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A rendering of Réseau Selection’s District Union project in Montreal.Reseau Selection

Réal Bouclin has over the past three decades built a mini-empire of seniors’ housing in Quebec.

His company Réseau Sélection is vying with Chartwell Retirement Residences – Canada’s biggest operator by far in the sector – for the top spot in the province. He’s also on the cusp of expanding outside Quebec, with projects for Toronto and Ottawa as well as plans for toeholds in British Columbia, the United States and even China, in the coming years.

A key element of his out-of-province growth strategy is to export what he calls Réseau Sélection’s trademark “Montreal Style” – a focus on hotel-like, à-la-carte services and choices on offer to residents. That’s in contrast to the package approach, which can come at a higher cost, more common in the rest of Canada.

Réseau Selection, based in Laval, Que., is also betting big on future growth based upon so-called intergenerational living spaces: residential complexes that incorporate a variety of housing formats to accommodate empty nesters, families and young people.

One of the company’s marquee intergenerational projects is District Union, in the rapidly growing off-island suburb of Terrebonne, northeast of Montreal. Phase one includes an 18-storey tower for active seniors in the 55-and-up age bracket. Plans also call for younger residents to be housed in apartment units clustered around common areas, such as kitchens and bike workshops.

“What we’ve achieved is all inside the buildings,” Mr. Bouclin says. As I tell my team: ’Real estate for real estate’s sake doesn’t really interest me. It’s successfully creating a community life.’

“That’s what we want to export outside Quebec: The Montreal Style that’s based on socializing, service, wellness, security. You feel like you’re living in a hotel, yet you still have the security, you have the activities, you have the recreologist, you have the doctor, the nurses, but you don’t feel the presence of those elements.”

Besides the obvious demographic of an aging population and the resulting healthy rise in demand for seniors’ housing, Réseau Sélection’s timing is opportune for a key reason. Its growth in the province over the past 20 years corresponds to an increase in the Quebec government’s reliance on the private sector to fill the rapidly growing need for seniors housing.

Critics say leaving such a critical component of social and health policy largely to the private sector ends up hurting the less-well-off and vulnerable because they simply can’t afford to pay for much of the housing being built by commercial interests.

On the other hand, proponents of a robust private retirement-home market contend it is more efficient than the public sector. The free-market-friendly Montreal Economic Institute recently published a study warning that the shortage of spaces in Quebec’s public system will likely get worse in the coming years, notably because of the lag in the government’s reaction time to increases in demand.

“Senior housing and care centres run by entrepreneurs already respond successfully to the needs of tens of thousands of seniors housed in private residences in Quebec,” MEI president and CEO Michel Kelly-Gagnon said in a news release.

Last December, just over 2,500 people in Quebec aged 75 and over were waiting – in some regions for an average of 15 months – for a housing spot in public long-term-care facilities to open up, according to the institute, citing figures from the Health and Welfare Commissioner.

Private residences currently account for two-thirds of seniors’ housing spaces in the province, according to the institute.

Montreal geriatric consultant Bonnie Sandler says that, for many seniors, moving into a retirement residence is simply not an option. “For some seniors, they just find the cost prohibitive,” she said.

Demand for seniors’ housing is not expected to fall any time soon. By 2036, seniors aged 65 and over will account for one quarter of Canada’s population, compared with 14 per cent in 2011, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. In Quebec, seniors who are 65 and over currently represent about 16 per cent of Quebec’s population; that figure is expected to hit the one-quarter mark by 2031.

Réseau Sélection has targeted clinching about one third of the 60,000 new units expected to be built in Quebec over the next 10 years; the company’s growth is fuelled not only by construction of new buildings but by acquisition as well.

Figures from the end of last year compiled by CBRE Limited indicate that privately owned Réseau Sélection had 36 seniors’ residences, for a total of 9,214 units, in the province; publicly listed, Mississauga, Ont.-based Chartwell had 9,810.

For the industry as a whole, “the pace of development in Quebec has certainly accelerated over the last few years,” said Sean McCrorie, senior director of the seniors housing and healthcare group at CBRE.

The province’s seniors have traditionally been much more receptive to the notion of living in a retirement residence relative to their peers in the rest of Canada, he said.

Past studies have indicated that about 17 or 18 per cent of people aged 75 and over in the province live in seniors’ housing, compared with an average of about five per cent across North America.

In Quebec, there is a wider capture by the industry of independent seniors at a stage in their lives where they are not yet in need of assisted care, whereas in Ontario – for example – the tendency has been for seniors to opt for retirement-home living later on, when assistance is more likely to be required, Mr. McCrorie said.

“Maybe [Réseau Sélection] can bring some unique insights and deploy that [à-la-carte] independent seniors’ apartment model in Ontario,” he said.

Mr. Bouclin, a former director of finances at a drug addiction centre who bought his first triplex in 1989 on a $10,000 line of credit, says Réseau Sélection is nimbler and more efficient than most of its rivals by dint of its vertical integration. The company builds, owns and operates its facilities and has its own construction firm, market analysis team, management group and other units.

“We think we’re the only one in Canada to be so vertically integrated,” he said.

Among Réseau Sélection’s major investors are Ottawa-based pension-fund giant PSP Investments and Stephen Bronfman’s Montreal-based private equity firm Claridge Inc.

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