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David-and-Goliath fight in Hampstead is a lesson in Democracy 101

WEEKEND READ | The fight to block a 10-storey highrise from replacing affordable housing united a neighbourhood against the mayor's vision. Now he's gone.

From left: Adriana Decker, Rosalind Smith, Elana Hersh and Andrew Martin gather outside the apartment buildings that became a focal point in the last municipal election.

After two and a half long years, the residents of twin buildings slated to be torn down on Côte-St-Luc Rd. in Hampstead can finally rest.

Being told to pack up and leave a home has become common for tenants across the island of Montreal. Increasingly, they’ve been seen as disposable in a metropolis that once thrived on affordable housing. Up against wealthy developers and often unaware of their rights, tenants tend to accept their fate or flee in fear — but not those on Côte-St-Luc Rd. When they were told in the summer of 2019 they would have to vacate the homes they’ve lived in for decades to make way for a 10-storey, 90-unit highrise, they said no .

A list of those who fought against the project would span pages — and it would include not just the tenants of the buildings in jeopardy, but also homeowners living nearby, all of whom strived to preserve the fabric of their neighbourhood.

“The reason people move to Hampstead is because it’s known as the garden city,” said Andrew Martin, a former tenant of one of the twin buildings. “If you walk around Hampstead, you’ll notice a perfect, clear skyline. You can even see the stars here … that’s one of the draws.”

Last month, then Hampstead mayor William Steinberg was voted out of office after 16 years running the wealthy suburb in central Montreal. Many who fought against his vision for the suburb felt the position he took by pushing for the construction of 10-storey highrises along Côte-St-Luc Rd. led to his demise.

“The mayor kept trying to force his way, and he was using all these anti-democratic means to do it,” Martin said.

Steinberg vetoed the decision when his councillors first voted against the demolition of the twin buildings in 2019, saying he wanted to postpone until a missing councillor would be present. At the following meeting, he broke a tie between the councillors by voting in favour of demolition .

A referendum was held in the fall of 2019 , during which Hampstead residents voted overwhelmingly against the proposed development . Homeowners on Queen Mary Rd. played a key role by campaigning for the referendum, in part because the project would have lined their backyards with a 10-storey concrete wall.

“(The mayor) didn’t respect the vision that this town had at its conception, and he didn’t respect the wishes of the residents,” Martin said. “He tried to make (the demolishing of the twin buildings) an ‘us vs. them’ situation, where it was the ‘poor’ tenants in the apartment buildings vs. the wealthier homeowners, but even the homeowners didn’t like his super-luxury condo vision.”

Adriana Decker is one of those homeowners. She became involved in the cause not because her home would be impacted, but because she felt the situation was unjust.

“It wasn’t right for my neighbours who live on Queen Mary Rd. and it wasn’t right for my neighbours who live on Côte-St-Luc,” said Decker, who campaigned for the referendum in 2019 and attended most council meetings in the two-year period that followed. “I think we are a very lucky town because we are a wealthy town. And if we, as a wealthy town, cannot afford to do the right thing, I have very little hope for the world.”

A list of those who fought the demolition of their apartment complex on Côte-St-Luc Rd. would span pages. Here are some of them, back row, left to right: Laurent de Moussac, Nathaniel Deac, Sharon Hyman, Patrick Demers, Felicia de la Guardia, Rosaland Smith, Elana Hersh, Michael Goldwax; front row, left to right: Clarita Llobrera and Marie Pontini.
A list of those who fought the demolition of their apartment complex on Côte-St-Luc Rd. would span pages. Here are some of them, back row, left to right: Laurent de Moussac, Nathaniel Deac, Sharon Hyman, Patrick Demers, Felicia de la Guardia, Rosaland Smith, Elana Hersh, Michael Goldwax; front row, left to right: Clarita Llobrera and Marie Pontini. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

Ignoring the resistance that had built up against the demolition of the twin buildings, Steinberg doubled down. In June, with the municipal election looming ahead, he introduced a surprise resolution to rezone a five-block stretch of Côte-St-Luc Rd. — between Stratford Rd. and Alpine Ave. — to allow the construction of 10-storey buildings.

At the time, he said the additional $1.8 million in annual revenue the highrise developments would bring in would help fund a new civic centre , complete with a gym, auditorium, teen lounge and café. But with a price tag of $20 million, many had concerns the centre would contribute to Hampstead’s debt, and council voted against the resolution.

Steinberg, who had staked his entire campaign on the upzoning of Côte-St-Luc Rd. , said his methods were the opposite of undemocratic.

“What would have been undemocratic was to hide my agenda and simply run on my track record — which is 16 years of what an awful lot of people think has been a very well-run town — then after re-election, spring on people that we have to move up to 10 storeys,” he said. “That would’ve been dishonest, and it would have been undemocratic, and it’s not something I’d do.”

Jeremy Levi, who had concerns about the debt the civic centre would bring the town, came out the winner in all this with 55.16 per cent of the vote tallied in the Nov. 7 election compared with Steinberg’s 44.84 per cent — a margin of 222 votes.

The tenants on Côte-St-Luc Rd. say the percentage by which Levi won corresponds to the percentage of Hampstead residents living on and around their street. Sharon Hyman, a longtime resident of the buildings who fought against the demolition from the beginning, is calling it poetic justice.

“It was the tenants that the former mayor treated as expendable and disposable plus the homeowners whose concerns he totally disregarded that won the election for the new mayor and got the old one evicted,” she said.

“Our win two years ago bought us time, but the incumbent was still trying to destroy the street,” added Rosalind Smith, who has lived in the twin buildings for two decades. “It came down now to this election where we had to really mobilize and get people to understand that it wasn’t about our buildings anymore, it was about the whole street.”

For residents whose homes have been hanging in the air for years, the idea that an affluent town like Hampstead would fund a civic centre through eviction was unconscionable. About one in five Hampstead residents are tenants, the majority of which live on Côte-St-Luc Rd.

“Surely they could have had a better plan to finance a recreation centre than to destroy lives,” Hyman said. “Côte-St-Luc Rd., this is a community and these are families, these are children, these are seniors. … These are people who look out for one another.”

The twin buildings on Côte-St-Luc Rd. are the kind of place where neighbours take the time to introduce themselves when someone new moves in; a community within a community where people genuinely care about each other.

“We are blessed here,” said Smith. “You don’t find that very often. … In this building, people have lived and died.”

Jeremy Levi, left, came out the winner in all this — with 55.16 per cent of the vote tallied in the Nov. 7 election, he ousted longtime mayor William Steinberg by a margin of 222 votes.
Jeremy Levi, left, came out the winner in all this — with 55.16 per cent of the vote tallied in the Nov. 7 election, he ousted longtime mayor William Steinberg by a margin of 222 votes. Photo by JOHN MAHONEY /MONTREAL GAZETTE

At his swearing-in, Hampstead’s new mayor publicly apologized to the residents of Queen Mary and Côte-St-Luc Rds.

“On behalf of council and the entire town of Hampstead, we want to express our sincere regret to you,” Levi said, acknowledging the anxiety tenants and homeowners faced over the past two and a half years. “Tonight you can sleep better knowing that this new council has your back.”

Avi Friedman, a professor of architecture and the director of the affordable homes research group at McGill University, said Levi’s words “should be cast in stone, put on a plaque and placed in city hall.”

“I’m very happy that this was the outcome, but of course much more needs to be done,” Friedman said. 

It’s up to governments to fund affordable housing and, when renovations are needed, to introduce policies forcing landlords to bear the responsibility of finding comparable alternatives for those they displace, he said.

“You don’t just throw people to the street,” Friedman said.

Echoing Friedman, Hyman said she’s not anti-landlord or anti-development, but “there’s a humane way to do it and an ethical way to do it, and this wasn’t it.”

When they began that David vs. Goliath fight to keep their homes back in 2019, the residents of Côte-St-Luc Rd. had no idea the ripple effect it would have.

“We decided that if we can even set a precedent just to fight back — not to win … that’s something,” Martin said. “But we got more than that, we got more than a precedent for fighting back — we got a precedent for fighting back and winning.”

For Elana Hersh, a tenant who fought tirelessly against the development project from the start, it was always about more than just affordable housing — it was about community.

“If you live in a community where everybody’s the same and everybody looks the same and does everything the same, then how are you going to grow, and how are you going to learn, and how are you going to develop?” she said.

“I think this gave an opportunity for people to learn about other people, to understand that these buildings aren’t just, as the mayor would say, low-income buildings — it’s where your teachers, your social workers, your PABs, your mailperson (live).”

kthomas@postmedia.com

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