For Rachel, home is much more than the four walls that surround her.Home is a friendly neighbourhood, spending time with her granddaughter almost every day, and a short bus ride to and from work. It’s where she spent nearly 30 years of her life.But home also is the four walls that surround her: It’s the paint she bought to spruce up her kitchen last year, and her bedroom and living room the year before that.“I grew up here,” she said. “I’m 49 and I’ve lived here since 21 in this house. Yes, I’ve travelled, but I’ve always come back to this building. I’ve lived in three apartments in this building. I have a neighbour who’s been here since ‘92.”
Like thousands of Montrealers over the past few years, Rachel was recently asked to leave that home behind. She and many of her neighbours in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce were given eviction notices this spring, after a group of buildings was sold to the same owner. (Rachel’s real name is being withheld to protect her from repercussions.)
What’s happening to Rachel isn’t new, but it is trending upward: More and more Montreal buildings are being purchased, emptied out, flipped and leased for sometimes up to double the rent.
Montreal was once known as Canada’s rental city — a safe haven for musicians, artists and others who counted on it for affordable rents. But that portrait of affordability is changing — and rapidly — as the city faces the increasing pressures of a red hot real estate market, fuelled by low interest rates and an economy only slightly dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With would-be home buyers stuck in rentals and rents increasing in the city, people like Rachel who are told to leave to make way for renovations have very few options about where to go.
Data from Quebec’s rental housing board, the Tribunal administratif du logement (TAL), shows requests to contest a notice to “subdivide, substantially enlarge or change the allocation of a dwelling” increased by 142 per cent between the years 2018-19 and 2019-20, the most significant increase over the past five years. According to the Regroupement des comités logement et associations de locataires du Québec (RCLALQ), most renovictions are settled outside the TAL, meaning the data is just the tip of the iceberg.
“They’re settled between landlords and tenants, but often with pressure, with money that’s offered, with threats, with renovations that are done and the life of tenants becomes really miserable,” said RCLALQ spokesperson Maxime Roy-Allard.
At the centre of every renoviction are people fighting to keep their homes, others who are too intimidated to try, and landlords who show seemingly little empathy toward either. Tenants are left to fend for themselves.
“It’s just … (the landlords) don’t give a damn about nobody,” Rachel said. “They don’t care. And it’s very evident in how they do things — they don’t care.”
And when renovicted tenants do look for a new place to live, they face steep challenges.
On the eve of July 1, what is traditionally known as Moving Day, Mayor Valérie Plante said Montreal is actively supporting 97 households at risk of being unable to relocate to a new rental unit. A study by RCLALQ shows the average rent for Montreal apartment has increased by 8 per cent over last year, to $1,302. The average for a two-bedroom stands at $1,349, an 11-per-cent increase from last year, and $1,716 for a three-bedroom or larger, a 15-per-cent increase from last year.
Avi Friedman, a professor of architecture and the director of the affordable homes research group at McGill University, says one of the factors contributing to the dire rental situation in Montreal is a significant demand for condo units, motivating developers to build for buyers instead of renters.
“What this has done is shrunk the number of rental units in the city dramatically, which means that when developers are using renovictions as an excuse to let people out, they have very few alternatives about where to go to and where to live,” Friedman said. “What we are witnessing is a very serious situation that affects renters in the city, or would-be renters in the city.”
Renovictions in buildings that have been neglected and are in various states of disrepair are not illegal, Friedman added.
But many landlords try to push people out when their homes are safe to live in. Tenants are currently fighting what they believe is such a case at Manoir Lafontaine, a high-rise apartment building facing La Fontaine Park in the Plateau-Mont-Royal that has come to symbolize the resistance to renovictions in Montreal. The owner of the building, Hillpark Capital, for its part says the building is in need of major renovations. As with so many such cases, the TAL will be where complaints are heard.
It’s unclear where those who choose to leave their apartments end up, particularly since so many can’t afford to make the leap to home ownership. Montrealers have shared photos online of long lineups at open apartment viewings when the odd, relatively affordable place becomes available. Some have said in those scenarios, landlords will rent to someone who offers to pay a little above asking price.
Friedman said those who tend to be most impacted by rent hikes are families.
“You know if I’m looking at my students, they usually share,” he said. “They have a roommate, and they share, split the rent between them. So, if say, there are three bedrooms and the cost of the apartment in the outskirts of the city, say Parc Extension, is $1,500, each will pay $500. But what is a family to do? They are in a really, really dire situation.”
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Friedman explained, it was common for people to live on the bottom floor of their duplex or triplex and rent out upper floors to tenants.
“In the 1970s, this stopped because of interest rates and so on,” he said. “So you don’t see now that type of tendency to build a duplex or triplex and rent out units — it doesn’t exist.”
Today, much of the city’s rental housing belongs to a handful of owners.
“Ninety-five per cent of all the housing that is constructed in Montreal is by the private sector, and the private sector is not motivated by the goodness of their heart,” Friedman said. “They are motivated by profit.”
Tenants, affordable housing advocates and opposition parties are calling on the provincial government to make Quebec’s rental board, the TAL, keep a public register of rents in the province, so new tenants can see what previous tenants were paying. There’s a section on Quebec leases to indicate previous rents, but nothing to ensure landlords are filling it out truthfully or at all, said RCLALQ’s Roy-Allard.
“The register must be combined with mandatory rent control, meaning each year, the government should put out a maximum percentage increase, and the owners cannot increase above that,” he said. “It’s really those two measures together that could fight most efficiently against renovictions, since the goal of renovictions is to increase rents quickly, get rid of tenants, re-rent them, sometimes do renovations … but sometimes there aren’t even renovations, it’s just a pretext.”
Some tenants have taken matters into their own hands by taping their leases in inconspicuous places — like in a kitchen drawer — when they leave their apartments; a breadcrumb for future tenants who can then ask for lower rent if the difference is more than what’s allowed.
But many tenants don’t know their rights, and many who do aren’t inclined to fight for a variety of reasons, according to the RCLALQ, Friedman and tenants who’ve been through renovictions.
A few years ago, Rebecca Bain was told to leave her apartment in a St-Henri sixplex after it was sold to a new owner. She fought and won.
“In the end, those of us who wanted to stay, we stayed, but all the other apartments in my building, they were renovated,” she said. “When finally I had new neighbours and I was checking out the ads on craigslist and so on, I found out that my neighbours, who have not a bigger space than me at all, it just looks fancier, they’re paying double what I’m paying. Double.”
She told the first person who moved in that they could contest the rent, but they responded they’d come from Manhattan and that Montreal rent was pennies in comparison.
“It’s just that the problem is that if the tenants know their rights but are willing to let the landlords do what they want anyway, just so they can get an apartment, it doesn’t help anybody,” she said. “It’s not just knowing your rights, but you have to be willing to fight.”
Bain has lived in St-Henri for 15 years — enough time to see the neighbourhood change. She said most of the change she’s noticed has occurred in the past five years.
“A lot more people coming in from out-of-province, which, nothing against them, but I think that helps the gentrification because they don’t know what people are dealing with here, and as I said, many of them are prepared to pay more rent.”
The RCLALQ has documented a similar timeline for the increase in renovictions in Montreal. The trend is beginning to trickle into neighbourhoods that have been sheltered from it in the past, like St-Leonard, Montreal North and Côte-des-Neiges.
“They didn’t see evictions hardly ever before, and now they’re seeing a lot of them,” Roy-Allard said. “It’s a phenomenon that’s really accelerating.”
Some tenants have described experiencing more subtle renovictions in which they are never expressly told to leave, but essentially annoyed out of their homes, like Brian Joseph.
When Joseph’s building on the border of Westmount and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce was sold to new owners, they began to renovate — the basement at first, and then some of the units. His partner, a nurse who works at night, had to sleep at her parents’ house because the noise was so unbearable.
“When she told me it’s noisy in the day, I figured it’s noisy to the point where she can’t sleep, so I understood that. But we’re talking it sounded like they had jackhammers just going constantly,” Joseph said. “We were just always asking them how long is this going to take? Why is this taking so long? When is it going to be done?”
The renovations made it impossible for the tenants to reach the garbage room without having to go outside in the dead of winter, and restricted access to some of the communal washing machines. Joseph had to do his laundry at the crack of dawn on weekends if he wanted clean clothes.
“That’s one thing that I think they count on — that by stressing everyone out, everyone starts to get a little annoyed with each other, because we all start living in this building together and the resources we used to share that were barely enough, now 100 per cent aren’t enough,” he said. “It got to the point where we were just like, we can’t stay here.”
Luckily, Joseph was able to find something else that worked for them. But as time goes on and little is done to put a stick in the spoke of the wheel that is renovictions in Montreal, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to relocate.
The solution to Montreal’s housing crisis is a number of things, one of which is the construction of more affordable housing.
“If the city of Montreal would like to keep the residents here, I believe that housing needs to be a key to making the city populated,” Friedman said. “Similar to the seriousness that we took — it took us a few decades, but we are building an amazing transit network. We should place as much energy and funds into improving our housing situation.”
Last November, Plante unveiled a new version of her 20-20-20 housing bylaw requiring developers to include social, affordable and family housing in new projects. She estimated the bylaw would result in the construction of 600 social housing units and 500 family units each year.
The provincial and federal governments also granted $100 million to the Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal in May to renovate 517 low-rental housing units.
But is it enough?
Beyond making a city more attractive to outside individuals and companies, thus contributing to its economic growth, housing is also a human right, Friedman said.
“It’s not a privilege. Housing is a subject that needs to be regarded as an obligation that comes along with being citizens of Quebec, or Canada, or Montreal.”
“It is demonstrated that the private sector is not motivated by platitudes and good intentions,” Friedman added. “So it is now the responsibility of either the provincial or the federal government — or both” to impose solutions, he said.
Rachel fought her renoviction and has been able to stay in her home so far. She’s the last woman standing. If and when she decides to leave, it will be on her own terms.
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