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This boarded-up building lays bare Montreal’s crumbling social housing system

The windows have been covered with plywood, the property is fenced off and a “danger” sign warns passersby who might want to trespass.

The building at 5210-5222 Walkley Ave. in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood was once a vibrant public housing complex and home to more than a dozen families.

The last of its residents were ordered to leave in 2014, after water damage and mould had made the place uninhabitable.

The city’s social housing agency owns the building, and tenants’ advocates say it is one of the most egregious examples of the consequences of a woefully underfunded system.

Since the last tenant moved out, the building has been left to fall further into disrepair. 

Byron Cameron, who has lived across the street for 30 years, said people used to meet inside after it had been abandoned. 

In 2015, a fire broke out. At last, the building was secured — but nothing has been done since. 

“It’s an eyesore,” said Cameron.

“Having that building just sitting idle, and so many people need places to live: it’s just a disgrace.”

Spanning three city lots, the building once offered 11 three-bedroom units, ideal for families — a rarity in the city’s social housing stock.

Montreal’s tight rental market has made affordable units like those even more hard to come by. 

Across the city, nearly 24,000 people are on the waiting list for subsidized housing, according to the agency that manages that stock, known in French as the Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal (OMHM).

Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce has nearly 2,500 people on that list — the second-most of any borough.

Wide shot of the dilapitated building
The building, owned by the city’s public housing office, is fenced off and boarded up. The last tenants moved out in 2014. (Kolya Hubacek-Guilbault/CBC)

A neglected area

Joel DeBellefeuille, who founded the civil rights group Red Coalition, lived next door to the building until last year.

DeBellefeuille made the building’s state of disrepair an election issue during the municipal campaign in 2021, when he ran for city council with Mouvement Montreal.

The building had become a hazard, he said. The brick siding was crumbling, and heaps of trash had piled up outside.

DeBellefeuille threatened to use Montreal’s Charter of Rights and Responsibilities to sue the city to act.

The same day DeBellefeuille sent the city his legal letter, he said a crew of workers arrived to cover up the building’s facade and clear away overgrown shrubs and garbage.

There’s no sign, however, that the building will be made habitable again any time soon.

In DeBellefeuille’s view, it’s no coincidence that the building on that stretch of Walkley, which is home to many Black and South Asian residents, has not been made a priority.

“I honestly feel that race is playing a factor here,” DeBellefeuille said.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this area on Walkley has been neglected for decades.”

DeBellefeuille said if the OMHM isn’t going to fix up the site, it should at least sell the building to a private developer. 

But while that would take care of the blight on the neighbourhood, he said it likely wouldn’t solve the affordable housing problem.

Man standing in front of fence
Joel DeBellefeuille lived beside the building while he was running for municipal office in 2021. He said a work crew cleaned up the grounds after he went public with his complaints during the campaign. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Falling into ruin

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has said she wants to create more affordable housing, but she admits the current stock owned by the OMHM is falling into disrepair.

The agency manages 838 low-cost housing buildings, for a total of over 20,000 apartments.

Nearly three-quarters of those are in poor condition, according to the OMHM’s own numbers. And Walkley is not alone: another 15 buildings are not habitable at all.

There were efforts to save the Walkley building in the years before the families living there were forced to move out, and there has been talk of fixing it in the years since. 

A social housing newsletter from 2013 shows tenants in the building met with architects and OMHM officials to come up with a way to repair the water damage and keep the building open. 

In 2017, the borough also discussed plans to knock down the Walkley building and replace it.

But none of that has gone anywhere. 

“It’s just rampant neglect and decay, and it’s right there. It’s not a secret. You can see it from the street,” said Sharon Sweeney, who works for the NDG Community Council.

“Everybody has their fingers in it and, in a way, nobody takes responsibility.”

In an email, Mathieu Vachon, spokesperson for the OMHM, said the agency has set aside $94 million in federal and provincial funding to fix up 311 units in eight social housing complexes across the city between now and 2025.

But the Walkley building is not among those slated for renovation. Vachon said money could still be set aside in the next funding round in 2025 or even earlier, though there is no guarantee that will happen.

The cost of demolishing the building and constructing a new one from scratch was pegged at $5 million in 2019, and another estimate would be required before going forward, he said.

Vachon said the lack of progress at the Walkley building had nothing to do with the racial makeup of the neighbourhood.

He said the prioritization of work on buildings around the city is done “solely and strictly according to the following criteria: available budgets, which vary from one year to another, the scope of the work to be carried out, regulatory obligations and health and safety of occupying tenants.”

Coun. Despina Sourias, a member of Plante’s Projet Montreal, represents the neighbourhood. Sourias said she wants to see the building fixed, but that the OMHM needs more money from the provincial and federal governments.

“We do have our asks, but it’s their decision,” she said.

She said more social housing is crucial, given the shortage of low-rent apartments in the neighbourhood. 

Sourias, who worked in the community sector before entering politics, said she’s aware Walkley Avenue needs attention. 

For starters, she said, the city has made cosmetic improvements to the nearby community centre and has plans to install a bike path.

Hopes for the budget

At the National Assembly, opposition politicians are hoping to see the Quebec government set aside more money to address the shortage of low-income housing in its next budget, on March 21.

“There’s not enough housing, and some of the housing we have is not suitable,” said Désirée McGraw, the Liberal MNA for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

She said the shortage of housing for families is particularly acute. The building that housed Project Chance, which offered homes for single mothers going back to school, has also been closed since 2019 because of problems with its heating system.

“You have families who are here, who want to be here in this family-friendly community but who simply cannot stay,” McGraw said.

“We certainly don’t want NDG to be a place only for the affluent.”

France-Élaine Duranceau at the National Assembly
France-Élaine Duranceau, Quebec’s housing minister, says money has been set aside by the province to improve the state of social housing over the next 10 years. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

France-Élaine Duranceau, Quebec’s housing minister, said money has been set aside to improve the state of social housing over the next 10 years.

“We have an agreement with the federal government to renovate and rebuild,” said Duranceau.

“We are working on a plan to spend that money as fast as possible, but I don’t want to waste money. I want to do it correctly.”

As for the Walkley building, it remains a discouraging sight for the many families who live on the street — and Byron Cameron said something needs to be done. 

Instead, he watches as the building slides further into disrepair. It’s now covered in graffiti.

“I see it every morning,” he said.

“I would love to see them fix this building, because we need low-income housing.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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