Would it be possible to build affordable housing and, at the same time, reduce urban sprawl? This is the bet taken by the MRC of Brome-Missisquoi, inspired by two American initiatives: gentle urban densification and the community land trust.
Architect Alexandre Landry is one of the initiators of the project starting in Sutton. He has made social housing his hobby horse since his student internship at the famous Rural Studio in Alabama. It was also at his suggestion that columnist Pierre Foglia visited this innovative architectural project in 2008, created by a professor at Auburn University.
The goal of Rural Studio? Teach architects to create solid, low-cost houses to allow a disadvantaged population to find decent housing without having to leave their environment. The experience has enabled the construction of hundreds of homes since its creation.
“That’s where I realized the social impact of the architect,” explains Alexandre Landry, truly challenged by the current housing crisis, as much as by the climate crisis.
“Densifying a city with 30-story towers often rightly provokes opposition in communities. It is preferable to slowly fill vacant spaces while respecting the character of each neighborhood,” explains this visiting professor at the University of Montreal.
With his students, Mr. Landry has combed the boroughs of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie and Plateau-Mont-Royal since 2021 to find lots abandoned by developers. “Lands of irregular size or placed too close to infrastructure,” he says. Results of the operation: a directory of 50 plots of land with unexploited potential, just in the Plateau, for the construction of small residential buildings well integrated into the urban fabric.
“With a simple rule of three, one would think that it would be possible to create 60,000 affordable housing units this way on the island of Montreal,” he maintains.
Building on its initial results, Alexandre Landry’s research team tested its approach last year in different municipalities in Brome-Missisquoi. This is how it targeted places conducive to gentle densification, notably in Sutton.
“This is where I hand over the baton,” he says.
The baton passes into the hands of Samuel Gervais, co-founder of Solidarity Real Estate Solutions (SiS). This NPO is dedicated to creating community land trusts (CCTs) for the construction of affordable housing.
“This concept, called Community Land Trust, is not really new. It first appeared in Burlington, Vermont, when socialist Bernie Sanders was running the city,” says Gervais. “The idea has spread in Europe and English Canada, but its appearance in Quebec is recent. »
The philosophy behind a FCC: Land should be used to meet the needs of residents, not as a speculative asset. In concrete terms, this principle is reflected in the acquisition of land by the FCC with financial assistance from foundations and different levels of government.
Over time, the FCC builds up a stock of land on which it allows organizations to build affordable housing free of charge. Protected by the trust, these lands will forever be protected from land speculation.
“This way, we take the purchase of land out of the financial equation. All that remains is to finance the construction of the building, which lowers the cost of rent or facilitates access to property, depending on the nature of the project,” explains Samuel Gervais.
The possible sale of the building or units is governed by a co-ownership agreement, he adds.
These innovative ideas are well received by the mayor of Sutton. “That’s the solution! », exclaims Robert Benoît, who has been seeking since his election in 2021 to resolve a serious housing crisis which is strangling the economy of his municipality.
Popular with ski enthusiasts, this small village in the Eastern Townships is in fact at the heart of unbridled real estate speculation.
The consequence is disastrous for local businesses which struggle to find workers. Employees of businesses or the ski resort, often with low wages, must leave their village to find accommodation in Cowansville, Granby or even in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. “An apartment in Sutton costs around $1,300 a month. Even my department directors cannot afford to live here,” laments the mayor.
The municipality therefore joined forces with the teams of Alexandre Landry and Samuel Gervais to change the rules of the real estate game. It will donate vacant municipal land to the FCC in early 2024, near downtown. A consultation will then begin with citizens to define their needs.
“Urban densification causes natural resistance,” admits Alexandre Landry. It is important that citizens take ownership of the project so that it meets their needs. »
Mayor Benoît, however, wants to put the cards on the table: “This project is intended to create affordable housing. Nothing else. »
Sutton’s experience is being closely followed by the authorities of the Brome-Missisquoi MRC, indicates its deputy general director, Nathalie Grimard. Housing needs – “the availability rate has dropped to 1%” – are glaring across the territory, she says, while emphasizing the lack of diversity of apartments.
“A four and a half room apartment does not meet the needs of a single person or a family. This project is timely, because it allows us to respond to the specific needs of a community, in addition to working on social acceptability and affordable housing,” she emphasizes.
The idea of a regional FCC, which would act as a bulwark against land speculation, particularly appeals to Ms. Grimard. “In about 20 years or less, we’ll end up with something really interesting. »