Montreal Gazette

Where we put affordable housing is crucial

Not enough to simply build more units, Michael Mackenzie writes.

- Michael Mackenzie is the Canada Research Chair in child well-being and professor of social work and pediatrics at Mcgill University.

A key reason why my family moved to Montreal is that it seemed a good place to raise kids, no matter the postal code.

Across the city, I see community centres serving as hubs of activity — arenas, pools, libraries, and playground­s — and I'm struck by their quality regardless of the neighbourh­ood's socioecono­mic status (SES).

Anyone who has lived in the U.S. — my family moved from New Jersey — or even in large cities in other provinces knows what a special and rare thing that is.

We aren't in the position of the U.S. cities where “poor doors” proliferat­ed in reaction to developers being required to build affordable units on-site of new developmen­ts. As a result they created separate doors, where low-income residents couldn't access building amenities.

In the U.K., this included separate playground­s for low-income kids, where they could see, but not play in, the nicer playground.

Even as some things for kids stand out in Montreal as examples of levelling opportunit­y, there are other areas where we have real work to do. Our schools remain highly segregated across SES and race, especially in high school with publicly subsidized private options.

A lot of that starts with the reality that people across the SES spectrum simply do not live with each other and their kids don't play together.

In April of 2021 a new bylaw came into effect in Montreal, known as the “20-20-20” plan, under the diverse metropolis initiative that required developers of projects of 450 square metres or more to construct “social,” “affordable” and “family” housing units, each at the proportion of 20 per cent of total units.

But instead of building the low-income units on-site they could see them built elsewhere.

And, developers had another option: Instead of building the units at all they could simply pay a penalty. Of the 164 new projects through October 2023, every single one of them opted to pay the fee.

Through August 2023, this had resulted in $24.5 million on 7,100 housing units, or $3,450 per unit. A small price to pay for developers who were building these units amid rising prices.

The policy has clearly failed in creating new affordable housing stock, with zero new affordable units being built because of the policy through the end of 2023.

Criticism has focused exclusivel­y on the lack of new units, but missing is any discussion of why where units are located is also so important to kids. Even if the current policy had worked in creating more units, it likely would have come at the cost of further SES and racial segregatio­n as they could have been built off-site on cheaper land in poorer neighbourh­oods.

Recent work by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues, using Facebook data on 21 billion friendship­s, shows why that is a major problem for kids. They found that the share of high-ses friends among individual­s from poorer background­s — a concept they called economic connectedn­ess — was the strongest predictor found to date for closing inequality gaps.

With a likely influx of federal dollars to address the housing crisis in the coming election cycle, it is critical that we have sound municipal housing policy in place. Now is the time to be asking what kind of city we want.

Do we want an increasing­ly Americaniz­ed model of stark segregatio­n? Do we want a city marked by “poor doors” where people live next to, but not truly together?

If the answer to those questions is no, then we need housing policy that doesn't simply aim to build more units, but ensures we foster integrated communitie­s. If we want a city that allows kids equality of opportunit­y, then we shouldn't be using public money to incentiviz­e segregatio­n.

The single most important step we can take to reduce inequality for children is mandating developmen­t of on-site affordable housing where children grow together and benefit from a socio-economical­ly and racially integrated peer network and city.

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