UTILE proposes an affordable student housing project for McGill

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) is in the preliminary stages of constructing residential spaces in collaboration with Unité de travail pour l’implantation de logement étudiant (UTILE), a non-profit organization that works toward establishing affordable housing for students in Québec.

UTILE was founded in 2012 in an attempt to revive a vacant UQAM student housing project. The effort was unsuccessful, but the organization has since invested in other projects, including an affordable student housing project for Concordia University.

In 2014, SSMU approached UTILE to conduct research on the state of student housing around McGill’s Downtown campus and the possibility of erecting new affordable accommodations. This past January, UTILE presented a 60-page feasibility report to SSMU.

The report found that the cost of rent in the Plateau-Mont-Royal area is increasing faster than inflation. This has resulted in McGill students paying the highest rent on the island; 40 per cent more than students at other French-speaking universities, on average.

“We are paying $200 to $300 more than other [students] in Montreal,” SSMU President Tre Mansdoerfer said. “Those numbers are upsetting [….] Affordable housing is something that should be important to SSMU, [and] UTILE is one avenue [to] affordable housing.”

The feasibility of such a project hinges on its financing. UTILE recommended building a new, medium-rise structure that would provide 150 units, estimating that monthly rent would be around $761 for a studio and $500 per occupant in a three-bedroom apartment, with amenities included.

Based on their detailed model, UTILE projected development costs to be around $19.3 million. Most of the financing would come from private and public donors, but at least $1.5 million would need to come from student fees. UTILE suggested imposing a semesterly fee of $5.15 per student for 10 semesters. With this budget, UTILE predicted that the development could be built by the Winter 2023 semester.

“We haven’t decided if we want to run the fee this semester or not,” Mansdoerfer said. “[We would need to] start mass advertisement on what this project should be. The fee, if it were to run, [would be called] an ‘Affordable Housing Fee.’ There would have to be a referendum [to insert the fee]. [Referenda] go through McGill, and they last for five years [maximum].”

Mansdoerfer emphasized the importance of immediate awareness and advertising campaigns to ensure that the student body is knowledgeable about the prospective project and is able to make informed decisions about the development.

“As long as they have the basis of information, I’ll be very happy,” Mansdoerfer said. “If it’s a yes, great. If it’s a no, then I’m glad that students can engage in making the decision [….] I am of the opinion that SSMU should be working toward tangible wins. There’s nothing more tangible than something like this.”

According to Mansdoerfer, initial obstacles for SSMU include selling the student body on a project that they will personally never benefit from, convincing the student body that SSMU is capable of managing a multi-million-dollar project, and deciding who will manage the project once it is built.

Laurent Levesque, head of UTILE’s media relations, mentioned that Montreal’s rent could one day resemble Vancouver’s and expressed dismay at the complete absence of non-profits with missions similar to that of UTILE.

“There is no other group doing this in all of [Canada],” Levesque said. “We are talking with student groups in Toronto and Vancouver to try to export the Quebec model. The [main objective] is to […] maintain Montreal as an affordable city forever.”

UTILE and Concordia’s own affordable student housing project has concluded the design and financing stages and will soon begin construction. John Hutton, the finance coordinator for the Concordia Student Union (CSU), expressed optimism about the project.

“The ‘McGill Ghetto’ is a perfect example of landlords overcharging for apartments while not doing much to maintain them,” Hutton said. “Students need better housing options.”

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