The three mayoral candidates in Sherbrooke, Que., are promising to prioritize affordable housing after the city experienced one of its worst housing crises over the summer.
Dozens of families found themselves with nowhere to live after Moving Day in July. The city had to find emergency accommodations for them, and some families were forced to stay in hotels for nearly three months.
"From what I remember, we've never had such a serious crisis, it was twice as bad as last year which was already pretty bad," said Mario Mercier, a spokesperson for Sherbrooke's tenants association.
"There were three households in an arena because there wasn't enough space," he said. "The city itself was a bit taken aback by the scope of the crisis."
Mercier's association has been lobbying the city for more affordable options for residents. If nothing is done to tackle the issue, the housing advocate said, the housing crisis will only be worse next year.
Commitments to affordable units, special funds
Incumbent mayor Steve Lussier says what happened in July this year was an exceptional situation that he does not want to see repeated.
"We got to work," he said. "We gave the city of Sherbrooke a new office precisely to target all the areas in Sherbrooke where we could build affordable and social housing."
Lussier said his administration also worked with investors and real estate developers in the region to build more low-income housing, including accessible units for people with reduced mobility.
He said Sherbrooke is short about 800 affordable units. He is committing to building 125 new social housing units per year if he is re-elected.
Independent candidate Luc Fortin also said he is keen to tackle the affordable housing crisis, calling the situation last summer "unacceptable."
"We have to make decisions, we have to invest in affordable housing so that for the future we will never repeat this situation," he said.
The father of four is a well-known political figure in Sherbrooke. He was the Liberal MNA for the city from 2014 to 2018, during which he held several ministerial positions including culture minister and family minister.
He said part of Sherbrooke's housing problem is that the city relies heavily on provincial funding to build affordable units, and he promises to pressure the Legault government to invest in more housing projects.
Fortin also plans on setting up a special priority fund of about $3.5 million per year for affordable housing, with the money coming from Hydro-Sherbrooke's digital currency revenues.
For mayoral candidate Évelyne Beaudin, who is running for the Sherbrooke Citoyen party and who has been a city councillor for four years, the priority is to help local families by investing in housing and transportation and focusing on creating more green spaces.
She is promising to double the construction of affordable housing in the city, and also to build more co-operative housing.
"If we build enough, it will put pressure on the market price to lower the market price," she said. "We want to help more people to live in their apartments and pay lower housing price[s]."
In addition to this commitment, Beaudin plans on setting up a "retention office," which would focus on finding ways to get students and families to stay in Sherbrooke, and thereby get more workers for local businesses.
One idea, she said, could be to start a bus tour of the city for university students, to show them all Sherbrooke has to offer.
"There's a famous movie called La Grande Séduction, where they want to keep their doctor in this small village: that's the idea of the retention office," she said. "We want to see how we can seduce people and it's not a lot of investment, it's mainly to make them discover the city, the people here."
A step in the right direction, housing advocate says
Samantha Watson, a housing advocate who works at the local co-operative L'Autre-Toit, said the candidates' promises of building more units isn't enough to solve the problem.
"We need short-term solutions," she said, noting that construction takes a long time and that many people need housing right away.
But the fact that the candidates are recognizing that there is a housing issue is a good start, she said. "It's already a first step to finding a solution."
Sherbrooke residents will decide which mayoral candidate they trust to deal with the housing crisis on Nov. 7.