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À nous la ville ! — undercutting gentrification and reclaiming our communities

by Stefan Christoff

art by Seth Tobocman
art by Seth Tobocman
Gentrification has a ruthless momentum, a destructive social force propelled by corporate interests that also hold sway over official political power. 
 
Montréal neighborhoods are facing a brutal gentrification-driven assault, month-by-month, year-by-year, a ruthless process well illustrated by rising condo towers dotting the urban landscape, from Notre-Dame street in St. Henri, to the boulevards of La Petite-Patrie and across Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. Less immediately obvious, but equally key to the gentrification process, are the waves of condo conversions taking place, that flip traditional working class rental units into condos from the inside out. 
 
Affordable housing in the city is a diminishing reality, compounded by austerity-driven cuts to social housing and co-ops, orchestrated by neo-liberal politicians in Québec City and Ottawa, as the Conservatives unilaterally cut over $23 million in funding for low-income housing just last year. 
 
Today, politicians and speculative developers seeking quick profits are singing the same free-market possessed tune, refusing to respect the fact that housing is a fundamental human right and viewing our communities only in terms of profit margins and manipulative real estate moves, all amounting to a violent, cynical and dangerous monopoly game. 
 
This inhumane process of gentrification, that most often deems neighborhoods unrecognisable to their longstanding communities, is quickly reshaping Montréal and cities that we all love across the world
 
Standing against and effectively confronting gentrification is clearly an incredible challenge. Despite the odds, community activists in Montréal and beyond are on the move, fighting gentrification with limited economic resources, driven by boundless courage and solidarity. 
 
À qui la ville ? is the call ringing out across our city and community activists are answering with a determined response, À nous la ville
 
One key action in recent years, taken to physically confront the forces of gentrification in Montréal, took place in 2013 over some long summer days and nights in the heart of St. Henri. 
 
Recalling past direct actions in the city, both land / property reclamations like the Prefontaine and Overdale squats, this community initiative collectively occupied an urban lot on the speculative real estate market, highlighting both the broader forces and the day-to-day mechanics driving gentrification. 
 
Despite rainstorms, high summer winds and constant police harassment, activists sustained the action over many days, operating a soup kitchen, holding workshops and daily general assemblies that took on day-to-day organization, but also consciously worked to evaluate the relationship between the unfolding action and broader anti-gentrification struggles in the city. 
 
Supported by Projet d’organisation populaire, d’information et de regroupement (POPIR), a long standing housing rights committee in Montréal’s southwest, with solid community roots, this direct action sounded an alarm across the island on the need for grassroots political action to push back against the community suffocation imposed by gentrification forces. 
 
“St. Henri is a perfect example of the violence of gentrification,” explains Fred Burill, a community activist at POPIR involved in the À qui la ville ? action, “since 2005, if we look at the numbers, there have been more than 2000 condo units built, versus around 150 social housing units built. The by-product of this skewed construction is rampant housing speculation and increasing rent for low income tenants. Now we see hundreds of households in St. Henri paying more than 80% on their monthly income on rent, these are often people surviving on social assistance, with rent that is almost equal to, or in some cases greater than their monthly income. This is not unique to St. Henri, we can see similar patterns in Park Extension, Villeray, Pointe-Saint-Charles, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and throughout the city, but the rate, or development of gentrification in St. Henri and the corresponding explosion in rental costs has been particularly high especially in the last 10-15 years.”
 
Beyond pointing to alarming statistics on the urgent issue of unaccessibility of affordable housing in the city, activists in St. Henri spoke with direct action, successfully sparking needed debate and an overt political confrontation with the forces of gentrification, that most often aim to operate within the silent violence of state bureaucracy. 
 
“A principal demand is that the city should buy up empty lots, like the one taken for this action, and take them off the speculative market and then use them to construct social housing. This is actually a demand that we have been voicing for around a decade now,” continues Valérie Simard also from POPIR. “Generally our calls for change have been met by a media blackout on the issues and also silence from elected officials, so we were analyzing our situation and realized that we needed to enlarge our housing struggle by taking direct action, while also working to ensure that our struggle becomes part of the larger anti-austerity movement. In reality, this type of action was the only means available to us to bring housing back onto the political map, to ensure that elected officials and the mainstream media don’t totally ignore this reality.”
 
“In many ways the real point of the direct action for us was to address directly the fact that the struggle can seem overwhelming, gentrification can seem like a force of nature, especially if you don't know how the decisions are being made by the politicians and developers who are impacting your life, your community. So this action was an important way for people in the community to feel and know first hand that fighting back is possible. For us to draw a line and say that things have gone far enough, that our neighbourhoods need to be reclaimed collectively from real estate agents and developers.”
 
Identifying gentrification as occurring within a larger framework of neo-liberal austerity economics is key, a connection that has been clearly made by activists around À qui la ville ? in Montréal and by community activist groups in other cities globally
 
Today, let us reflect on this important St. Henri action in the summer of 2013, as a spark for moving forward on sustaining our collective opposition to the violence of gentrification. Let us embrace the beautiful creativity involved in the reappropriation and liberation of urban spaces. 
 
Stefan Christoff is a Montréal based writer, community activist and musician @spirodon this text is written for the À qui la ville ? zine project.

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Stefan Christoff (Stefan Christoff)
Montreal, Quebec
Member since Avril 2010

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Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based journalist, community organizer and musician.

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