Gabriel Pallota, housing advocate in Sherbrooke, does not mince words when describing the housing situation in his city.
“Close to catastrophic wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration,” he said.
The city’s vacancy rate is currently below one percent, leaving very few options for those looking for housing.
About 40 families are on the waiting list for affordable housing, and another 30 people are waiting for subsidized apartments, according to Pallota.
And yet, a hundred social housing units are empty and unused. They need to be renovated before people can move in, but a shortage of workers and building materials makes this difficult.
The repair work needed varies from completely renovating the bathroom to installing new cabinets and painting the walls.
The municipal housing agency of Sherbrooke indicates that the completion of all the work could take up to two years.
“We are overwhelmed,” said Marie-Claude Bégin, the agency’s general manager, in an interview with Radio-Canada. “We have six maintenance workers, a guard team of 10.”
“The workload is really huge.”
Sherbrooke Mayor Evelyne Beaudin said the city hopes to make a third of those units ready and available this year to help deal with the crisis.
“We are trying to see if we can provide workers or if we can help with money, but the problem now is that electricians and plumbers are not available,” she said.
She said the province should step in by providing more money to help pay for the renovations.
Beaudin could not determine exactly how much social housing there is in the city, but said there were some 46 people on the municipal housing list in need of emergency housing for June and July. .
Crisis worsens with moving day
The city expects the situation to worsen this summer, just as it did after last year’s Moving Day on July 1.
Beaudin said the crisis could get worse as early as June, because that’s when many leases end and many landlords do repair work.
The Sherbrooke Tenants Association estimates that about 130 people will be homeless once the dust settles.
This is almost double the number of people last summer, and four times more than in 2020, according to Mario Mercier, spokesperson for the association.
Mercier said the Quebec government is to blame for the situation.
“It’s a symptom of the government’s lack of interest in really investing in social housing,” he said.
But other factors are also at play, according to Beaudin and Pallota.
Beaudin said part of the problem is that the number of available apartments in Sherbrooke is at an all-time low.
Rising rents, the higher cost of living and people no longer working from home returning to the city all play a role, Pallota says.
Residents will be charged for emergency assistance
Although the city has an emergency assistance program for homeless residents, it recently announced that it will start charging for it.
Residents will have to pay the equivalent of one month’s rent to obtain temporary accommodation.
Beaudin said the fee was needed to help fund several services the city is putting in place ahead of moving day.
Some of the initiatives include helping residents with moving, storage, meals, apartment tours, and even caring for pets.
But Beaudin said the city cannot pay for these services alone.
“Last year, the moving crisis cost $462,000 [but] the aid received from Quebec was only $136,000,” she says. ” It’s not enough.
The city also wants to empower its citizens by imposing the fee, Beaudin said.
She said after speaking with social workers on the ground, councilors concluded there should be some form of financial commitment from people in need of accommodation to keep them involved and active. in the situation.
Mercier argues that it is unfair to require people in financial difficulty to pay fees for emergency services.
“[Housing] should be a right, not a commodity,” he said. “We think we should build more subsidized housing to make sure everyone has a place to live.
Mercier said the province should provide more funding to help maintain empty units.
In an email to Radio-Canada, a spokeswoman for Quebec Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Andrée Laforest, said the Sherbrooke housing agency had received $10 million to do the renovations and that it was up to him to plan accordingly.
Last week, the Government of Quebec announced an investment of $77 million to help low-income families living in private housing pay their rent.
These families will be able to receive up to 25% of their household income in the form of grants.