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Living in the motel because of the housing crisis

GATINEAU | The Outaouais is experiencing one of the worst housing crises in the country, to the point that families are reduced to hidden homelessness by wandering from one couch or motel to another.

This is the case of Renée Boulanger and her husband Pierre Poirier thrown into the street by a violent fire.

“We have nothing left, we have lost everything, even our cat,” breathes Renée, sitting in the sun in front of a very small room in a motel in Gatineau.

The couple jumped out of the second-story window of their accommodation to avoid burning alive in the early morning hours of August 26.

After 72 hours of emergency care by the Red Cross, they were referred to the Office d’habitation de l’Outaouais and the City of Gatineau, which housed them in a motel, like 13 other households, while waiting let them land on their feet.

Rents are skyrocketing

Alain Latulippe, also staying at the motel, was evicted by the new owner of the accommodation he had occupied for three years. The 41⁄2 for which he paid $650 a month now rents for $1,250.

In July, a 41⁄2 rented on average $1,810 in Gatineau, or 10.6% more than a year earlier, while we had to pay $1,551 per month for a 31⁄2, or 20% more than a year ago.

The median cost of rent in the Outaouais is the highest in Quebec and the vacancy rate is one of the lowest in the country, says Karina Osiecka, of the Office d’habitation de l’Outaouais.

“The demand for emergency, temporary and transitional accommodation increased by nearly 38.7% between 2017-2018 and 2020-2021, but the service offer only increased by 4.6 % between these years”, deplores the Regional Collective for the Fight against Homelessness.

Outdated services

One thousand one hundred people are waiting to be allocated a low-cost housing (HLM), but the Outaouais Housing Office has barely more than 2,600, all occupied.

France Bélisle.  Mayor of Gatineau

Photo Martin Alarie

France Bélisle. Mayor of Gatineau

As a result, “we are seeing an increase in hidden homelessness,” laments Gatineau Mayor France Belisle, whose services even accommodate a couple and their three young elementary-age children at the hotel.

Under these conditions, with their budget of $1,000 per month for rent, Renée and Pierre are afraid of wandering for a long time. In one month, they have moved their meager bundle three times already.

“Every week, it’s the stress of knowing if we’re going to be relocated and where,” says Renée. I started having hives because the stress was so intense. »

Empty federal buildings

While homeless Gatineau families are staying in hotels, the federal government is occupying 770,000 square meters of buildings in this city, most of which have been left empty by public servants working from home.

During the election campaign a year ago, the Liberal Party pledged to invest $600 million to support the conversion of vacant office space into housing.

“We will convert not only the federal housing stock, but also certain commercial buildings,” promised Justin Trudeau in his election platform.

The mayor is impatient

A year later, the results are pending and the Mayor of Gatineau, France Belisle, which has more federal premises on its territory than any other city in Quebec, no less than 200 buildings, is getting impatient.

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) has been examining its real estate portfolio since 2018 in order to optimize it, knowing that a large part of the premises has been underused since even before the pandemic, indicates a spokesperson for the department, Stéphanie Hamel.

In March, the federal budget promised that this review would assess housing conversion options, and save $6 billion over five years.

No clear timeline

Since then, only one meeting has taken place between federal officials and those of the City of Gatineau.

“We have to do this assessment, it’s urgent,” said Mayor Belisle. My most important concern is when, what is the timeline, because the crisis is urgent. »

The questions of Log questions to PSPC about the progress of the review and the timeline went unanswered.

In the meantime, in addition to shattered human lives, the lack of housing has become a real obstacle to the economic development of the region since workers are no longer able to settle there, worries Ms. Belisle.

The lack of housing even weighs down registrations at the Université du Québec en Outaouais and at the Cégep de l’Outaouais. The two institutions alone need 500 housing units.

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