Parc-Extension in Papineau, Quebec, is one of Canada’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods. Of the approximately 30,000 people who live in Parc-Ex, 61% were born outside Canada. The area is one of the country’s poorest: 43% of households live below the poverty line, perhaps a somewhat surprising fact given that it is also part of the riding (electoral district) represented by the Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau .
Despite being located in the centre of bustling Montreal, Parc-Ex feels isolated and is physically closed off from the rest of the city by borders on all sides. There’s a highway to the north, a large park to the east, train tracks to the south and a fence to the west, built by a posher neighbouring borough.
This month, however, Parc-Ex is being plugged back into the heart of the city in a project that some are hailing as transformative but othersfear will gentrify the district beyond recognition, pushing out current residents.
The project, dubbed Mil, is a C$348m (£210m) development by the University of Montreal which will transform a 38 hectare site that was formerly old rail yard into a vast new campus. Mil stands for Montreal Innovation Laboratory, but also plays on the word milieu (middle), a nod to its city centre location.
The first stage of the development is now open: a new complex for the university’s science department, which hosts a daily influx of 2,200 students, faculty and staff. The next stage of development will include condominiums, office buildings and public spaces.
Beyond the rare opportunity for a city to develop 53 football pitches’ worth of prime real estate, Mil is intended to bolster Montreal’s reputation as a hub for AI research. The new campus will be located close to the university’s AI research centre, Mila, in the nearby industrial Marconi-Alexandra area. The hope is that Parc-Ex will become the next Mile End, a Montreal neighbourhood transformed by the arrival of game giant Ubisoft.
The government is investing C$84m into the Mil project, and Trudeau has promoted the plan as a way of boosting Montreal’s intellectual capital as a cornerstone of economic growth.
In turn, the university is portraying Mil as a lifeline for Parc-Ex. The development will see the district connected to the well-off, mostly Francophone, borough of Outremont via a pedestrian bridge over the tracks.
“We believe that opening up neighbourhoods and sectors contributes to improving people’s quality of life,” says university spokesperson Geneviève O’Meara.
But as the campus opens, Parc-Ex residents are grappling with the consequences of their neighbourhood’s newfound attractiveness. New condo developments are multiplying near the subway station, and homeowners report being pressured into selling their properties by developers. In recent months, the community group Comité d’Action de Parc-Extension (Cape) has documented a spike in evictions and unlawful rent increases.
To make matters worse, Montreal is in the midst of a housing crunch, and vacancy rates in Parc-Ex are at an all-time low, leaving displaced residents scrambling to find affordable housing.
One resident of Parc-Ex who was evicted earlier this year found herself in a frantic search for new housing for her two sons, one of whom has a disability and attends a special school. “It was just a horrible, horrible experience being in this mad rush of people just panicking and trying to get a place,” she says. Eventually she found an apartment. It costs C$400 (£242) more per month than her previous residence, and is roughly half the size.
“I just became desperate,” she says of her decision to accept the new, worse reality. “I was so afraid of becoming homeless.”
Putting lower income residents at risk
Until now, Parc-Ex has remained mostly immune to the gentrification forces that have filled Montreal with hip coffee shops, cocktail bars and yoga studios. It is a lively, unassuming neighbourhood, with tree-lined residential streets filled with low-rise apartments, shops catering to multiple ethnic groups, and numerous places of worship.
It is also a precarious place. While older generations of immigrants (notably a large Greek population) were able to buy their homes, 78% of today’s residents are renters. Many of the newcomers from south-east Asia, Africa and the Caribbean are those seeking refugee status, undocumented migrants, temporary workers and immigrants of colour – all groups who face higher barriers to integration.
“Parc-Ex was sort of an anomaly,” says Rachel Shugart, a Parc-Ex resident and former program director of the Welcome Collective, a nonprofit group that helps refugee claimants through their first few months in Montreal.
“The apartments that are available for the poorest, most vulnerable families are only low-price, despite their central position, despite their walkability, because the buildings are in such bad shape. They’re really terrible apartments, and nobody else would take them if they had any other options.”
In 2011, the city’s public health department found that 25.9% of Parc-Ex families with young children were living in housing infested with cockroaches. Bugs, mice, rats, mould and other problems are common, and the city has launched a campaign to send more inspectors after neglectful landlords.
But while Montreal had until now avoided the worst of the housing inflation that has seized other large Canadian cities, thanks in part to generous tenant laws that cap rent increases and restrict evictions, times are changing. Property prices are rising, putting additional pressure on Parc-Ex.
“The real estate market has been gaining momentum for a dozen years, but in the past two years, it’s been disproportionate,” says Faiz Abhuani. Abuhani runs Brick by Brick, which raises community bonds to purchase properties and turn them into affordable housing in Parc-Ex. The spike in prices, he says, has dashed his hopes of making deals any time soon.
Now, the Mil project is bringing that pressure directly into the heart of Parc-Ex.
There are no official statistics on rent increases or evictions, but Cape says it helped close to 500 tenants in the first half of 2019. Of those, 21 were being pushed out illegally and 16 had been pressured to leave. Since last year there has been “a significant increase in the number of people coming to see us for questions relating to rent increases, repossessions, and major renovations,” says Cape’s Amy Darwish.
The tension is also being ratcheted up by Montreal’s long-time effort to create jobs and raise the tax base by attracting the tech, creative and knowledge industries. Mile End quickly gentrified after Ubisoft moved in, aided by tax credits. As Mil opens there is also a push to attract AI companies to the Marconi-Alexandra area where the University of Montreal’s Mila research centre is located, as well as companies such as Element AI; in September Microsoft will move into a new research lab a short walk away from Mil.
Mil itself represents a “quick fix” for the city to raise revenue, says Norma Rantisi, professor in the geography, planning and environment department at Montreal’s Concordia University.
“What this Montreal campus represents is a heavily publicly subsidised institution that’s serving the commercialisation of knowledge in ways that are supporting private sector endeavours,” she says, “but at the same time putting at risk a lot of the lower-income residents and lower-income establishments.”
Critics say the university should be paying more attention to its immediate impact on the neighbourhoods where it is located.
Research has shown that large institutions can leverage their economic power to spur inclusive growth in surrounding communities. The University of Toronto has launched an Anchor Strategy for its campus in Scarborough, one of Canada’s most multicultural areas, which includes reforming its procurement process to bring in more diverse and local enterprises on campus, and increasing employment and training opportunities for nearby residents. Drexel University in Philadelphia, US, found that its Hire Local initiative led to decreased turnover rates among staff.
By contrast, O’Meara says the University of Montreal hiring process is regulated by collective agreements that prevent it from setting jobs aside for workers from specific parts of the city.
“That’s the way campuses used to be built half a century ago,” says Ted Howard of the Democracy Collaborative, which researches the issue. “If the University of Montreal wants to be a world-class, renown[ed] institution, it can’t simply rely on its teaching and its research, and the intellectual aspect of the institution, as important as that is. It has got to take account of the kind of neighbour it is, and how it uses its economic strength to creatively help solve problems in the community where it’s going to be based.”
The University of Montreal says it was careful to plan for negative impacts the Mil campus may have. O’Meara says that of the 1,300 new housing units planned, 15% will match affordability guidelines and another 15% will be social housing. There will be new bike lanes and parks, all made accessible by the new footbridge. The campus is aiming for a LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) certification, which rates urban projects on the basis of environmental sustainability, and a portion of the new land was made temporarily available to community gardens while construction unfolds. A mobile health clinic was set up for low-income children in Parc-Ex.
But none of the housing is reserved for current Parc-Ex residents, and it is unclear when any of it will be built; the roughly 1,000 households in Parc-Ex on a waiting list for social housing will not get first rights on the new Mil units.
“The arrival of the University of Montreal has created havoc,” says one resident who has lived in Parc-Ex for 28 years. “Most people here are immigrants, they earn the minimum wage, some are on welfare. If the University of Montreal brings improvements, they won’t benefit those people. We’ve seen it happen in other neighbourhoods.”
Concerns about the project’s ability to integrate seamlessly with surrounding neighbourhoods were voiced early on. The former dean of the architecture school, Jean-Claude Marsan, argued for the university to densify its existing campus rather than build a second one, out of fears the new campus wouldn’t be economically viable. In 2006 Montreal’s other French-speaking university, UQAM, barely escaped bankruptcy when funds for its own new science campus and student housing project were mismanaged.
Undeterred, the University of Montreal launched a vast public consultation of residents and community actors. That process and statements from university representatives led the community to believe that decisions would be made transparently, says Gonzalo Lizarralde, a professor in the university’s architecture school, but in the end most decisions were made behind closed doors, he says.
“A lot of expectations were created, for instance on the integration of the two neighbourhoods, on the revitalisation of Parc-Extension, on the improvements for residents. A lot of expectations were created, and were not met,” he says. “Because in the end Parc-Ex got a footbridge, but there hasn’t been any large impact so far.”
Trudeau himself has said little about MIL’s impact on his constituency. In a statement he said: “I am aware of the concerns that the people of [the riding of] Papineau have about housing. A stable supply of rental housing is essential to ensure that more Canadians have access to affordable housing that meets their needs. That is why we launched the first-ever National Housing Strategy, a C$55bn plan over 10 years that will provide homes for more Canadians, including in Papineau.”
‘Beggars in our own land’: Canada’s First Nation housing crisis
The strategy, whose main feature is a tax credit for first-time homebuyers, has been criticised for failing to meet the urgency of Canada’s housing crisis, for lacking transparency about how much money will go to social housing, and for defining “affordable” housing as 80% of market rate.
“This is Justin Trudeau’s riding,” says the Parc-Ex resident who was evicted earlier this year. “And he’s going on talking about all the importance of social justice and housing and talking a good game. But he knew, there’s no way he didn’t. They knew that campus was coming, 10 years ago.” Her new landlord is under pressure to sell the building, and she fears she will have to leave again soon.
She adds: “Those of us with disabilities to deal with, or discrimination that we’re facing, we’re having a hard time, working hard, struggling, and pushing everyone else down to join the middle class … Well, he doesn’t give a shit about us.”
Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to join the discussion, catch up on our best stories or sign up for our weekly newsletter
Source: Read Full Article