental units. Now, not only do we lack rental units, but we also have an explosion of rents,” he says.

In the budget, the Coalition Avenir Québec government committed to an immediate investment of $247 million to “complete the delivery” of 3,500 affordable housing units through the AccèsLogis program, a provincial structure created to encourage the construction of affordable housing units. The government also committed to $100 million in funding for 1,000 units under the PHAQ program, a new program which aims to incentivize private promoters to build affordable housing by having them commit to keeping the units affordable in the medium term (for a period of 15-35 years). An additional $69 million will provide rent supplements and support municipalities as they provide services to homeless or precariously housed people.

Opposition finance critic Carlos Leitao called the investments “a joke.” Valérie Laflamme of the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), a Montreal-based provincewide group which advocates for affordable housing, said they “weren’t up to standard.”

“We had high expectations for this budget, because housing had become a serious issue during the municipal election campaign,” Laflamme said. “Previously, the housing crisis hit hardest in Montreal and Gatineau, but now we’re starting to see affordable housing become rarer and rarer in the regions. The general inoccupancy rate is 2.5 per cent, but it’s even less in small municipalities.”

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) collects data on inoccupancy rates in cities with a population of 10,000 or more; in Cowansville, the only Brome-Missisquoi locality to fit that definition, the inoccupancy rate for rental apartments in October 2021 was 1.4 per cent. “People are asking why there’s a labour shortage in Brome-Missisquoi, but there’s no affordable housing available in our communities if you work in a restaurant or in a factory,” says Bécotte.

“Housing is the main expense in the lives of Quebecers, and it needs to be invested in so that it costs the least possible,” Bécotte says, calling for “massive government investment” in affordable housing over the next decade.

Before the release of the budget, the Union des municipalités du Québec (UMQ) had called on the government to commit to building 4,500 units of social housing per year and supporting municipalities and housing organizations in a way that would allow them to build more than 13,000 units per year.

Claire Bolduc is the prefect of the MRC of Témiscamingue and a UMQ board member. She says the announced investments are “a step in the right direction, but they won’t cover all our needs.” Although the PHAQ has come under criticism from groups like the FRAPRU, who are wary of any private-sector involvement in affordable housing, she says the program “gives [municipalities] more tools to work with promoters.”

She called on the government to implement more tax credits for housing and reduce the bureaucratic burden on municipalities working with government programs. “We’ve been saying for years that we need 3,000 more affordable housing units, but we’ve never been able to build them because of the restrictions,” she said. In light of the labour shortage, she says solving the problem of affordable housing has taken on a new urgency: “Access to housing allows us to choose new people, and it allows new people to choose us.”

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