L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
What is required?
[This text was written by Esdras Minville in 1939. For the precise bibliographical information, see the end of the document.]
Judging from statistics issued by the building trades since 1930, the housing shortage must be more or less general throughout the province. Since the depression started, building operations have proceeded very slowly : during the seventeen years from 1920 to 1936 the annual average was $23,704,380 for Montreal, $3,689,487 for Quebec city and $31,518,644 for the province as a whole. In the six years from 1931 to 1936 the average falls to $11,090,290 for Montreal, $1,554,633 for Quebec and $13,882,150 for the province; a drop of 50 per cent in the provincial average. It is therefore evident that a considerable delay must be made good everywhere.
Did not the Director of Montreal's Town Planning Commission declare, some months ago, that Montreal would suffer this year from a shortage of 24,000 houses? We have no data for the other parts of the province.
The Dominion Housing Act of 1935 (25-26 Geo. V, c. 53) did not spur building activities in the province of Quebec. It is needless to analyze this well-known law. We merely recall that, in the Finance Minister's own words, the object of the Act was "to stimulate building, thus lightening unemployment and allowing Canadian families, particularly those of limited means, to become home-owners." As at January 30, 1938, a total of 539 loans to the amount of $4,613,933, had been granted in Quebec province. As a consequence, 986 houses had been built.
Where lay the blame for this comparative failure? We have not succeeded in obtaining any satisfactory explanation. Some claim that the equity of 20 per cent, which the borrower must hold is too high. In Montreal, apparently, the failure is also blamed on the very nature of the housing problem.
As a matter of fact this problem is of a rather complicated nature in the metropolis. According to a joint investigation made in 1934-35 by the Montreal Board of Trade and the City Improvement League—the inquiry was renewed by the Town-Planning Branch of the Metropolitan Commission—this problem bears mostly on the low-salaried classes. This class of the population is very large: 180,700 families were living on an income varying between $550 and $1,250 per annum; half of these people had a yearly income of between $550 and $750. This means that some 80,000 or 85,000 families cannot afford to pay more than from $9 to $12 per month in rent. It is these conditions that breed slum-dwellers.
Meanwhile, with proper housing within the reach of low-salaried families completely lacking, there are several thousand vacant houses. The latter numbered 13,000 in 1933 and 9,000 in 1934. Some people are of opinion that 50 per cent of these vacancies may be explained by the fact that two and even three unemployed families share the same house. But there remains the fact of an excess of houses in a city where, on the other hand, there exists an acute housing shortage.
The reason for this is that the great majority of the present style of houses were built at such a cost and are mortgaged to such an extent that, from an economic standpoint, they cannot be rented below $25 to $35 a month. Since 1930-31 it has been hard to find tenants for these houses. A number of them are occupied by unemployed persons who, in the beginning, were given shelter free-of-charge by the landlords; the latter receive, at the present time, a monthly rent of from $6 to $12 from the Unemployed Relief Service. The houses are let at a loss; with no repairs and no upkeep, they are deteriorating and falling into the slum class.
This is apparently one of the reasons why the Dominion Housing Act of 1935 produced only mediocre results in Montreal. The provisions of the Act do not allow the building of a dwelling that may be rented at less than $22 per month. And there exists, precisely, an over-supply of the type of house which may be built under the Act.
The above analysis has shown us certain of the main factors in Montreal's housing problem. There are within the city a certain number of slum dwellings, not in separate districts but more or less spread through several sections. The Board of Trade investigators estimated their number at some 3,000 out of a total of 213,000 houses in Montreal. This scattered condition makes it all the more difficult to undertake remedial measures in the form of mass demolition and reconstruction.
But slum-clearance would not be a solution of the housing problem; far from it. The investigators state that to meet the needs of the low-salaried classes there should have been available since 1934 some 70,000 cheap or low-priced houses. To safeguard the interests of the small property-owners, already hard-pressed, and to avoid subjecting them to competition that would prove overwhelming in their case, the investigators suggested that the building of these houses be spread over a period of 20 years, 4,000 being constructed each year; the attendant rise in the population would thus be taken care of.
The investigation carried on by the Town-Planning Board of the Metropolitan Commission reached about the same conclusions, save on certain matters of detail. The Metropolitan Commission favours a certain financing system which would enable the tenant with steady earnings to become the owner of his own home.
Beyond the two characteristic features noted above, the housing problem in Montreal presents certain aspects which must not be lost sight of. For instance, the comparison is often made between Montreal with its 13 per cent of home-owners, and Toronto where the proportion is 78 or 80 per cent. The explanation of this difference is to be found in a number of factors deriving from the characteristic traits and the economic situation of the inhabitants of both cities.
(1). The average wealth is not so great in Montreal as in Toronto;
(2). The family is larger and tries to adapt its dwelling-place to its varying needs: smaller in the beginning, larger when the family has reached its full development, then smaller once more when the children have settled in homes of their own. This causes people to move from one house to another;
(3). The large number of people in the average family also serves to explain in part the general preference for flats where housework is reduced to a minimum;
(4). Salaries are generally lower in Montreal than in Toronto;
(5). The price of land and construction costs are higher in Montreal;
(6). Employment is less permanent, which explains why a great number of workers, even with sufficiently high wages, are not in a position to settle down in their own homes;
(7)Finally, the necessity of moving conflicts with the people's traditional inclination: they become attached to their district, to their institutions, etc. From this standpoint the parish should be given its due measure of importance as a social unit. The Metropolitan Commission's investigation revealed that 95 per cent of the 2,000 families visited preferred to remain in their district;
(8). Finally, if we add to Montreal the neighbouring towns such as Outremont, Westmount, Verdun, etc., which are the real residential sections of Montreal, the percentage of home-owners is considerably increased.
All this must be borne in mind when looking into Montreal's housing problem.
Outside of Montreal no serious study, at least to our knowledge, has been made of the housing problem. Several experts are of opinion that in most of the cities in the province this problem is both of a qualitative and of a quantitative nature. Some are even inclined to believe in the existence of a rural housing problem, at least in the villages.
The chief thing that must be done first of all is for the province to adopt a definite housing policy, incorporating into city charters general regulations respecting building operations.
The Housing Improvement Act operates along the same lines as the 1935 Housing Act. As at the end of February, 1938, the loans advanced within the province under this legislation reached a total of some $1,500,000, of which $882,000 went to Montreal and $132,250 to Quebec City.
Source: Esdras MINVILLE, “What is Required”, in Labour Legislation and Social Services in the Province of Quebec. A Study Prepared for the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations, Ottawa, 1939, 97p., pp. 94-95.
© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College