Saint-Michel affordable housing project in jeopardy due to long wait for government approval

Neil Armand, co-founder of the Black Community Housing Society, says Quebec's indecision might kill the project entirely.  (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)
Neil Armand, co-founder of the Black Community Housing Society, says Quebec's indecision might kill the project entirely. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)

Neil Armand stands before a large strip mall in Montreal's Saint-Michel neighbourhood, describing what a new mixed-use affordable housing project envisioned for the land will look like.

"You have a very high building, five, six storeys with a community centre … beautiful looking, sharp," he said.

Armand, co-founder of the Black Community Housing Society (BCHS), plans to develop a sprawling apartment building attached to a publicly accessible grocery store and gym to help meet the needs of the low-income neighbourhood in the Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension borough.

"Saint-Michel has been in the ditch for the past 40 years and has rolled up [its] sleeves for the past 20 to change the whole image," he said.

Armand said the housing project planned at the corner of Saint-Michel and Crémazie boulevards would "change Saint-Michel forever."

A rendering of the new mixed-use affordable housing project planned at the corner of Saint-Michel and Crémazie boulevards. (Black Community Housing Society)

But after a year-long wait for the province's approval, the plan is now in jeopardy.

The BCHS was supposed to hear back from Quebec's housing agency back in September after submitting the project for approval, yet five months later, no decision has been handed down.

"We're not getting a no, but we're not getting a yes. So basically, if they keep that position, they will kill the project," Armand said.

"Why are they dragging it [out] when everything they've asked, we've given?"

230 social, affordable units

The plan would include 230 units — half affordable, half social — in a building that would cover 7,000 metres squared. About three quarters of the units would be two, three or four bedrooms.

Armand says while the BCHS was created to address discrimination related to access to housing for Black communities, the units are for the entire community.

"We cannot afford for this to be an all-Black project. That's not what it's going to be. There's too much need for everyone," he said.

With a price tag of around $115 million for the whole project, Armand says his group has begun securing funding and working with architects on the designs. There's also an agreement in principle to buy the land.

If approved, the Quebec government would also help fund the project.

Jean-Philippe Meloche, an assistant professor in urban planning at Université de Montréal, says the project is ambitious and the government is likely asking itself whether it goes ahead with funding it or not.

"[The government] has to think about what we give to other types of projects similar to this one," said Meloche.

The BCHS argues this affordable housing project will directly help counter the discrimination Black people face in accessing housing.

In 2018, Statistics Canada conducted a survey on housing for Black people. It found they pay roughly 16 per cent more than the average rent or mortgage and they are also more likely to be in unsuitable housing.

"The problem of housing is a very big problem right now in Montreal and if we add a layer of discrimination on top, this makes this project a very original one and it's the first time I see something like that in Montreal," said Meloche.

'We want to be part of the solution' 

In a statement, the Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension borough said it supports the project as, like elsewhere in Montreal, there is a lack of social, affordable and family housing in the borough.

"It's the first project of this scale to offer affordable housing in its entirety, while including a mix of commercial and community uses," said spokesperson Rachel Vanier.

Vanier said the borough helped with research before there was an agreement to buy the land and it also helped submit the project for approval to Quebec's housing agency, the Société d'habitation du Québec (SHQ).

In its own statement, the SHQ said it's still analyzing the file and will contact the organization shortly to announce its decision.

But Armand says his group can't afford to wait any longer.

"If we can't get the government to agree on this [project], basically it's a denial of the Black communities to lead themselves as a partner, not as a taker," he said.

"We want to be part of the solution."