Saint-Michel sets the bar high for public housing

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MONTREAL – The most beautiful real estate project in the Saint-Michel district is an HLM complex. But this is an exception in the subsidized housing landscape of Montreal, where eight out of ten buildings are in poor condition. In addition, the number of units offered is too low to meet demand. While 20,000 households have been housed, there are 23,500 others awaiting housing. The average waiting period is five years and four months.

HLM Saint-Michel Nord is the largest renovation project ever attempted by the Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal (OMHM). It is also the most beautiful block in the neighborhood.

Located at the eastern end of the Villeray – Saint-Michel – Parc-Extension district, on the edge of Saint-Léonard, the complex built in 1972 by architect Philip Bobrow was dismal, with tarnished brick walls and facades concrete, many of which had no windows and turned towards the neighborhood.

Construction took three and a half years and cost $ 54.3 million, or about $ 300,000 per unit.

“It was really depressing. A little too anonymous, ”said Vladimir Topouzanov, an architect who toured the complex with La Presse.

It was the opposite of what the resort has become: a colorful collection of buildings in shades of yellow, orange and red, with impressive spiral staircases. The transformation earned its designers, Saïa Barbares Topouzanov Architects (SBTA), the 2021 Award for Excellence in Architecture from the Order of Architects of Quebec, not in the social housing category, but in that of “multi-family and complex buildings. residential ”. And yet, these are not luxury condos.

“Today, we ask ourselves: are these condos? But that’s not a condo budget, ”Topouzanov said.

“Colors create a feeling of belonging. With four different colored bricks, we made nine shades. This creates a dynamic environment and defines certain areas.

The complex has 21 buildings and 182 apartments, some of which have five or six bedrooms to accommodate large families. It is bordered by Jean-Rivard and Choquette streets, René-Goupil park and 25th Avenue, in the Saint-Michel district.

“The logistics were colossal and were carried out with extraordinary delays”, specifies the architect.

In total, 165 households, or around 600 people, were relocated during the works, close to schools and daycare centers. Now half have returned. The remaining units were allocated to households in other regions or to people on long waiting lists.

A new living environment

“It’s wonderful,” said Fatima Chouaiby, food security coordinator at Mont Resto Saint-Michel, a community center on the site. “It’s beautiful. It’s nothing like what was there before.

In 2015, when the housing office started the project, everything was in poor condition. Water has seeped into the buildings and mold has grown on the walls. A big security problem: several dead ends have contributed to crime in the neighborhood. “It was a closed circuit, very dark,” Topouzanov said. “Too introverted.”

Most of the units were inside the complex and did not have a mailing address.

“We have really created a place to live,” said Isabelle Breault, architect and director of project management at the Office de d’habitation, which manages the largest portfolio of social and affordable housing in Quebec, valued at 3 , $ 3 billion as of December 31, 2020.

“It’s a great success. Because beyond the work that was necessary, the objective was to give back a civic identity to the tenants of the whole. In Saint-Michel Nord, the buildings did not have a physical address. So the tenants didn’t feel like they were part of society, ”she said.

“It seems trivial to have an address, but it gives you a civic identity. You are part of a neighborhood, you are part of a place, ”she added.

The architectural firm SBTA, associated with the rainbow facade of the Palais des congrès de Montréal, submitted three proposals to the housing office: raze and rebuild; renovate existing buildings; or keep only part of the complex. The housing office chose the third option.

Keep “a memory of places”

To open up the complex, six of the 26 original buildings were demolished and a central street was added to connect the buildings to the rest of the neighborhood. Automobile traffic is permitted, but pedestrians have the right of way.

Colorful cobblestones mark the location of the six buildings that have disappeared from the street that was named Allée Léo-Bricault, in honor of the founder of the Journal de Saint-Michel, who was involved in community organizations in the neighborhood for 50 years. .

“We did this to keep a trace, a memory of the places,” Topouzanov said.

The total number of units has been maintained by adding a third story to the previously two-story buildings.

Inside, the floor plan hasn’t changed much, but the units have been completely renovated with larger entrances and balconies. Windows were also drilled into walls that did not have any. Community gardens, ecological garbage cans, permeable paving stones, a barbecue area, “anti-skateboard” benches and a long concrete picnic table will be added over time. There isn’t the slightest graffiti on the walls.

On-site services are grouped together in the north end of the complex, near René-Goupil Park. There is a community restaurant, a daycare, a youth center and a multipurpose room. These facilities are open to everyone, in order to promote interactions between the tenants of the complex and the residents of the neighborhood.

“These are inexpensive materials, but they are arranged very harmoniously,” said Breault. “The natural tones, timeless, blend gently into the neighborhood. “

This project, she says, proves that it is possible to do spectacular renovations on a tight budget.

It is also proof that carefully renovating low-cost housing can be profitable for society, improve the lives of those who live there and contribute to the revitalization of the neighborhood. This breaks the prejudice that social housing is a scar in the community.

“All the conditions are met to welcome families with respect and dignity,” said Chouaiby. “It’s genius, the way it’s designed. There are no corners where people can meet with bad intentions. We see that people are happy, that people are proud. We see it, we feel it. “

HLM in a sorry state

As remarkable as it is, the Saint-Michel complex is an exception in Montreal, where 82% of low-cost housing managed by the Office de d’habitation are in urgent need of renovations.

Of the 838 buildings in the portfolio – a total of 20,180 homes – 684 are in poor condition, 13 buildings are boarded up and 330 homes are vacant pending major works.

Government funding allocated to the Housing Office for the renovation and maintenance of its buildings increased from $ 100.6 million in 2016 to $ 62.4 million in 2020. In 2017, the various levels of government budgeted $ 101.7 million for social housing, in 2018 it was $ 86.5 million, and in 2019, $ 77.7 million.

“To date, for 2021, $ 66.6 million has been granted to the OMHM (Office d’habitation de Montréal) to carry out replacement, improvement and modernization work,” said Marie-Ève Leblanc, Office communications officer. Another $ 100 million over three years, from an agreement between the federal and provincial governments signed in May, has been granted to renovate 517 low-rental apartment buildings in Quebec.

The OMHM Housing Office in figures

55,000: number of tenants

838: number of low-cost housing, made up of complexes, apartment towers, multiplexes and single-family row houses

20,180: number of HLMs in Montreal

23,509: number of households on OMHM waiting lists, as of June 30, 2021

Five years, four months: average waiting time for applicants to obtain housing


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