The Ville-Marie borough’s decision to approve a 300-unit condo project in the Centre-Sud is creating controversy. The project, to be built on the former site of Touchette automobiles on Papineau near Ontario, will contain no units of social housing despite the city’s guidelines that projects over 200 units contain at least 15% social housing. This decision was denounced by the Comité Logement Ville-Marie, accusing mayor Tremblay of reneging on the inclusion policy that his own administration put in place. According to La Presse, a borough representative noted that the area already had a high percentage of social housing and that such projects will help “revitalise” it.
This decision was also supported by local district councillor Pierre Mainville, of opposition Projet Montréal. Mainville defended his position stating that he supports the construction of social housing, but that it should be put in other neighbourhoods where there is currently little to no social housing, such as the West-End of downtown.
This reasoning isn’t completely off base but it is deceptive. Sainte-Marie has one of the highest concentrations of social housing in the city, with over 20% of its housing stock being social (meaning public, coop, or non-profit). However, this argument implies not that this percentage should be maintained, but rather drastically lowered. For an inclusion policy of 15% social housing would still mean that any large new constructions would include a higher private to social housing ratio that currently exists in the neighbourhood, pushing the overall balance in favour of private housing (largely condos). And since the inclusion policy only applies to projects over 200 units, the amount of new social housing in the neighbourhood would actually be well under 15% even if the inclusion policy was always implemented. Apparently in Tremblay and Mainville’s logic this scenario would still involve too much social housing.
It would seem that this projects’ supporters were evoking the need for what planners call “mixité sociale” to defend exclusionary projects. This concept essentially says that projects need to make space for a wide variety of people with different incomes, ages, lifestyles, and family structures.
This is not the first time that the need for mixité sociale has been evoked to oppose social housing or support exclusive residential developments. In the case of the Plateau, a borough where property values and rents have been rising exponentially, community groups have for years been demanding that city lands be earmarked for social housing projects given that there are few undeveloped properties in the borough and those that do exist are prohibitively expensive. Former Union Montréal borough mayor Helen Fotopulos opposed this demand, citing the need for mixité sociale and preferring projects that consisted mainly of private condo developments with a few social housing units off to the side. Such discourse also surrounded the construction of La Place Valois in Hochelaga.
So for some, this concept seems to mean that what working class neighbourhoods really need are just big condo developments to bring in wealthier people. But this is a far cry from what promoting true mixité sociale would entail. As property values in central city neighbourhoods rise much faster than inflation it’s clear that the challenge is not to attract more well-off people to central neighbourhoods. That has already happened (Plateau) or is in the process of happening (pretty much everywhere else). Rather, the main challenge will be to ensure that lower income people can continue to stay in these neighbourhoods. And the secondary challenge is to ensure that new developments include a reasonable amount of larger, affordable units that suit households with children and not just 3 1/2s for single professionals or childless couples.
While this is hardly the first time that urban planning concepts have been twisted to favour the interests of real estate developers it’s a particularly egregious case give that it is being used to defend what is essentially the opposite of what the concept actually calls for.