The City of Montreal has trouble adequately housing its students. According to a study published in June by SHIFT (Student Housing Innovation and Facilitation Taskforce), a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of affordable student housing, at least 4,000 reasonably-priced rooms are needed.
And yet the city welcomes 200,000 university students every year. With only 5,200 beds, the university residence network meets the needs of a mere two percent of the student population. “In the United States and the rest of Canada, this rate is somewhere between 20 and 40 per cent,” notes Laurent Levesque, founder and general coordinator of SHIFT. This means that the vast majority of students live in shared apartments.
“Their living conditions are deplorable,” says Terry Wilkings, president of the Concordia Student Union. “The students are largely unaware of their rights as tenants, and some landlords take advantage of this. Often, the apartments are poorly maintained and the rents disproportionately high.” The SHIFT study confirms that students pay up to 80 percent more than the average tenant for apartments with three or more bedrooms. And students from outside of Quebec shell out an average of $100 extra per month per student, regardless of the neighbourhood or size of the accommodations.
What’s more, the oversaturation of the traditional rental market with students increases the competition for Montreal families seeking larger accommodations, says Mr. Levesque. “The creation of student-specific housing would help reduce the strain,” he says.
This is what SHIFT is currently working toward, with negotiations underway to purchase land in the southwest Montreal for the construction of cooperative student housing – a first in the city’s history. Entirely funded by the private sector at a cost of between $13 million and $15 million, the project will create 150 to 200 beds and will be completed by July 2017, just in time for Montreal’s 375th anniversary. The rent will be set at $450 per month, which is less than what the average student currently pays.
The building will be the property of SHIFT, while the maintenance will be carried out by the co-op members. “We aren’t reinventing the wheel: cooperative student housing already exists in Europe, the U.S. and the rest of Canada,” says Mr. Levesque. “There are also a few successful models here in Quebec, for example the L’Estudiantine in Sherbrooke.”
A long-time defender of students’ rights to affordable housing, the Concordia Student Union is investing $1.85 million in the project. The money is being drawn from a $10-million fund built up over the years to invest in student spaces and accessible education and to cover legal contingencies. “In a referendum, we asked our members to withdraw $1.85 million to create the Popular University Student Housing Fund. In the longer term, we want to help build other co-ops,” explains Concordia’s Mr. Wilkings.
The first housing cooperative will be reserved for Concordia students, while future co-ops will be open to the entire student population, says Mr. Levesque, who hopes to replicate the model elsewhere in Montreal and the province of Quebec. “We want to use student housing to promote smart urban development,” he says.