Montreal students break new ground in co-op housing

Oct 22, 2020 | Social Inclusion News

A student housing co-op in Canada has broken ground in Montreal. The Woodnote Cooperative boasts an innovative financial model and the mission is clear: make student housing more affordable.

On a sunny afternoon in September, The Centre’s Montreal team was treated to a guided visit to the first brick-and-mortar project of UTILE, a dynamic promoter of affordable student housing. Situated in one of Montreal’s most sought-after neighbourhoods, the Woodnote consists of 90 units housing 144 residents. Guided by Laurent Levesque, cofounder of UTILE, The Centre’s team got an in-depth look at the only student housing cooperative in Québec. And if all goes according to plan, this project is just the precursor of an innovative model of financing that UTILE hopes to replicate all over Quebec and student hubs across Canada.

Known for its bustling night life and foodie culture, some 185,000 students call Montreal home each year. Students often face challenges when seeking affordable housing. Small budgets, the cost of living in an urban setting, and a lack of experience negotiating with landlords mean that students often live in overcrowded, inadequate, and often overpriced housing. The same struggles manifest at the national scale.

As Levesque explains: “  When we look at the student housing landscape, there are two types of players: university residences or high-end private student accommodations. There is no real option besides that, the student body is faced with a gap.” And UTILE intends to fill that gap, he adds.

INNOVATIVE FINANCING MODEL

The Woodnote Cooperative was born out of a partnership between UTILE and the Concordia Student Union (CSU), which began working on an innovative financing model to build affordable housing in Montreal’s downtown core. The CSU then held a referendum to ask students if they would be willing to commit student funding to finance a project that would support affordable housing. The initiative received massive support and that led to the creation of PUSH (Popular University Student Housing), which brought $1.8 million to the project. UTILE then sought financing from alternative investors, including the CMHC and the city of Montreal, which led to the creation of Fonds d’investissement pour le logement étudiant (FILE) and brought additional funds to the project. 

“UTILE is a group of developers born out of the student movement,” explains Luc Labelle, Program Manager at the Centre. “They have the ability to reach a population that is often excluded in government programs for affordable housing, as is unfortunately the case with the AccèsLogis program in Quebec. They have succeeded in demonstrating that they are able to develop housing differently — and by innovative means. They did it in Montreal and we now want to help them do the same elsewhere in Quebec.”

THE CENTRE’S CONTRIBUTION

The Centre is pleased to announce it has awarded UTILE a $300,000   grant from the Sector Transformation Fund—Sectoral Impact to build capacity within their organization so they can continue to strengthen the student community housing sector. 

Levesque says “The Centre is one of the only support organizations in housing to recognize the importance of network building and partnerships to support innovative community housing projects. The Woodnote Cooperative was funded through a first-of-its-kind collaboration with the CSU, and the Centre’s grant will allow us to build working relationships with many more Québec student unions that want to act on housing. This can potentially lead to the construction of hundreds of much-needed student housing units.”

The Woodnote Cooperative’s innovative financing model and transformative nature is a great example of what is possible when agents from different industries get together and address a societal issue: in this case, the glaring lack of affordable student housing in Canada.

The co-op web site    boasts “our vision for the next five years is to have the Cooperative become fully self-managed as part of the Woodnote project. We want to increase access to safe and affordable living conditions for students in a place where the development of human connection centres our approach. Our greatest hope is to see students develop a culture of empowerment so they can have a real and tangible impact on their own living conditions.”

As for UTILE, the Woodnote Cooperative is hopefully the first of many success stories.

THE ORGANIZATION

UTILE (l’Unité de travail pour l’implantation de logement étudiant) is dedicated to the promotion and development of affordable student housing. Striving to create locally governed real estate development that is self-funded and affordable, it is currently shaping a new model for student housing that is to be implemented in college towns across Quebec.

Explore the Project Highlight here.

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