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Homelessness and affordable housing crisis: ideas for turning the tide

13 June 2022
James Hughes

If you work in homelessness, you have to keep a close eye on affordable housing markets. After all, affordable housing is the answer to homelessness. We all want more housing and less homelessness. The opposite is happening.

There is less housing in Montreal for poor people, especially the extremely poor. What’s to be done?

According to Canadian housing expert Steve Pomeroy, Canada lost more than 320,000 units of affordable housing between 2011 and 2016. Montreal itself lost 80,000 units over this time period, and tens of thousands more since. Real estate investment trusts together with commercial and individual investors have gobbled up the lion’s share of this stock, renovating them and raising rents, sometimes in a legal manner and sometimes not. The average annual rent increases of these formerly affordable apartments have been 20 per cent, according to Pomeroy. Governments have funded the addition of new affordable units over the last decade, but only at a rate of about one unit for every 10 that have been lost to what is becoming labelled the “financialization” of the housing sector.

Old Brewery’s housing support teams have seen up close the efforts of several large commercial landlords to scare many formerly unhoused people out of their apartments with bogus claims of lease violations, intimidation, unwarranted additional charges and illegal rent increases.So it’s not a coincidence that as net affordable housing is shrinking, homelessness is rising. In 2015, there were a minimum of 3,015 unhoused people on any given night in Montreal. Three years later, that number was 3,149. The next official homelessness street count will be carried out in October 2022, but experts suggest the population has risen again to approximately 4,000 people on any given day.Politicians are putting an emphasis on “supply side” answers to the crisis. In other words, flowing government funding into targeted housing for low-income people, seniors and families in particular. To this end, the federal Liberals have announced funding for the creation of 160,000 new units of affordable housing over the next 10 years across the country through its National Housing Strategy. However, experts like Pomeroy tell us it won’t be enough, not by a long shot.We absolutely need new supply like those projects funded through the Federal Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI). The Old Brewery is one of many non-profits in Montreal developing affordable housing adapted for individuals with complex needs leaving homelessness through the RHI. We welcome targeted funding opportunities such as these, but alone they will not make a big enough dent to truly reverse the upward trend in homelessness. Additional housing supply needs to be complemented by dramatic regulatory interventions to “de-financialize” housing markets.

Here are four ideas to do just that:

1.In order to cool the acquisition of more affordable housing stock by investors, which inexorably leads to higher rents, the provincial government should cap increases on rents of newly acquired affordable stock, whether renovations are carried out or not. This measure should help reduce the number of “renovictions” we are currently witnessing.

2.  A related measure is to better equip tenants to contest evictions before the rental board. New York City evictions fell by 40 per cent after tenants were assigned a lawyer at no cost to better defend their interests before the tribunal. Montreal should pilot a similar initiative.

3. Montreal has already put some controls in place on the conversion of apartment units to Airbnb-type models. It’s now high time for the provincial government to put a full freeze on any such conversions.

4.Finally, a true COVID dividend, Montreal should move quickly to allow for the conversion of select vacant commercial towers into affordable rental.

Innovative measures need to be put into place quickly at both the municipal and provincial level not only to help create corridors out of the homeless shelters and into affordable housing, but also to prevent further cases of homelessness from occurring. The time to act is now.

James Hughes is president and CEO of Old Brewery Mission.

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