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The puzzle of urban densification

Housing, the city of Granby needs it, and it’s urgent! The vacancy rate for rental apartments there was 0.1 per cent this spring. By way of comparison, it was 3% in Montreal in 2021, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the threshold where it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to find housing.

“It worries us a lot,” said Mayor Julie Bourdon, who, in May, set up an emergency committee to ensure that no family was going to end up on the street with their furniture. 1er July.

The shortage does not only affect the rental market. According to the Association professionnelle des courtiers immobiliers du Québec, if buyers’ appetite is maintained, four times as many houses would be needed for sale for the market to be balanced.

The situation is similar in almost all regions, which has helped to push the median price of single-family homes skyrocketing by 22% in one year: in the first quarter of 2022, it stood at $415,000. The construction may well be maintained at a historic level, “supply does not meet demand”, summarizes Jean-Philippe Meloche, professor of urban planning at the University of Montreal.

The solution, on paper, is simple: build more houses, condos and rental apartments. The federal government, which wants to double the annual pace of construction to reach 400,000 new housing units per year by 2031, announced an envelope of $5.5 billion in its latest budget to accelerate housing starts.

Alas! Jean-Philippe Meloche can list many reasons why taking out the checkbook will not be enough to solve the problem.

There is a lack of manpowerwork and the difficulties in obtaining supplies of materials. There is “the protection of frogs” and other environmental issues which, although legitimate, delay, complicate or prevent the realization of projects. But there is above all the main obstacle: municipal regulations.

“In most regions, it is forbidden to build anything other than single-family homes,” says Professor Meloche. Not even multigenerational. “It is not by blows of two-storey houses, even packed like sardines in the new subdivisions, that the shortage will be reduced.

Changing the municipal zoning to authorize the construction of high-rise multi-unit housing, preferably in sectors already occupied to avoid urban sprawl, would cost nothing. Except that, politically, it would be suicide for many mayors, underlines the expert. High-rise buildings in a neighborhood of single-storey houses are not to the liking of many residents.

The same goes for the conversion of basements into apartments, which would be, according to Jean-Philippe Meloche, the most effective measure to increase the number of dwellings “as of tomorrow morning”. If many municipalities do not allow this avenue, it is because the person who rents a basement “does not have the same profile as the person who buys a house. Often, regulation is there for discriminating reasons: to ensure that the rich live with the rich, and the poor stay with the poor. »

The City of Granby opted for a half-way solution. Taking a cue from Vancouver and Toronto, it rezoned last fall to permit the construction of an “accessory dwelling unit” on the lot of an existing home — imagine a large shed or a garage, in reality a studio habitable year-round by a parent, or rented to generate extra income. “The objective is to do soft densification,” said Mayor Julie Breton, who hopes that the measure will make it possible to add housing quickly. No citizen has yet taken advantage of it, but there have been a few requests for information.

If the market’s inability to meet demand continues to drive prices up, it will lead to a “soft adjustment” in housing habits.

Besides this “soft” solution, there are more direct efforts. In May, Granby donated land worth $1.3 million to the region’s housing office, which wants to build 90 affordable housing units there. It will also provide financial assistance of $1.3 million for the creation of a housing cooperative with 28 apartments.

Housing rights groups have been calling for the use of surplus public land and buildings for years to build homes. And this, at the municipal, provincial and federal level. The Treasury Board of Canada recently undertook a “review” to determine if certain federal buildings, less frequented by public servants since the adoption of telework policies, could be converted into affordable housing. The results are still awaited.

Added to this is a financial envelope of 300 million, announced in the last budget, to help property owners also transform offices that have become vacant since the arrival of the pandemic into apartments.

Sometimes, changing the vocation of a building is an avenue strewn with pitfalls. For example, in the case of the Bow Group plumbing plant in Granby, which manufactures plastic pipes. In 2023, the company will move to the industrial district, a place much more suitable for its activities than the residential area where it is currently located.

The City wants to take advantage of this to densify the neighborhood by adding up to 306 apartments in two-storey buildings, which the zoning allows. No developer has yet expressed interest, but already, during a public consultation meeting in March, more than 60 citizens have come to share their concerns — loss of privacy, increased traffic, “disfigured” neighborhood. . Many would have preferred a new park. “People agree with the principle of densification,” said the mayor. But when it comes close to home, they have questions and that’s normal. »

The “not in my backyard” phenomenon can easily derail a project. “The importance of social acceptability is often underestimated,” says David Leblond, general manager of Humaco Strategies, a Lévis real estate developer. “If a project does not respect the environment, it can cause major slowdowns. »

David Leblond gives the example of a zoning change decreed by the City of Lévis a few years ago, which inspired Cocité Lévis, a complex of 1,200 housing units with offices and commercial premises, along the Pierre-Laporte bridge. . “From day 1, we had a consultant whose role was to discuss with the neighborhood to ensure that there was no false information about the project. There was no pressure on anyone, and we managed to maintain a good neighborly relationship. »

This 415 million project, which began in 2020, should be completed in 2027… if all goes as planned. One of David Leblond’s challenges is “rising construction costs”, at a time when buyers’ ability to pay will be limited by the interest rate hike initiated by the Bank of Canada. “Joining the two is increasingly difficult. »

If the market’s inability to meet demand continues to push prices up, this will lead to a “soft adaptation” of the population’s housing habits, believes Professor Jean-Philippe Meloche. He gives the example of Vancouver, where, despite skyrocketing prices, almost the entire population manages to find housing. Vancouverites cohabit, subdivide housing, stay with their parents. “We don’t talk about it much, because people don’t like it, but it’s part of the reality. »

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