Milton Park is one of the oldest and most characteristic neighbourhoods in Montreal. Located just outside the Downtown area, Milton Park was known as a vibrant neighbourhood, but the lack of maintenance caused buildings to fall into disrepair. In the 1970s, the whole neighbourhood was targeted for regeneration which would gentrify it and make it unaffordable for original residents. In response, the community mobilised to find a long-term solution and avoid evictions, resulting in the creation of the Communauté Milton Parc (Milton Park Community – CMP). With time and support, the buildings and land were bought and organised into a condominium structure governed by a Declaration of Co-Ownership involving 25 members made up of cooperatives and non-profit housing corporations. These regulations secured the tenancy for all residents, and created the largest renovated cooperative housing structure in North America.
Aims and Objectives
The aim of the CMP is to collectively own, renovate and manage the buildings of the Milton Park area that were under the threat of being bought and demolished through a cooperative approach, in order to:
- preserve the architectural value and local identity;
- prevent speculation and safeguard affordability in the long-term; and
- build a cohesive and mixed community.
Milton Park is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Montreal, and is located on prime land in the city centre. It is made up of approximately 150 old buildings, mostly erected at the turn of the 20th century and converted throughout the years into 600 dwellings let to a few thousand low- and middle- income residents. Milton Park was known as a vibrant neighbourhood, despite the increasingly run-down physical conditions. In the 1970s, a private developer bought 90 per cent of the area and planned to demolish the buildings and replace them with the creation of a ‘modern city’, with high-rise structures, offices and commercial buildings. Housing in the area would have become unaffordable for the original residents. In response, the community mobilised to find a long-term solution and avoid evictions. This led to the creation of the CMP that, with the help of public authorities, bought the buildings and land destined to be held in trust through a condominium structure governed by a Declaration of Co-Ownership. These regulations secured the tenancy for all those living in the housing – every tenant was handed back their home after renovations.
The CMP was created through various stages:
- Initial social mobilisation to save the area through non-violent social activism (demonstrations, marches and building occupations) and through negotiations with the developer when faced with the threat of neighbourhood destruction.
- Feasibility study, with the help of experts, on the possibility of buying the buildings, the legal requirements to create housing cooperatives and the evaluation of political support for the project at local, regional, and national levels.
- Acquisition of the buildings and land by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in 1979, along with a commitment by the CMHC to sell the properties to the Société du Patrmoine Urbain de Montreal (SPUM). The buildings were previously all owned by the same developer and buying them en bloc safeguarded them from speculators.
- Elaboration of an Action Plan designed to preserve the area and guarantee the right for the residents to remain.
- Transfer of the properties in the 1980s to the Société d’Amelioration de Milton Parc Society for the Improvement of Milton Park - SAMP) who became the temporary owner of the properties with the goal of overseeing refurbishment works and eventually transferring properties to the cooperatives.
- Signing of the Declaration of Co-ownership. By law, the content and mission of the declaration are protected from modifications.
The structure that resulted presents the following characteristics:
- The residents of Milton Park are organised into 15 cooperatives which comprise the members of CMP, along with six non-profit housing corporations, two community organisations, one commercial entity and a community development corporation. These residents, characterised by mixed socio-economic backgrounds and with a high proportion of low- and very low-income families, are the main beneficiaries of the project.
- Land and buildings are held in trust, and are therefore communally owned by the members (cooperatives and non-profit housing corporations) and their overarching syndicate. All residents are tenants – not owners but ‘guardians of a common good’. The individual dwellings therefore cannot be resold. This system prevents prices and rents from being driven up, thus ensuring long-term affordability.
- Under Quebec law, the CMP is classified as a condominium whereby the syndicate owns common spaces (such as lanes), and individual cooperatives own land beneath their buildings and semi-private spaces (e.g. gardens).
- If a member is facing financial difficulties, the property can only be sold to another co-owner.
- CMP is comparable to a Community Land Trust (CLT), although it differs in that in the CLT model all of the land is generally owned by the trust only, instead of being subdivided under the ownership of different members bound by an agreement. It can also be considered a very large cooperative, where the members are the housing cooperatives and non-profits rather than the individual residents.
- Each of the 25 co-owners is responsible for the maintenance of its buildings and its internal functioning, but shares certain common services and responsibilities (e.g. information, training, insurance).
- As members of the syndicate, each group must ensure that its activities comply with the principles of the agreement and do not infringe upon or cause damage to other members.
The total cost of the development was US$30 million, which was met primarily through public funds made available at all three levels of government. For the original acquisition, the total costs amounted to US$7.5 million, of which US$ 5.4million were obtained from a cross-Canada program to help tenants form cooperatives. Subsequently, the CMHC, the City of Montreal, and the Quebec Government contributed US$ 5.8 million in capital subsidy for renovation. The remaining amount (US$2.2 million for acquisition, US$10.8 million for renovation and US$4.1 million for development) was borrowed on mortgage loans. Each co-owner held a 35 year mortgage guaranteed by the CMHC, with 10-15 year renewals. The CMHC subsidised the difference between the market interest rate at the time and two per cent. Rents were therefore kept low, based on the original rent with a small increase calculated to cover the mortgage at two per cent, property taxes, maintenance, insurance and utilities.
Residents have been able to remain in the homes they occupied, which has promoted financial and social stability and continuity. Evictions for non-payment of rent have been extremely rare. The protection of the demographic mix against gentrifying forces, and the safeguarding of quality of life have all had a positive effect on Downtown Montreal, making the city centre a safe and liveable space for people, which is not the case in many North American cities.
Why is it innovative?
- Community-initiated and community-driven innovation, management and governance processes, born out of mobilisation to save the neighbourhood.
- CMP is the first project of this scale involving co-ownership by cooperatives and non-profits with land held in trust, governed by a Declaration of Co-ownership. It remains the largest cooperative housing project in North America.
- Housing and land use are prioritised for living rather than for profit through a system that ensures long-term affordability and prevents gentrification, with the safeguarding of local heritage and inclusiveness as a common good.
What is the environmental impact?
- The project involves the renovation of existing buildings rather than demolition and reconstruction, making use of existing resources and maintaining original structures where possible.
- Improved insulation and piping has had an impact on the amount of energy and water used. Some cooperatives have initiated their own projects to reduce energy consumption, including installing solar panels, green roofs and cool roofs.
- The Urban Ecology Centre was created in 1996 as an ‘ecological laboratory’ aiming to turn Milton Park into a catalyst for the experimentation of innovative urban ecological solutions such as green-roofing, recycling and organic composting.
- Individual cooperatives have agreed to maintain and create green spaces.
Is it financially sustainable?
- The CMP structure allows the cooperatives and non-profit housing corporations to have a stable source of income deriving from the rents of the housing units, which go towards paying the mortgage, the repairs and community investments.
- The end of the mortgage repayment period for all cooperatives is drawing near (2017-2018), placing CMP in a position of reinforced financial security. In the future, this disposable income will be dedicated to a new cycle of refurbishment or to offer supplemental aid to certain families who currently depend on government support to cover housing costs.
- The guarantee of long-term affordable rents decreases financial insecurity, and allows residents to allocate resources to fulfil other pressing needs as well as allowing for savings and investments.
- Rents at CMP are significantly more affordable than in surrounding areas (on average twice as low). Access is facilitated for very low-income people that wish to move into Milton Park, as only disadvantaged socio-economic groups are eligible to take up freed or new apartments.
- The community development corporation Société de Développement Communautaire (Society for Community Development - SDC) was created to manage the commercial spaces in the community and control the type of businesses so that they reflect resident needs. Surpluses are either reinvested or given as subsidies for projects that benefit the whole community
What is the social impact?
The CMP prides itself in having maintained a demographically mixed community that facilitates integration between diverse groups. Long-term social sustainability was ensured to residents, as the risk of eviction or relocation to areas that offer fewer social, economic and educational opportunities was eliminated. Furthermore, training and education workshops offer families with limited means the possibility of acquiring new skills.
The setting up of the CMP has built the capacity of residents to develop solutions, to organise, and to manage the neighbourhood. The cooperative structure itself becomes a place for capacity-building, where members learn how to chair meetings, draft minutes, keep books, maintain properties and understand renovation and urban planning processes. In fact, the residents are responsible for managing all of their affairs according to the Declaration and the specific constitution of each member.
In addition, volunteers are engaged in contributing to the running of the CMP, and individual or group initiatives by residents are encouraged and supported. By providing a space for dialogue and action, a strong sense of solidarity has developed around housing, green spaces and democracy, resulting in community cooperation through social events, and regular community activities (street markets, community meals, workshops).
The project has also provided a healthier environment for the residents of Milton Park. The houses are no longer in a state of disrepair, and strong incentives were created to ensure long-term maintenance, as cooperatives received the CMHC’s financial support conditional upon buildings being in a good state of repair and meeting health and safety requirements. Additionally, the Urban Ecology Centre focuses on promoting healthy lifestyles through training and seminars, neighbourhood greening and increased pedestrian and cyclist activity.
- Initially CMHC would not guarantee that rents would remain affordable in the long-term or that residents would not have to leave their homes. In response, the community mobilised against this decision and the federal government agreed to the community’s terms to avoid unpopularity.
- CMP and other housing organisations in Canada are confronted with the possibility of losing financial assistance for tenants on very low incomes. CMP is involved in a coalition to put pressure on the government and search for alternatives.
- Occasionally there has been significant disagreement between residents, though these were resolved through democratic processes.
- Maintaining a level of active interest and involvement of the community is challenging when not faced with immediate threats. The origins of the CMP might be taken for granted with time, and redefining a new type of leadership to bring the project forward is essential. Tours and talks are organised to keep the story of Milton Park alive, and residents are kept informed of the regulations governing the project to enable a better democratic functioning and understanding of the Declaration of Co-ownership.
- Strong market forces can be countered if there is significant social mobilisation by residents and sympathisers, supported by professionals such as architects, urban planners, social workers, lawyers, accountants, etc.
- In order to ensure the perpetuity of the project the process will tend to be comprehensive and elaborate, which will necessarily require a significant amount of time and commitment – there are no easy ways.
- For the underpinning social and political value to remain, there must be a constant process of renewal and education.
No formal monitoring or evaluation process has been carried out on the project.
The project has not expanded physically, as the focus has been geared towards keeping the existing project robust. The establishment of the Urban Ecology Centre has enabled the project to develop further, as well as ensuring that the ideas of building a sustainable, cohesive and democratic environment are spread to other areas of the city.
CMP has been consulted on their cooperative model with restricted resale, which has been adapted and transferred to the Benny Farm project and the Chambreclerc rooming housing for homeless and mentally ill persons in Montreal.
CMP is recognised as a positive example of cooperative housing and has influenced the expansion of cooperatives in Quebec and Canada. In Quebec alone there are currently 1,200 housing cooperatives, which are organised in networks and federations involved in constant exchange and communication.