Homelessness and The Housing Crisis:
What Can We Learn?
By: Dinu Mahapatuna
Screenshot from the Concordia School of Community and Public Affairs’s roundtable on “The Housing Crisis During COVID-19”
At the risk of sounding preachier than is healthy for any student publication, let me remind you that while some of us complain about the stifling warmth of our homes, others have no such luxury. In 2018 alone, 3149 people lived, visibly, on the streets of Montreal. Just ask any Dawson student about what lies just beyond the school’s Atwater entrance. They are likely to recall the sight of someone sleeping next to an empty Tim Hortons cup just as well as they remember the rush to grab an iced cap between classes.
In previous years, we may have flipped some change into said cups, but otherwise, we had no problem leaving the eradication of homelessness in Montreal to anyone else.
The recent death of Raphaël “Napa” André, a 51-year-old Innu man, reminds us to take a closer look at Montreal’s homelessness issue. André was a victim, not only of our province’s unforgiving winter, but of Legault’s half-baked lockdown procedures which denied him access to a shelter on the night he froze to death.
While the lockdown procedure faced the majority of scrutiny for André’s death, there is a greater underlying issue, linked to the foundational problem of houselessness in Montréal.
By September 2020, the number of people forced onto the streets of Montreal doubled to almost 6000. The question is, why the increase? We are all well aware of the added financial pressure on many Montrealers as a result of COVID-19; but the pressure only served to exacerbate a pre-existing condition in Montreal: unaffordable housing.
To better understand the issue, I attended the roundtable held by Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs on Montreal’s housing crisis in the midst of COVID-19. Four officials from different Quebec organizations presented arguments on what they considered to be the root of the problem.
Maxime Roy-Allard of the RCLALQ (Regroupement des Comités Logement et Associations de Locataires du Québec) appears tired and reserved. Yet, he exudes as much frustration at the impact of the housing crisis on the average Joes and Jacques of Québec as the more vocal Véronique Laflamme of FRAPPU (Front d’Action Populaire en Réaménagement Urbain).
“Many measures could have been taken to protect tenants forced to leave their apartments,” says Laflamme. “There were subventions to construction companies right away, but tenants couldn't find housing, and no one cared.”
Roy-Allard reiterates that tenants, unlike landlords and construction companies “aren't protected from renovictions and evictions,” adding that “there is a discrimination against tenants for reasons beyond their control, like their race.”
François Bonhomme of the APQ (Association des Propriétaires du Québec) maintains a relaxed smile while he supports landlords and their decisions to raise rent or evict tenants. When Roy-Allard expresses distaste at having to “see that tenants are so easily evicted and forced to leave the localities in which they grew up,” Bonhomme quickly backtracks. He justifies the forced departures as “tenants needing bigger spaces and changing lifestyle habits” to support telework. He also points to the government as both the root of all evil and the fountain of prosperity: “Landlords in Quebec are mostly small landlords who also have bills to pay. The government needs to invest money in existing housing.”
Laflamme is quick to retort, in what I can only describe as an act of straight-faced brutality: “Housing stocks belong to large corporations, not small landlords.”
Also of note is finance bro Daniel Fagen, a representative from real-estate developer and contractor Broccolini. He persists in pushing for the completely realistic solution of building even more housing units as the antidote to a housing crisis. I was left reminded of a toddler cousin who expected candy to appear from thin air.
Bonhomme is more eloquent in expressing his concern, “La construction des logements n'est pas encouragée. Il y a un manque d'espace pour construire des logements.” To provide a rough translation, “Build more housing units? With what space, homie?”
Ultimately, all four experts agreed on the severity of the issue. Fagen explains that affordable housing means renting a home should not cost more than 30% of annual income. Yet, in Quebec, the average person spends over 40% of their yearly salary on housing.
This problem also remains a circular one. Roy-Allard explains that “tenants are evicted, then prices increase when people move.” He tells us that Quebec’s laws, unlike Ontario’s, “leave tenants vulnerable.”
To wrap up with some sort of didactic musing and avoid giving off the impression that I have no answers, I say: homelessness is a by-product of an even bigger issue, with no single apparent solution. The factors at play here are numerous, concerning landlords, developers, and government as much as they do you. Recognizing the problem is the first step (of many) towards progress.