The housing crisis in Montreal is no secret, but the processes behind it are shrouded within the obscure world of finance and speculation. Each new year marks a steeper increase in rents and purchasing prices. Meanwhile, Montreal is witnessing a period of unprecedented residential construction. Downtown Montreal is especially active, as numerous mega-projects break ground, such as 1 Square Phillips, Victoria sur le Parc, Solstice Montreal, Le Quinze-Cent and Maestria Condominiums.
It appears that economists have been wrong: condo towers won’t solve the housing crisis. Meanwhile, this kind of urban development is changing the shape of our city. Who exactly are these towers for? Who is building them? Who -or what- defines the landscape of our city? Whose city is it?
In order to bring these questions to light, Shock Value projected a visual piece onto the sales office of Maestria Condominiums on May 29 2021.
Traditionally, the world of finance has belonged to an exclusive class of traders, banks, corporations and government, isolating it to the upper echelons of society. This is slowly changing however, due in part to the rise of cryptocurrencies and retail traders, as we’ve seen in recent years with the advent of Bitcoin and the Wall Street Bets fiasco 1. Still, most people (understandably) live their lives unconcerned by what stock just went up or down or what Warren Buffet had for lunch that day. Part of the reason why is simply that the scope of finance is so darn hard to fully understand. Generally, any talk of derivatives, assets, liquidity, bonds and interest rates is likely a quick route to a shortened attention span, if not utter confusion. And this isn’t without reason. Finance operates invisibly within the abstracted realm of speculative money, most of which never actually materializes into hard cash. This however doesn’t prevent it from being a powerful force in shaping our daily lives, without us even knowing it.
Like in many other Canadian cities, land value in Montreal has risen steadily through the last twenty years while incomes have stagnated 2. Everyone seems to have their own take on the subject, as well as their own scapegoats of preference – foreign buyers, immigrants, government interference, yuppies, Airbnb, … Banking on a simple logic of supply and demand, an often-touted solution to housing unaffordability is to simply build more housing.
And it doesn’t take a trained eye to tell that Montreal is currently under a great deal of construction. Whether in central districts or in gentrifying peripheral neighbourhoods, construction crews are practically everywhere. It also doesn’t take an expert to see it is becoming more and more difficult to live in any major city in Canada, with rents and selling prices on steep upward curves that show no signs of slowing. How is it that our cities are increasingly unaffordable despite a growing supply of residential units? This incongruity points to the following possibility: could it be that the main function of our era’s massive residential projects isn’t to actually house people? What if these projects were instead the physical form of financial mechanisms, built to produce financial returns before anything else?
The following article aims to expose the financialization of land in Montreal and its tangible repercussions. Through a specific case study – the development of the 60-story Maestria Condominiums project – we will see how the backstories of real estate projects have defining effects on their form and their repercussions on the rest of the city. For this we will dive into Montreal’s current struggle to provide affordable housing to its citizens and into the justification given by analysts; then we will look into the actors behind Maestria,their interests, and why luxury projects like Maestria are primarily designed to generate financial returns rather than provide homes for Montrealers. So, hold on tight, get ready for a whole lot of numbers and a bumpy ride through the hidden scenes of Montreal’s construction frenzy.
1 _ Context: Increasing inaccessibility and a discrepant justification
There is growing concern that Montreal is following in Vancouver and Toronto’s footsteps to become the third major Canadian city facing a housing crisis. Over the last twenty years, the cost of housing in La métropole has grown exponentially while income has stagnated. While simply comparing Montreal’s home prices to those of other large North American cities might leave the impression that these concerns are much ado about nothing, a growing number of Montrealers are struggling to find a place to live. With the median price of a single-family home increasing by 18% (the highest increase on record) and the average rent increasing by 6% 3, 2020 marked another record year for an increasingly inaccessible housing market.
Another worrying factor is falling rental vacancy rates of rental units (up until the COVID-19 pandemic), indicating a competitive landscape for tenants and a market controlled by landlords. Vacancy rates are a key indicator in assessing housing needs and are considered stable at 3% 4. In 2019, vacancy in Montreal hit a 15-year low, dropping to 1.5 percent (down from 1.9 percent the previous year) 5, translating as a constricted housing market. On paper, this points to the fact that there is far greater demand than the market can supply. In practice, this in turn means that landlords can easily jack up prices, knowing there will always be an eager clientele to answer the call. This then leads to a drastic rise in evictions and repossession notices, as reported by neighbourhood housing committees last year 6. In an article by CBC News in January 2020, La Petite-Patrie resident Michelle Thompson vividly describes the pains of living with home insecurity: “...it's hard to sleep at night, because you're wondering where you're going to live. You're crying, you're stressed — you don't know what to do." Ms. Thompson’s case is far from being a unique one, as there are currently 24,000 families and individuals on the city’s waiting lists for subsidized housing 7.
According to the CMHC, there’s a simple explanation for what we are experiencing: “rental housing demand … clearly increased at a faster pace than supply over the period from October 2018 to October 2019.” There just isn’t enough physical housing, and this could be fixed by simply building more. Indeed, Montreal’s population is continuously growing, adding approximately 25,000 newcomers to its roster each year 8. However, the rate of population growth is also slowing, as seen in the chart below.
In 2019, Montreal saw the addition of a record 8,590 new rental apartment units – this construction boom is part of the municipal government’s plan to pump out 12,000 new affordable housing units by 2022. As we’ve seen, this coincided with the record-low vacancy rate of 1.5%. In comparison, the five year-period between 2009 and 2014 saw the average yearly gain was 557 rental units and was followed by a record high vacancy rate of 4.1%. In other words, the low rate of rental construction from 2009 to 2014 was followed by higher vacancy rates, while an unprecedented rate of construction in 2019 resulted in unprecedented low vacancy rates. In short, there appears to be no clear correlation between the quantity of housing units built and the number of units available on the market.
Sources: Habitation. Montréal en statistiques. http://ville.montreal.qc.ca/portal/page?_pageid=6897,67885745&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL . Accessed on 4 Mar. 2020; Montreal, Canada Metro Area Population 1950-2021, Macrotrends, https://www.macrotrends.net/cities/20384/montreal/population
So, what is happening? Well, perhaps the old supply-demand equation isn’t foolproof. Perhaps the answer lies in the hyphen: by looking at how the supply is –for lack of a better word– supplied, we might better understand how this supply can fail at its most basic function of housing people.
2 _ Case Study: Maestria Condominiums
Maestria Condominiums is a luxury residential development in the heart of Montreal’s cultural district, the Quartier-des-Spectacles. It envisions a pair of glass towers rising 58 and 61 stories, joined by a glass bridge, offering – in the words of the promoters – a “front row centre [seat] overlooking Place des Festivals”. This mega-structure will host office and commercial spaces as well as over 1,500 housing units (two-thirds being condos, and the other third apartments) a 4,800 sq. ft. gym, a semi-Olympic-sized pool, a spa, a thermal bath circuit, a virtual golf room, a library, a cinema and a bike shop. They offer studios (381 sq. ft.) beginning at $284,900, single-bedroom (under 525 sq. ft.) beginning at $389,700, double-bedroom units (under 950 sq. ft.) beginning at $547,500 and luxurious penthouses (under 2183 sq. ft.) beginning on the up-side of $1 million. The complex therefore promises a “high-end” living experience, in which one is paying not for the minuscule living spaces but for the bundle of lifestyle services (i.e., the gym, spa, etc.) as well as its central location.
The land that now serves as Maestria’s site was originally bought as four different lots before they were merged as a single one in 2019. They had previously been mostly used as parking lots 9. One site however, was home to the popular Le Spectrum concert venue. Having occupied the corner of Sainte-Catherine Street and De Bleury Street from 1982 to 2007, the venue was considered a “cultural marker” and “neighbourhood cornerstone” 10. It’s closure and demolition in 2008 was widely lamented across the city, as it represented for many the unglamorous, underground cultural richness that characterized the city. When its demolition was announced, a petition pleading for its preservation gathered 15,000 signatures. In its 25-year lifespan, the Spectrum hosted a wide range of world-renowned artists seeking a humbler venue, such as The Police and Miles Davis. It was also home to local heroes like Jean Leloup and Martha Wainwright. The demolition of Le Spectrum symbolized a turning point in Montreal’s cultural scene, a sign that alternative artistic epicentres were being substituted for hyper-manicured and elite spaces epitomized by Place-des-Arts.
Maestria is being carried out by some of the province’s most lucrative and active bigshots in the world of real estate development. Indeed, the project is the result of a three-way partnership between the development mogul Devimco, Quebec’s largest labour-backed capital investment fund the Fond de Solidarité FTQ, and the investment firm Fiera Properties.
Devimco is one of Montreal’s biggest developers, having pumped out nearly three thousand housing units between 2000 and 2015 11. They are also behind some of the city’s largest developments, such as the District Griffin project in the historical GriffinTown neighbourhood and the Quartier Dix-Trente in Brossard. Both projects are typical of Devimco’s large ambitions, often at the expense of existing communities wiped out for the sake of artificial new landscapes. When Devimco delivers, they deliver big: their projects very rarely hold less than 100 units and often include mixed-use functions, hosting office spaces as well as businesses – although these are almost always large chains such as Starbucks, Tim Hortons, the SAQ, Winners or Pharmaprix 12. Devimco is yet to include a school in any of their projects, despite promising to do so in Griffintown.
The Fonds de Solidarité FTQ is a capital investment fund belonging to Quebec’s largest labour federation – the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ). It currently manages $15.6 bn 13. in assets and is responsible for investing the retirement savings of 705,606 shareholders across the province, promising returns between 6,3% and 7% 14. Between 2000 and 2015, the FTQ asserted itself as a dominating force behind the urban development of Montreal, funding the construction of 5069 units of housing units in the South-West and Ville-Marie districts alone. This makes it by far the largest real estate investment fund on the island, having produced more than 2.5 times the number of units than its closest competitor, Fiera Properties.
Fiera Properties is the real estate branch of the independent investment firm Fiera Capital, which currently manages $180.2 bn. in assets. Fiera trades at the Toronto Stock Exchange under the ticker “FSZ” and is currently ranked as the 12th largest asset management company in Canada 15. As mentioned previously, Fiera Properties has funded the construction of the second largest number of housing units (1830) in Montreal between 2000 and 2015 16. They currently hold $6bn in assets across Canada, with $300 million in Quebec alone.
Maestria promises to transform Montreal’s landscape through its sheer size and glamorous allure. The project, like others elsewhere on the island, is unapologetically marketed as an exclusive treat reserved for a specific socio-economic class – one that certainly faces no housing insecurity. One might however wonder who exactly can afford to spend $300,000 on a cramped, 381 sq. ft.-studio. One could also wonder why Devimco would opt for this particular type of development, in a context of a growing housing crisis. The nature of the team behind the project, being more of the world of high-finance rather than construction, can help explain the nature of this particular format 17 – as will be illustrated below.
3 _The Financialisation of Land
Maestria illustrates a growing trend in the way land is developed. This trend has been identified as the financialization of land (or housing), meaning that land is treated as a financial asset subjected to dynamics generally reserved for the financial market 18. They are defined by several elements: the support of large investment firms (rather than individual investors, which is how housing was typically financed in Montreal until the 1990s 19), high-end condominiums as the residential product of preference, and land speculation. These three traits characterize the way the city is currently developing, and help us understand how a financialized housing market creates a situation where real estate projects are likely to increase both in size and quantity over the coming years, while simultaneously exacerbating the issue of housing accessibility and social inequality.
3.1 Maestria’s Makers
The first indicator we have that Maestria is a purely financial endeavour is the nature of its creators. As mentioned previously, the Fonds de Solidarité FTQ and Fiera Properties are two major investment funds managing billions of dollars in assets whose first and foremost responsibility is to their shareholders. The arrival of major investment funds as partners for real estate projects in the last 20 years in Quebec has marked an important change in the role of developers such as Devimco, who now depend on these investment firms to realize their projects 20. As partners, these funds can provide unprecedented investments (sometimes ranging in billions of dollars 21) that allow for the creation of large-scale projects that would have been impossible thirty years ago. But the magnitude of these investments is also a way for these investors to impose their own needs, as their priority is to provide the returns promised to their shareholders. Through this lens, real estate projects must be precisely calculated to generate the highest possible return on the investment made. These buildings must be designed for the highest efficiency between construction costs and unit prices, which has led to the emergence of ‘micro-condos’ with shared spaces, such as those featured in Maestria 22. As described by several interviewed developers in a recent report by the Collectif de Recherche et d'ACtion sur l'Habitat (CRACH, Rapport de Recherche 2020), developers are now encouraged to “put on their investor hat” and align their interests with those of the investment funds on which depend 23.
In order to ensure that a particular project will generate the returns promised to their shareholders, investors predetermine with their developer how much capital the project must generate, as well as construction costs, deadlines and its market value upon completion 24… As mentioned in the CRACH report, “this will to predict everything, in order to satisfy investors who could deem it less risky to put their assets elsewhere, leaves very little room to other considerations, notably social and political ones.” (“Cette volonté de tout prévoir, pour contenter des investisseurs qui pourraient juger moins risqué de placer leurs capitaux ailleurs, laisse cependant bien peu de place à d’autres considérations, sociales et politiques notamment.“) 25
A financialized housing model creates a situation where major projects must cater to whichever clientele will ensure the highest returns possible. This is not without consequences: as we know, increasing the speculative value of land in one place readjusts values across the city to match ever-growing market references 26. By extension, the more a developer can sell a new unit for, the more existing housing will try to meet this new standard of value. The way in which land value is raised over time creates a cycle that asserts these investment funds’ increasing control over land. In a context where land value is heightened way beyond any private individual’s reach, we can begin to see a city shaped uniquely by the financial entities that can afford them.
The arrival of condominiums as the housing model of preference since the early 2000s works hand in hand with the financialization of housing. Condos are most interesting to developers (and their investors) because they promise a quick turnover and the largest profit margins (up to 20%) of any other residential product out there 27. As opposed to a rental unit ownership of a condo is transferred immediately upon its completion and the price of the unit is paid in full. This frees the developer from the responsibilities of management and upkeep and puts their initial investment back in their pocket within a few years from the outset of the project.. A condo (like a $284,900, 381 sq. ft. studio) is well suited to the investment profile of their buyers too, who are generally wealthier individuals with no children, often looking for a short-term place to live that can easily be resold with returns after a few years 28. In short, the condominium is an investment product optimized to create the largest returns possible for the developer and the buyer (as long as the real estate market holds up). Finally, the support of investment funds also allows developers to use the expected returns of one project to invest in multiple others around the city 29. In this manner, the nine condo projects by Devimco currently underway across the city are likely to all be financially related and dependent on one another. Another interesting product on the housing market are luxury rental apartments – offering the second highest return rate at 12% 30. Maestria’s composition of 1,000 condo units and 500 apartments illustrates a careful financial balance of the two safest of most profitable investments in real estate.
3.3 Land speculation
Speculation is all about predicting and anticipating returns. In a financialized real estate market, speculation is central to any development. We saw in the previous section how the anticipated returns for shareholders fundamentally defines a residential project. In the case of Maestria, a great deal of land speculation characterizes its backstory. Tracing the transactional history of the project’s physical site allows us to get a glimpse at how land speculation operates. Surprisingly, it appears that the main orchestrator behind this speculation isn’t a developer but rather a financial corporation – that is, the Fonds de Solidarité FTQ.
The following section attempts to reconstruct the timeline of transactions that preceded transfer of the land’s ownership to Maestria Properties Inc. in 2018. The site in question is divided into four numbered lots which we will refer to as L1, L2, L3, and L4.
2003: two limited partnership groups named “1190 Jeanne-Mance” and “1250 Jeanne-Mance” buy lots L1 and L2 for $1,7 million and $840,000, respectively.
2006: Lot L3 – at the intersection of Sainte-Catherine and de Bleury – is put under emphyteusis (a legal procedure of the Quebec Civil Code under which a building can be acquired for a period of time, with the agreement that the property’s value can be increased without compromising or changing the structure) by a group named “Société en Commandite Benadev”. L3 was the site where the Spectrum stood until 2007.
2008: Benadev is issued a mortgage of $1.25 million from the Laurentian Bank of Canada.
2011: L3 is sold to “9225-1404 Québec Inc.” for $12 million.
2012: L4 is also purchased by “9225-1404 Québec Inc.” for $1,9 million.
2018: All four lots are simultaneously sold to Maestria Properties Inc. for 70$ million.
2018: The market value of the project is evaluated at $700 million 31. To help you better understand the sheer magnitude of this sum, this single development holds five times the amount of money the City of Montreal put into social and affordable housing in 2020 ($140 million) 32.
2019: Otéra Capital (an affiliate of Groupe Desjardins) issues Maestria a loan of $550 million, presumably to cover construction costs.
The interesting part is that all these seemingly innocuous companies – 1190 Jeanne-Mande, 1250 Jeanne-Mance, Benadev and 9225-1404 Québec Inc – were either funded or managed (in the case of 9225-1404 Qc. Inc.) by the Fonds de solidarité FTQ, and that each was created within a year of their activity on this site. These types of companies– called limited partnerships – are neither rare nor new. As opposed to a company, composed of shareholders and managers, a limited partnership is composed of a limited partner (an investor who fronts the capital) and a general partner, who manages the capital provided. This format is safer because it distances the partners from the risks that their company faces and also allows them to limit their association to the time of their collaboration 33. For three out of the four of the numbered societies who speculated on the Maestria site, we consistently find the FTQ in the role of limited partner. As for “9225-1404 Qc. Inc.”, that company is registered as a joint-stock company with Normand Bélanger as president. Mr. Bélanger is also the president and CEO of the FTQ. To sum up, the FTQ began speculating on this site in 2003 with the help of other financial partners. By 2012, it had acquired the four pieces of land for a total of $16.4 million. Six years later, that same piece of land – with no construction yet on it – was worth over forty-two times that, at $700 million.
In a way, you could easily say that this sum emerged out of thin air. The lots that were initially bought for a few million dollars never physically changed, and yet their value morphed catatonically over the span of fifteen years. A financialized real estate system is recognizable when land is managed according to the laws of finance: in this case, speculation was used as a tool to generate money from money itself. In this way, the financialization of land overrides even the physical construction process itself. It is crucial to note however that the financialization of land does not apply strictly to the piece of land in question. It extends itself to the surrounding landscape, turning whatever social, cultural, environmental or even economic context it exists in into variables affecting the desirability of this land. Therefore when land is de-physicalized and governed as a financial asset, it is not only entirely decoupled from the aspects of its context that do not immediately affect its chances of generating a profit, but also free from needing to consider its socio-environmental consequences. As we have seen, as long as the actors behind a real estate project are wealthy enough and that there is some sort of demand on the market (regardless of whether this demand comes from a privileged minority), projects like Maestria can be conceived and brought to life amid contexts of a housing crisis and an environmental crisis.
4 _ Concluding thoughts
The world of finance might be invisible to most of us, but it has the potential to drastically alter our lives, determine where we can live, and change how our cities look and feel. As the cost of housing steadily increases in Montreal from year to year while incomes stay flat, housing construction is also on the rise. But instead of providing adequate places for people to live, this growth appears to be doing exactly the opposite. Indeed, it seems that, by favouring the most profitable form of residential construction and by ballooning the value of neighbouring land, a financialized real estate development is limiting people’s ability to house themselves properly. As in the case of Maestria, we see that the financial interests of their creators influence the very form of the buildings they create down to their exclusivity to a higher socio-economic class, effectively diminishing availability of land to non-financial actors and citizens.
The more we question the processes through which residential buildings are created, the more we begin to understand the forces that create them and the purposes they are meant to fill. As we’ve seen, developers in Montreal are increasingly reliant on large investment firms whose interests shape the way in which housing is developed. This shift has financialized housing , producing a landscape where land is exploited to provide returns to large corporations and not stewarded as a place for everyday citizens to live comfortably.
In a context of growing instability – whether in regards to public health, housing, the environment or the economy – the kinds of major developments that have marked Montreal’s landscape for the last twenty years lead us to ask what we choose to value as a society. How does the dominance of financial value overshadow the importance given to other forms of value – be they cultural, environmental, social, spiritual? What values are embedded into our city as this dominance progressively shapes and organizes it? In turn, who decides which forms of value dominate? The answers to these questions shape our daily lives, from the way we experience our city to the very chance we’re given to safely create homes, peacefully raise families, build communities and create meaningful lives for ourselves. The first step in re-implementing an equilibrium of values is properly understanding and questioning the processes that enable the dominance of one over all others.
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