For Us by Us: Brique par Brique’s approach to housing self-determination

Park-Extension is an undeniably contested landscape located in northernmost Montreal, Que., along the stretch of Parc Avenue in the Villeray-Saint-Michel-Park-Extension borough of the city. It is one of Montreal’s poorest neighbourhoods, with 44% of its approx. 33,000 residents living with low income.

Up until very recently, Park-Extension was, to the city’s owning class, strictly a place to visit. It’s an area where poverty affects a broad age range of residents, including children under 6 and seniors; it’s also made up of a large immigrant population (61%), the highest percentage in the city.

It is an ethnically diverse area with residents originating from a wide array of countries including: Haiti, Algeria, Vietnam, India, Portugal and Bangladesh, that had so far been spared from the rampant housing speculation and financial encroachments that are par for the course in a Montreal housing market that’s currently hitting 10-year highs. Notably, Park-Extension’s recent immigrant residents have underrepresented access to the neighborhood’s public housing stock.

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To Faiz Abhuani, founder of housing initiative Brique par Brique, there is potential to equitably alter the neighbourhood’s current housing demographic, despite an encroaching shift on the horizon of Park-Extension’s housing landscape as a major university development initiative has recently been funded by the province. 2019 will see the Université de Montréal open a $145-million science complex that will result in marked changes in the people who choose to make Park-Extension their home.

As students, faculty and staff move into the neighbourhood, large numbers of families and local businesses who are already struggling to make ends meet will face displacement.

Brique par Brique’s mission is to meet this challenge head-on by creating an affordable and financially sustainable community housing project for its members, facilitating mutuality between neighbourhood residents, and engaging neighbourhood residents in the initiative’s governance and build and sustain an accessible social innovation hub for the community. 

Abhuani speaks to the emergence of gentrifying forces in the area, and the motivations for his new initiative. This is what he says on the initiative: 

“Right now, me and my colleagues live in and around Park-Ex and are for the most part from Montreal. We are from racialized communities and our project is grounded in a real need for infrastructure that is managed by and for marginalised people. We are mandated to offer priority access to those we believe are the first to be displaced and we are working with, the Comité d’action de Parc-Extension: the local tenants rights organization, as well as the largest government-funded social housing management group to insure that we are defining our membership criteria correctly. However, we also are aware that these lists have their limits. That is why our mandate also includes certain broad equity policies. To be specific, we are offering priority to people who already live in the area, who identify as being racialized, LGBTQ2I as well as people Indigenous to this land.”

In stark contrast to the large-scale, institutionalized approach to Quebec’s social and community housing development, which requires intimate interfacing with private developers and a public sector management infrastructure, Brique par Brique is a housing initiative whose funding model is based on a community bonds approach.

According to Abhuani, the main difference between Brique par Brique's model and other models is in how solidarity is conceived. Practically speaking, Brique par Brique is filling a niche market. It is developing housing where government programs are not equipped to intervene because they are not sensitive to the particular circumstances of inner-city urban renewal.

Further, Brique par Brique seeks to bring more than simply affordable housing infrastructure to the neighbourhood. In addition, it provides services that support other aspects of their mission (e.g., building mutual engagement amongst residents). As Abhuani has said, Brique par Brique is more than just a housing project; it is also a community center. The project offers basic services (e.g., access to a food bank and a childcare net

work) and cultural programming, with the intention of supporting people’s connections to the one another and the neighbourhood. Membership dues are based on an equity-driven sliding scale approach. Abhuani explains that the aim of Brique par Brique is “to slow down displacement by offsetting the inevitable increased cost of living with an increase in the local services provided.”

A model like Brique par Brique allows for increased control in how capital is generated and used in urban development initiatives, pushing back on displacement caused by urban gentrification. Rather than relying on government funds, Brique par Brique is membership driven.

This is what Abhuani says on how Brique pas Brique is funded:

“Our project is funded by people who want to support our objectives. This means ... we can offer communal space. We can build larger apartments for larger immigrant families. We can practice positive discrimination. We can refinance at shorter intervals and use that cashflow for whatever our members deem to be priorities. In short, we can create wealth and empower our residents more effectively than traditional projects can because our members do not have to share power with their creditors.”

Brique par Brique’s approach is innovative and bold. But without a precedent for this type of multi-faceted, membership driven initiative, it is hard to predict what its outcomes will be. Some indication of complexity of the situation was revealed recently in conflicts emerging over land-use in the neighbourhood. The Johnny Brown Building, also known as Hutchison Plaza, has become ground zero for Parc-Extension-led struggles against displacement. The re-development of Hutchison Plaza -- formerly a residential building -- is being led by BSR Group, a private developer who recently purchased Hutchison Plaza, promptly serving its multitude of residents with eviction notices. The building now stands empty and is slated for the upwardly mobile makeover necessary to welcome the sort of urban professionals who’ll seek proximity to the new university campus.

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Brique par Brique has to be careful as it gains momentum in the neighbourhood, according to Abhuani. This is what he says on the matter:

“We are in a position to both raise awareness around gentrification and to contribute to it as well. Hutchison Plaza is a good example. BXB was initially meant to negotiate some sort of deal with the developer to offset his impact on the neighborhood by contributing to our project. However, some residents did not accept this. Some believed that the development of the plaza could be halted, while others believed that regardless of the outcome it would be best to fight it and never accept a contribution from the promoter. BXB is founded on solidarity, but can that solidarity be extended to gentrifiers? Many of our investors are local homeowners or prospective homeowners. They may not have the impact of BSR Group, but they do contribute to the rising property values.”

As local demonstrations call for a halt to the development of Hutchison Plaza, questions emerge about who gets to say who comprises “the community,” who gets to stay and who will go. We anticipate Brique par Brique will have an important role to play in these ongoing conversations. While it is currently, an isolated and fledgling initiative, Brique par Brique is nevertheless a story of resistance.

Alex Megelas is a programs coordinator at the Office of Community Engagement at Concordia University and an affiliate facilitator of the Centre for Community Organizations (COCo). He is a PhD student in Educational Studies at McGill, under the supervision of Profs. Naomi Nichols and Henry Mintzberg, and is interested in collectivist approaches to social change. His most recent research projects are Power Up!, a bike-powered exploration of hackerspaces at the intersection of technology, community and self-reliance; and Paper Places, a social learning experiment on mapmaking our relationship to the urban commons.

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Naomi Nichols is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University. She is also the Principal Investigator for a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) project titled, Schools, Safety, and the Urban Neighbourhood. Prior to joining the Faculty of Education at McGill, Nichols completed a Post-doctoral Fellowship with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at York University. The Fellowship focused on knowledge mobilization, research impact, and cross-sectoral responses to youth homelessness. Since completing her Ph.D., Nichols has worked as the Applied Social Scientist in the Learning Institute at the Hospital for Sick Children, a Research Associate and Sessional Instructor in the Faculty of Education at York University and an Adjunct Professor in the Queen’s-Trent Concurrent Education Program. Her research activities and publications span the areas of youth homelessness; youth justice; alternative education and safe schools; inter-organizational relations in the youth sector; “youth at risk;” and community-academic research collaborations. In 2014, the University of Toronto Press published her first book: Youth Work: An institutional ethnography of youth homelessness.

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Faiz Abhuani has been a community organizer for over 15 years. He has worked on a number of issues around expanding access to healthcare, immigrant rights and popular education. He has contributed to the efforts of a variety of organizations including Project Genesis, Inc., Le Frigo Vert, No One Is Illegal, CKUT 90.3FM, Q-PIRG Concordia, Moisson Montréal and the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU). His objective remains to promote a long-term vision for social change and to raise awareness on the importance of building infrastructure for success.

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