'Pre-emptive right' stems from a 2016 deal with Quebec allows Montreal to identify places where it wants to create social housing, as well as libraries, parks and other public assets, and serve notice to property owners in these areas.
The plan for the property was 40 social housing units, and its purchase involved the first deployment of a novel municipal power — “pre-emptive right,” or right of first refusal — to create affordable housing.
The right stems from a 2016 deal with the province and allows Montreal to identify places where it wants to create social housing, as well as libraries, parks and other public assets, and serve notice to property owners in these areas.
If an owner decides they want to sell over the next 10 years and accepts a purchase offer, the city then gets to decide if it wants to buy property under those conditions. Or the owner can try negotiating a price with the city before going to market.
Earlier this year, and four months after declaring a housing emergency, another Quebec municipality decided it wanted its own right of first refusal.
Gatineau council voted in January — unanimously, Le Droit reported — to ask Quebec’s government to grant this request. And, if it does, Gatineau’s future could include announcements like the one made in Park Extension. (Meanwhile that project is at a standstill, CBC reported, waiting on funding for its development.)
“There is a housing crisis that we face now in Gatineau. I believe you have a similar situation in Ottawa, but we’re very (much) looking for ways to reduce this housing crisis, the impact on citizens here,” said Maude Marquis-Bissonnette, the councillor who sponsored the pre-emptive right proposal at council and is now a candidate for mayor.
The ball is still in Quebec’s court, but their response has been positive, Marquis-Bissonnette said, so she’s hopeful Gatineau will be given this tool.
Her party, and that of outgoing Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, who is not running again, included the pre-emptive right in their platform, envisaging its use to expand affordable and community housing in Gatineau, as well as green spaces.
Armelle Grey Tohouegnon, executive director of a Outaouais network supporting non-profit housing organizations, thinks the pre-emptive right would help the city address the local affordable housing shortage.
Recently, she said, several “magnificent projects” couldn’t get funding though the federal Rapid Housing Initiative because of a lack of land availability.
The city is facing a “ unprecedented crisis,” according to Tohouegnon, with layer upon layer of contributing factors, among them two floods that hit Gatineau in recent years, low levels of investment in community housing, surging home prices that keep people renting and renovictions.
The state of housing in Ottawa also has a direct impact on the Gatineau market. In its 2020 rental market report, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation noted an 18-per-cent increase in the number of people who left Ontario to settle in Quebec, concluding it’s likely Ottawa households opted to move to the Gatineau area in greater numbers than usual because of its greater affordability, driving up the number of potential renters.
Setting aside the Quebec concept of pre-emptive right, strategic acquisition has a proponent in Ottawa city council’s housing and homelessness liaison, Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney. It’s a way to address the loss of affordable units in the private market, McKenney explained, which data have previously shown were disappearing in numbers that significantly outstripped new affordable housing creation.
Say an owner decides they want to offload a small apartment building, built decades ago and in need of upgrades, where tenants pay modest rents. If another private-sector owner acquires the apartment, “it most likely will become unaffordable,” McKenney said. “They’ll move in, they’ll fix it up, and they’ll raise the rent.”
Imagine, then, a local non-profit housing provider is able to access funding to buy the building. They do upgrades, but it stays affordable, McKenney said.
The city’s 10-year housing and homelessness plan provides for a fund to assist the not-for-profit sector in the acquisition of strategic affordable housing assets. It’s a good thing to have, the councillor said, but the budget is limited.
Both McKenney and Steve Pomeroy, a housing policy consultant and senior research fellow at Carleton University’s Centre for Urban Research and Education, see a role for the federal government in significantly bolstering acquisition capacity.
Pomeroy says he’s spoken with CMHC and the federal minister about creating a funding stream in the National Housing Strategy that would provide money for non-profits to buy private rental properties.
Organizations such the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and ACORN Canada floated similar proposals during the fall federal election campaign. An “initial capitalization” of $585 million would support the acquisition of 10,000 low-rent market units by the community housing sector, FCM said.