HLM: making something new out of something old

We come across them without really seeing them, almost everywhere in the towns and villages of Quebec.

They are gray, brown, concrete. Sometimes boarded up, often dilapidated.

Several low-income housing (HLM) complexes in the province are looking very bad. Around 4,000 apartments are vacant, out of a total of 74,000, which is hard to swallow for the thousands of poor families waiting for housing.1.

The situation is known, it is denounced from all sides, and there will soon be movement on this front. Quebec and Ottawa will inject “historic” sums of 3 billion to renovate public housing within four years, including $735 million this year alone.

These investments will change lives. We have seen gloomy HLMs become quite inspiring living environments after major work, such as in the Saint-Michel district in Montreal.


The St-Michel Nord HLM was refurbished in 2021.

But the shortage will remain glaring, despite the billions invested in renovations.

An idea, which I find excellent, has begun to emerge: why not use these major works as a pretext to densify HLM complexes?

In other words: why not add housing, wherever the land would allow for new construction?

This is a golden opportunity to act quickly, and differently, to reflect the absolute urgency of the current crisis.

The Société d’habitation du Québec (SHQ) is open to this scenario, I learned.

There has been a lot of hubbub on the housing issue over the past two years in Quebec. With good reason: construction starts are declining, the vacancy rate is at rock bottom, and generally speaking, public investments appear insufficient in relation to the scale of needs.

The responses offered to the crisis by the Legault government have often been poorly received. The disappearance of AccèsLogis, replaced by the Quebec Affordable Housing Program (PHAQ), for example, caused quite an uproar in the community housing community.

The creation of the PHAQ aims to “get housing projects off the ground” more quickly and at a lower cost. We must “think outside the box”, repeats the Minister of Housing, France-Élaine Duranceau, and multiply the financial arrangement models.

I abhor this overused expression, but it must be admitted that the SHQ, which reports to Minister Duranceau, has embarked on several unexplored avenues in recent months.

For example: a program of 1000 social housing units for seniors, headed by the NPO of businessman Luc Maurice1. Or a pilot project of 500 affordable factory-made apartments, which could be extended on a large scale2.

In short, Quebec is trying new businesses, which brings me back to the densification of HLM.

This idea was proposed in mid-February by two community organizations: the Fédération des tenants de HLM du Québec (FLHLMQ) and the Popular Action Front in Urban Redevelopment (FRAPRU).

Their arguments in this matter, I must say, are convincing.

Among the current obstacles to the construction of social housing, there is of course the lack of public funds. But also: the scarcity and price of land, as well as the complexity of the financial arrangements that must be made to obtain government funds.

It’s difficult to align all the right conditions, at the right time.

The FLHLMQ used the example of Habitations Boyce-Viau, a complex of 204 social housing units in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district subject to major work, to illustrate what densification of the site could look like. In this case, it could be considered to add a fourth floor on top of the existing buildings, if the structure allows it.

“We could easily add 70 housing units to the site. The land is already public, urban planning rules allow 4 floors and there will be no “steps in my backyard”,” argued Patricia Viannay, of the FLHLMQ, in mid-February.

This idea is well defended, I repeat. And without commenting on this specific file, Claude Foster, the big boss of the SHQ, is of the same opinion.

The “nerve of war”, to carry out such densification projects, is the land, he told me. Some take to it straight away, while others don’t.

A densification project was inaugurated in 2022 in Drummondville, where 48 social housing units were built on the land of an HLM with 36 apartments. Another file of this nature has just been approved in the Charlesbourg district of Quebec.

Please note: the amounts for new construction do not come from the envelopes intended for the renovation of HLMs, which are the subject of a series of complex agreements between Quebec and Ottawa.

But according to Claude Foster, the SHQ could be “creative” and “imaginative” in authorizing new construction projects on existing HLM sites. These projects, which must be submitted by municipal housing offices, could be financed by the PHAQ.

In Montreal, the Municipal Office is currently conducting a preliminary analysis of all HLMs to assess which sites could lend themselves to possible densification in the coming years, I have been confirmed.

There will be a myriad of factors to consider before we see a wave of densification in public housing. Real estate projects are always complex, and undoubtedly even more so in community housing.

But we must also take into account the exceptional context we are experiencing at the moment.

The housing crisis is acute and will get worse. Huge investments in the renovation of HLMs will be spread over the next four years, under the Quebec-Ottawa agreement. After ? We do not know.

In short, time is of the essence, and careful planning will be required. All the players involved in the management of HLM (and there are many of them) would benefit from coordinating so as not to miss this opportunity.

1. Read the article “Housing crisis: fewer HLMs left vacant in Quebec”

2. Read the column “1000 housing units, 10 buildings, one model”

3. Read the column “Housing crisis: Quebec will bet (very) big on the “prefab””

reference: www.lapresse.ca

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