As members of Montreal-based universities, community groups and research collectives, we wish, with the following blog post, to take a common stance in publicly decrying the harmful impact which public institutions are having on the Park Extension neighbourhood. Among these, we most specifically point out the lack of investment of funds in a coordinated housing strategy, and the displacement of residents resulting in part from the imminent arrival of Université de Montréal’s Campus MIL.
Grounding our proposed actions carefully in research evidence, we recommend a coordinated housing strategy for Park Extension, as well as a cross-institution impact control strategy initiated and supported by Université de Montréal in order to mitigate the harmful impact that its new campus is having, and will continue to have, on the residential composition of the surrounding boroughs, most notably in Park Extension.
It could be argued that the gentrification currently experienced by Park Extension is part of a purportedly inevitable Montreal-wide urban development trend which has steadily progressed outwards from the city’s downtown core, affecting in turn a range of neighbourhoods. In that regard, we could view Park Extension as the next step in a process initiated in the Plateau neighbourhood approximately 20 years ago, followed north, by the Mile-End a decade later. Yet, urban trends notwithstanding, there are a number of notable factors that can inform a more nuanced understanding of the unique gentrification makeup in Park Extension. In that regard, and as a precursor to the points raised herein, we highlight that Park Extension is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada, with 79% of its approximately 33K population living in rental housing1, of whom 39.7% spend more than a third of their income on rent each month. As such, Park Extension’s (primarily renter) population is at comparatively high risk of bearing the burden of gentrification compared to that of nearby boroughs like Mount-Royal and Outremont, whose housing makeup are both primarily made up of private dwellings occupied by residents.
In acknowledging the deep and sustained impact that emergent shifts may have on area residents, we stress the extent to which gentrification has been recognized in the literature as deeply destabilizing for longtime residents of historically resource-deprived neighbourhoods. It involves, amongst other things, the displacement of those who cannot keep up with rising rents, the replacement or disappearance of traditional neighbourhood institutions, as well as the disintegration of community ties for displaced residents.
In addition, housing loss (due to eviction or forced economic moves) jeopardizes employability, connections to school and community cohesion (Desmond & Gershenson, 2016), consequences that are especially detrimental to a population who are already facing systemic barriers such as financial hardship, discrimination, challenges navigating the healthcare system, etc. Such pre-existing risk factors (i.e. poverty, unemployment, immigration) compounded with the negative effects of involuntary displacement are likely to impact mental wellness due to the quick erosion of their already limited protective factors (i.e. social cohesion, safety, access to privacy). Most notably, this is a process likely to disproportionately affect women, mothers, and members of racialized communities. With 72% of Parc-Ex residents having children, involuntary displacement will have far-reaching consequences not only for the family unit as parenting stress and overall stress rises, but for the surrounding community as well, as existing social ties are disrupted.
Furthermore, evidence has shown that compared to residents who remain in their neighborhood, displaced persons make more emergency department visits, are hospitalized more often and report more mental-health problems up to 5 years after displacement – effects that are likely the result of worsening mental health and high levels of stress. This shows that the effects of displacement are felt long-term and may have a negative impact on an already overburdened healthcare system. By institutions failing to recognize that housing is a basic need and human right, residents of Parc-Ex are at risk of further marginalization as well as intensified social, economic and health inequities. Despite the injustices that many Parc-Ex residents face, the majority are not be able to advocate for themselves due to the systemic barriers in place. Therefore, we urge institutions to recognize the social, economic and health implications that are tied with this crisis of housing instability.
Moreover, though the gentrification of neighbourhoods may seem like an overwhelmingly positive force to Municipal Governments (for example, it may generate additional funds for cities through increased tax revenues), there is a high cost to displacement and the housing precarity that it entails. Evidence shows that preventing residential instability and homelessness is less costly than offering services to people experiencing homelessness. These less-visible costs, and engendered consequences, must therefore be considered alongside the purported economic benefits resulting from housing development in disinvested neighbourhoods.
Compounding Park Extension’s high-density and predominantly rental housing landscape are a number of socio-economic factors which the neighbourhood experiences disproportionately in relation to Montreal as a whole. These include: low incomes2, including low-income Seniors3; low graduation levels, including a proportionally high amount of people 15 and older without a diploma or degree4; and a high proportion of renter households that dedicate 30% or more of income to housing. Intersecting with these factors is the fact that many Park Extension residents are newcomers to Canada5, leading to an increased potential disconnectedness from social services afforded to other Montrealers and vulnerability to a broad range of systemic and individual discriminations.
Against the background of these multiple socio-economic challenges, Park Extension has also been instrumental in facilitating the integration of newcomers to Canada through the efforts of community organizations, faith-based communities, informal residents’ networks and public spaces with recognized cultural markers. In that regard, the trends we identify here are recognized signs of economic pressure on newcomers and low-income households, which will result in eventual loss of neighbourhoods which have played a historical role in social integration. Park Extension is thus particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects and inequities often associated with gentrifying projects, such as the transformation of commercial and public meeting places, and the steep rise in rents, evictions and eventual displacements.
The Comité d’Action de Parc Extension (CAPE), a community group dedicated to housing accessibility in Park Extension, has been keeping track of gentrification-related displacement in the neighbourhood. Its most recent data points towards an increase in evictions and forced relocations related to rise in rents over the last eight months. As reported, more than thirty people have contacted the CAPE since June 2018 (personal communication, February 2019). According to the CAPE, this is “because they feared an eviction or felt pressured by their landlord to leave their apartment… That was definitely not happening at this pace it the last years.” An increase in the number of people whose mental health is undermined by the risk of eviction has also been noted by the CAPE. We can reasonably infer that this will intensify over the next months/years, as more people and businesses move into the neighbourhood to take advantage of its proximity to the new Université de Montréal campus and to benefit from proximity to the increasing wealth in the area and adjacent neighbourhood6.
No individual public institution is able to solve all of the problems associated with gentrification. As such, we make a range of recommendations to minimize the impact of incoming public projects on the neighbourhood of Park Extension, particularly for its low-income residents. We highlight specific roles that stakeholders and decision-makers can play to offset the effects of gentrification.
First, as it relates to the effects of the Campus MIL project and in order to prevent the rapid residential reorganization of Park Extension, we recommend that steps be taken by the Université de Montréal to ensure its harmonious integration into Park Extension’s socio-economic and cultural context. Most specifically, we recommend that the University:
- Ensure that the Campus MIL site incorporates an on-site student housing strategy in order to provide viable housing for its estimated 10,000 students, along with faculty and staff who will work on site and who represent the largest coordinated pool of incoming residents. Currently, developments on the Campus MIL site include an estimated 1,300 private dwellings of which 15% must be social and community housing and 15% must be affordable housing. The MIL project also aims to create 225 social and community housing units in the area (urban, economic and social development plan for the Marconi-Alexandra, Atlantic, Beaumont and De Castelnau areas, 2013)7. Yet, and even if both strategies are applied to their stated extent, they will collectively do little to palliate the disproportionately large demand of incoming residents resulting from the project.
- Take a public position on the need for social housing investment. As a demonstration of the University’s recognition of the impacts of its actions, we recommend that the administration highlight the need for municipal, provincial and federal investment in social housing and rental subsidies in Park Extension.
- Apply a campus-community accessibility strategy through: granting scholarships to residents of Park Extension; allocating contracts for the provision of on-campus services (cafes, photocopy center, etc.) to local, community-owned businesses; providing resources to support a medical and social pedagogy clinic already established in the neighbourhood; create a training and employment program adapted to Park Extension; and offering language courses and training to Park Extension resident leading to employment on campus.
Second, as it relates to all post-secondary educational institutions in Montreal, we recommend the following steps to reduce the effects of campuses in low-income neighbourhoods:
- Earmark full-time, unionized employment opportunities for community residents in neighbourhoods adjacent to university campuses.
- Invest in community land trusts and other social impacts investment strategies that seek to have a positive effect on the communities they are meant to serve.
- Commit to developing and implementing coordinated student housing strategies, including educating students on their unintentional impact on neighbourhood rents.
As has been demonstrated, an increased investment in applied legal protections against eviction can result in a more effective rent control. This can notably occur through the establishment of a lease register and the regulation of Airbnb. Emergency rent banks, mortgage and utility assistance programs, and tenant/landlord mediation are other mechanisms known to mitigate housing loss.
Land reserves are another tool that should be put forward as a means of mitigating the extent to which poor and precarious housing conditions contributes to vulnerability. In that respect, land reserves can help to prevent a steep rise in the price of land by the time funding for social housing is secured. In applying this commitment, we recommend that the city, and borough administrations, collaborate on the strategic acquisition of un-maintained and run-down properties where tenants have reported the unaddressed presence of health-hazards and pests (mice, rats, cockroaches and bedbugs). In that regard, we draw attention to a 2011 report by the city’s Public Health department that found that 25.9% of Parc-Extension families with young children were living in housing infested with cockroaches, while 18.7% had mice or rats, and 38% had major humidity problems or mould infestations. Frequently, these buildings are first targets for renovation and conversion. However, we caution that without an expressed will to integrate these in a concerted social housing strategy, the market will likely replace them with condominiums or condo-style rentals outside of the financial means of current residents.
We also note a demonstrated capacity to rapidly apply financial and policy resources towards meaningful impact and notably highlight recent strategies applied by groups Entremise and La Pépinière, who have consistently benefited from municipal support and privileged access to public funds. This clearly demonstrates the capacity to rapidly apply alternatives to private development in vacant buildings and lots. Another recent municipal policy strategy has similarly been applied to facilitate the pre-emption of property sales in key districts, allowing the city to match the funds and substitute itself as the buyer. In the Park Extension context, this would allow for the immediate acquisition of property for social housing.
In applying these strategies we ultimately urge public authorities to reserve land and buildings to enable the construction of new subsidized housing units; and community-led cooperative, non-profit housing associations and low-rent housing.
Investments in social housing and rental subsidies are two effective means of preventing the forced relocation of residents and the homelessness which can be engendered as a result of rising rents. The relevance of social housing for communities becomes even more obvious in a neighbourhood like Park Extension that is facing the enormous challenges associated with gentrification. For a growing number of households, obtaining a social housing unit is one of the only ways to survive in the poverty they are forced to live in.
As it relates to the insurance of a safe and adequate social housing strategy, we recommend that steps be taken through the immediate improvement of the AccèsLogis program, as recommended in the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU)’s latest policy brief addressed to the provincial government.
We further stress the need for continued prioritization of provincial programs to fund decontamination of sites for social housing. As Park Extension de-industrialises, its former factories and warehouses will require continued investments in public decontamination to prepare them as habitable sites for social housing. Yet, as reported by area residents, recent months have seen both cooperative and social housing initiatives halted due to a prohibitive decontamination costs8.
Following the 2017 federal budget announcing a new National Housing Strategy (NHS), we support the perspective (FRAPRU, 2019) that it is incumbent for the federal government to ensure that the Quebec provincial government obtains its allotted share of federal funds dedicated to housing, so that the province can in turn apply a social housing development strategy in Park Extension ahead of further increases in real estate values.
Promising Work Afoot
Although the public institutional support mentioned above are central to mitigating the detrimental effects of gentrification in Park Extension, it is important to underline that residents and community groups are already engaged in leading concerted efforts in order to address the problems associated with gentrification. We end this brief by highlighting some of the socially-innovative community-led responses, currently underway in Park Extension.
One promising tool has been proposed by Brique par brique, a neighborhood non-profit community housing project: using applied community land trusts for the benefits of the local residents. These will include affordable housing, the preservation of environmental and human assets, as well as the equitable development of the neighbourhood. Brique par brique is currently documenting its practices in order to propose a new model of community development and partnerships that responds to the needs of marginalized communities who face systemic discrimination in the rental market.
Community-based action research further addresses potential solutions to gentrification through a collaborative framework. Montréal Populaire, a neighbourhood community group, has been leading community-based action research projects since its inception in 2016, with the support of the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office at McGill University. Similarly mandated, the Park Ex Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is co-led by researchers and the CAPE and aims to provide a platform to gather data and stories from Park Extension tenants. These two initiatives are striving to bring academic and non-academic groups together to address various social problems in the neighbourhood and push for action by politicians, developers and other institutional actors. Moreover, Montréal Populaire and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project have both raised the issue of housing in Park Extension, notably by highlighting and decrying the lack of affordable housing and the increase in gentrification-induced displacement in the district.
We eagerly anticipate the impending 2019 study by the Conseil des Montréalaises on women and housing, which may provide additional insight into many of the issues addressed here. Given the recent arrival to Park Extension of the Maison Parent-Roback, this analysis may allow for concerted efforts in line with the collective feminist mandate put forth by the occupants of the Maison.
We also highlight the recent arrival of the Table de Quartier de Parc-Extension. Introduced to Park Extension by Centraide du Grand Montréal through its Collective Impact initiative (Projet d’impact collectif), which aims to apply a broad range of “measurable and impactful results towards the reduction of poverty”, this strategy holds the potential to provide meaningful funding support to a number of community-led initiatives.
Finally, we highlight the mobilizing work conducted by the Parc-Ex contre la gentrification citizens collective, which was created following the announcement that a major hub of community activity, the Hutchison Plaza building, had been sold to a property developer. The collective has challenged the way in which the building’s new owner, Ron Basal, terminated the leases of the community group tenants and planned for the subsequent conversion of the building into small apartments that will presumably be marketed towards students and young, incoming professional. The collective has successfully rallied support for the building’s few remaining tenants, and has galvanized support towards legal and financial aid, brought the issue to the local borough council and organized series of socially-innovative concerted public actions that included community picnics and oral history records of the residents’ experiences. Perhaps in part due to their efforts, the conversion of the building appears to be currently stalled.
The committed application of these various strategies could go a long way towards ensuring that the changes currently facing Park Extension do not lead to a further and continued loss of housing among current residents. Urban development does not need to rhyme with forced displacement in a given neighbourhood, and we have all have a responsibility to ensure that none of our residents are treated as a disposable population.
NOTE: An abridged version of this analysis has been released as an open-signatory call to action. Click here to add your name to the list of signatories.
1 Renter households in Park Extension is 79.2% (vs 60.7% for Montreal).
2 12,725 Park Extension residents have below-poverty-line incomes or 43.5% (24.6% for Montreal).
3 1,340 seniors are low-income, or 33.2% (21.2% for Montreal).
4 34.7% of area residents 15 yrs old or older are without a diploma (18.9% for Montreal).
5 60.5% of Park Extension residents are newcomers vs. city-wide average of 33.2%.
6 It is not insignificant to name here the emergence of a new Artificial Intelligence hub in the nearby Marconi-Alexandra neighbourhood, renamed in some contexts as Mile-Ex, in purported celebration of the northward-bound development spread.
7 Area residents report that 50 of those 225 units have been developed in the last five years, with no other related anticipated projects.
8 Sasha Dyck, personal communication, March 13, 2019.