The House of Rebels: Affordable cohousing comes to North America.
I live in a corner of North America, the Canadian province of Quebec, where a lot of good news is missed by the wider English-speaking community for a lack of translation; the history of La Maison des RebElles is one of those stories. La Maison des RebElles, which translates to The House of Rebels (Elle is capitalized as it means “her”), is a collective that has been working for over four years to establish North America’s first affordable collaborative housing community for 55+ women — in particular, lesbian and bisexual women and their allies.
The group has 11 founding members, ranging from 60 to 72 years of age. The final community will include 20 units for singles and couples and will include a co-designed common space for meeting, exercising, and dining together. This project will be part of a larger complex of buildings that include market condominiums, social housing, an early childhood center, and commercial space. One quarter of the 400 units of housing destined for the site will provide some form of accessible housing. The project is in a bustling urban location, walking distance from the metro, and next to an extensive network of bike paths along the Lachine Canal.
Many of the women have long been active members of the social justice community, working on the front lines of women’s liberation and gay rights in the ’60s and ’70s. Their initial goal in creating La Maison des RebElles was to create the first affordable housing project oriented towards aging lesbians, who face specific challenges while aging. For example, one member of the community had visited a retirement community and asked if they accepted members of the LGBTQ community, and was told “well, we aren’t allowed to discriminate.” Not the kind of welcome one would expect in friendly, open-minded Montreal. This set off a process of reflection on the process of aging, as well as supportive aging in community.
One of La Maison’s founding members, Lou Lamontagne, suggests that straight and gay people of her generation have had very different lives. Many elderly members of the LGBTQ community face the possibility of a return to the closet as they age. Not so for the community behind La Maison des RebElles. While many members of the community do not have support from their families, they have instead learned to rely on one another over the years. They wanted to formalise this commitment via the creation of a physical community and after four years of meeting and talking, the project is slated to start construction in 2022. This model of development allows for people of low and modest means to live together and leverage the financial capacity of some members of the community to develop something more functional and sustainable than otherwise found in social housing projects in the city.
How did they manage to pull this off? I’ve spoken with many people involved in the development of cohousing and other forms of intentional communities and have encountered the same notion time and time again: “there is no such thing as free money.” This has been a limiting factor in the development of financially accessible communities for many years. North Americans look longingly to European models of community development and sigh, “but not here.” Yet here — in North America — members of La Maison des RebElles will pay below market rates, and low-income members will never pay more than 25 percent of their income on rents, even within the current real estate market. Few people in the English-speaking world are aware of how Quebec serves as something of an international model for the “social and solidarity economy.” It’s a peculiar network of services paired with a cooperative financial ecosystem that makes projects like La Maison des RebElles possible. It’s part of the reason that more than half of all cooperative housing in Canada is in the one province of Quebec.
There is such a thing as free money, but it’s not what you think. Some people have been lucky enough to inherit family wealth, be it a few thousand or million dollars, simply by virtue of their birth into a given household. Over time, this wealth can accumulate and compound disparities between those with who have access to this money and those who don’t. Communities that have faced historic oppression are particularly vulnerable to the chronic insecurity that emerges without wealth. But, as Lou put it, “any survival situation can breed solidarity and a system of co-care and support.” And that is what happened in Quebec, where a social economy was developed to sit alongside the profit-seeking economy and the public sector. This tends to happen where there is a pairing of significant unmet needs and a shared collective identity. Both of these exist in any number of under-serviced communities in both Canada and the US.
In the Quebec context, where French-speaking Catholics were for generations excluded from wealth-generating activities, an interconnected system of non-market actors emerged to help communities out — typically via the creation of mutual support organisations, such as cooperatives, mutual societies, and enterprising not-for-profits. People create these when they want to transform individual wealth into collective well-being. Today, these organisations employ 220,000 people in 11,200 companies and generated revenues of $47.8 billion in Quebec last year. Most of this system was developed over the last 30 years when important structural changes were reshaping the economy and society, a context similar to the situation today — conditions of social exclusion, growing inequality, and entrenched individualism. While individuals within the larger community were tugging at their own proverbial bootstraps, there was a desire to bring everyone up together.
How this looks today is exemplified by the development of a non-market project like La Maison des ReBelles. Real estate is a challenging industry and a key predictor of success is previous experience, making it hard for middle- and low-income people to take control over their own housing on a project-by-project basis. In the case of La Maison des ReBelles, when they decided they wanted to build their community, they contacted a local nonprofit technical resources group, Bâtir son quartier (BSQ) and were paired with Manon Bouchard, a development agent. She has years of experience and a whole team of experts to help. BSQ is one of 25 technical resources groups in Quebec and is a social economy enterprise that doesn’t just manage the development of space, they also provide training on cooperative management and communications. Since 1976, BSQ has made almost 12,000 units of not-for-profit and/or cooperative community housing in Montreal. Their funding largely comes from a development fee appended to the budget of successfully completed projects, though part of their expertise includes understanding how to leverage grants or subsidies for accessible housing made available through foundations and all levels of government.
One lesson we can gather from how La Maison des ReBelles has come to be is that social justice issues require a systemic approach with a vision of community-level transformation. The Quebec model demonstrates that this is possible in conditions of systemic oppression — but it takes time and commitment to the larger vision of raising everyone together.