West Island residents fight social housing project aimed at giving working Canadians a helping hand
Danielle Roy remembers a recent knock at her door in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que.
It was someone informing her of a new social housing project in the area that would convert a seniors' residence into an apartment complex for working Canadians who, despite having an income, are struggling to pay rent in the midst of a housing crisis.
Roy knows the struggle herself, having faced the challenge of finding an affordable apartment while trying to make ends meet in what is becoming an increasingly difficult economy.
"In a time when you want somewhere to live and be able to eat at the same time, you need these kinds of projects," said Roy.
Yet some residents of the West Island suburb have come out in strong opposition, and that outcry has been powerful enough to delay the council's zoning amendment vote last Monday. Residents brought forward a petition signed by more than 160 people, citing concerns about crime, drugs and property value.
Now Mayor Paola Hawa is working to explain to residents that this project is not a halfway house for people with criminal backgrounds or substance abuse issues.
"This is for people who have been dealt a difficult hand in the past and they need a little bit of help to get back on their feet," said Hawa.
That could mean a single mother or somebody who is returning to the workforce after a long illness, she explained.
The facility would be managed by Hébergements Ricochet, a non-profit organization that would form a committee to carefully select each of the tenants who live in the 21-unit building for six months to three years.
That committee would be comprised of Ricochet employees, town residents and one tenant. To be approved, a resident would need to have a regular source of income. They would then pay rent equal to about 25 percent of their salary, and the building would have a social worker on-site around the clock.
"It is extremely secure," Hawa said. "Here, you will know who your next-door neighbour is going to be, because they will be vetted."
Hawa said the building itself would not need any significant renovations as it is already a seniors' residence, located on Ste-Anne Street, and it would provide affordable units in the middle of a housing crisis.
The owners of Résidence Ste-Anne de Bellevue are retiring, and the building has been on the market for some time, she said.
If this project doesn't get the green light, the building could wind up vacant and unused, the mayor said, and Ricochet's federal funding could be put in jeopardy.
Still, she doesn't foresee the council forcing the amendment through without public approval. If the amendment is approved, citizens could petition for a registry and force a referendum. Often, municipal councils in Quebec will withdraw contested motions rather than face a time-consuming and costly referendum vote.
Efforts to inform residents
Caroline Turpin-Emond, assistant director of Ricochet, said the building is perfect for the project, and the residents who already live in the seniors' home won't need to leave — allowing them a smoother transition.
She said the town held public consultations, including the most recent one on Feb. 28, and the organization went door to door, informing residents in person about the project.
Things seemed to be going fine so it was surprising to see so much concern at the Monday council meeting, she said.
"We realized people were misinformed and that people were scared," said Turpin-Emond. She said she thinks someone seems to have misled residents in an attempt to mobilize opposition.
But her organization says this project is needed in the West Island, which has only four percent of all social and community housing in the Montreal agglomeration area.
Regardless, people raised concerns on Monday night about criminal behaviour and accused the municipality of failing to inform residents about the project. One resident claimed to have only learned about the project through a Facebook group discussion.
The council postponed the vote on the amendment's second reading, and now Turpin-Emond's team is going to hit the streets again, showing citizens it will be a home for working people who just need a hand with housing costs.
Not everybody opposed
Karl Wockner, who lives about five blocks away from the former seniors' residence, said new social housing wouldn't be an unusual addition to the area, as people there have a diverse range of incomes.
If the plan is to keep the building as is, it makes sense for the neighbourhood, he said.
The petition residents presented at Monday night's meeting contained many names of people who don't even live in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, the mayor said.
The community has a mix of multi-million dollar homes and rentals, and yet people are equating low income to criminal behaviour, she said.
"When did we get to that point in society?" said Hawa, taking responsibility for the lack of communication.
"We probably did not put out enough information and the reflex was to be afraid."
At this point, it's unclear when or even if the zoning amendment will be approved. Once all the information is clearly disseminated to public, then "we will see where we are at," said Hawa. She was unwilling to predict what will happen with the vote on the amendment.