The Montreal apartment building on the front lines of Canada’s rental crisis
MAY 10, 2021
Meet the tenants fighting the type of ‘renoviction’ that’s making affordable housing disappear across the country
The story of Le Manoir Lafontaine can be told by the banners that hang from the residents’ balconies.
One reads, “40 ans de loyer c’est ma vie ici” (40 years of renting, my life is here)” another refers to the landlord, “Hillpark never enough always too much,” and another describes “Harcèlement par inaction” (Harassment through inaction). On the back side of the building, a banner reads: “Bébéviction inacceptable” (Babyviction unacceptable) — a woman who is pregnant is one of the tenants being asked to leave.
Over a hundred people gathered April 23 on Papineau Avenue where it traces the border of the east side of Parc La Fontaine in Montreal. They stood outside the 96-unit Le Manoir Lafontaine apartment building, protesting the landlords’ attempt to remove the tenants from the building.
“I am not the owner of the apartment, but I am the owner of the life inside the apartment,” said tenant Daniel Garcia.
Brandon Shiller and Jeremy Kornbluth purchased the building in 2019. Late in the year, tenants received letters from the landlords telling them that if they left their apartments, they would be compensated.
Approximately 20 apartments are now vacant. This particularly irks Garcia, who says “that’s why people don’t find a place to live” in the city. The doors to some of those apartments have been left open.
At the end of March 2021, the landlords informed tenants via their company Hillpark Capital that they needed to make “urgent repairs and renovations” necessary to “ensure their safety and well-being” beginning July 1 and lasting up to seven months. The tenants, Hillpark said, would need to find somewhere else to live during that time and were offered three months’ rent as compensation.
The art of ‘renoviction’
Shiller and Kornbluth are notorious in Montreal. They are responsible for the rent hikes that forced much-loved cafe Le Cagibi to leave the Mile End. Recently, they purchased a number of buildings in Montreal’s Chinatown, leading to calls for the area to be protected as a heritage district. In February, firefighters evacuated the remaining 19 tenants of an apartment building in Côte-Des-Neiges owned by Shiller and Kornbluth. The other tenants had already left, having received offers of compensation similar to those offered to the tenants of Le Manoir. Those that stayed needed to be evacuated because of the increased fire risk caused by the renovations.
Le Manoir tenants did not accept the request to leave. The building needs repairs, a “bit of love” according to tenant Nadine Fréville, but they are not convinced that they need to be uprooted for up to seven months for those repairs to be carried out. They say this is an attempt to permanently remove them from their homes so the building can be rented out at a higher price, a process tenants activists in other cities have dubbed “renoviction.” Many of the tenants pay lower rents than the average in their neighbourhood of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal. Garcia pays $975 for a 4 ½ (two bedroom). The average rent as of October 2020 for a vacant two-bedroom unit in the same neighbourhood was $1,671, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
On April 21, the landlords filed with the Tribunal administratif du logement (residential tenancy board), an agency of the Quebec government that deals with disputes between landlords and tenants, seeking an order to force the removal of the tenants so renovations could begin. In Quebec, a landlord can make major improvements and repairs to a dwelling and require tenants to vacate their apartments for as long as necessary.
The Civil Code of Quebec provides two methods for landlords to evict tenants. First, landlords may repossess properties in certain cases where they or their family member intend to move into the property. Second, landlords can use Article 1959 of the Civil Code, which permits evictions for enlargement, subdivision or change of function (such as changing a dwelling to an office).
Margaret van Nooten, a social rights worker for housing advocacy organization Project Genesis, said that landlords attempt to evict tenants in a number of ways that are not explicitly permitted.
Some landlords say they are going to repossess the apartment and then do not. Van Nooten estimates that a majority of repossessions (“may be as high as 80 per cent,” she noted) do not in fact result in the landlord or family member actually moving in. Sometimes, van Nooten says, landlords verbally announce there will be major renovations and offer a generous payment to tenants for leaving. In other cases, landlords proceed with disruptive work and major repairs, and then call in the City to have the tenant immediately evacuated due to the unsafe conditions.
Sometimes landlords request temporary relocations for renovations, which often result in permanent relocations because of the disruption that moving causes to a tenant’s life. This, she says, is the situation facing the tenants at Le Manoir. Although they may have the right to return after their renovations are complete, in many cases they will not because of the cost and difficulties of doing so.
A 12-storey community
Le Manoir Lafontaine was built for Expo 67. It has 12 floors, a parkade, and a swimming pool on the top floor. Small, rectangular balconies punctuate the white, brick-etched facade. There are teachers, pharmacists, insurers, pensioners, and children living here.
Nadine Fréville lives on the eighth floor. She grew up 180 kilometres north of Paris and has been living in Le Manoir for 15 years. Her “life is here,” she says. She showed me around the building. To the right of the entrance, the windows are boarded up with wood. The security code to the building doesn’t work and there is wood patching a hole on the front door. Only one of the two elevators is functioning. The other one has been out of action since late February. On the 12th floor, the roof that tenants used to sunbathe has been locked because it is purportedly unsafe. On the same floor is the pool, which is not operational. Fréville points out washing machines that need repairs.
The landlord hasn’t fully outlined what the “urgent repairs and renovations” are. The tenants understand that there are issues with the roof that need attention, some individual apartments have leaks, and there is the possibility of asbestos in the walls — Fréville slaps a wall in the hallway: “Asbestos? Like at Concordia University?” The landlords maintain that the temporary relocation follows “the advice of the fire department, engineers, and the municipality.” They did not respond to my request for copies of that advice.
Fréville stops by Ginette Dreault’s apartment on the 11th floor. Dreault has lived here for 38 years. She has refitted the bathroom with a beige sink, toilet, and surfaces as well as gold faucets; retiled the floor; and painted the kitchen sage green and the living room a deep crimson. The living room has dark wood panelling. Her apartment is immaculate but for a tile that has been removed from the ceiling. There are large plastic bowls tucked in the gap between the ceiling and the floor above. Her apartment has a leak and despite requests, she says, the landlord has never done anything about it.
We go onto Dreault’s balcony to help hang her banner. It says, “Organisé!!” (Organized!!) and shows a number of fish chasing a shark. Maguie is sunbathing on her balcony on the floor below. She admires the banner. Maguie moved in when she was 28 and has lived here for over 50 years.
A Canada-wide rental crisis
In Montreal, most tenant leases expire on July 1. Tenants need to start deciding if they’re going to renew their lease a few months prior, and in March, Robert Beaudry, the council member responsible for housing in Montreal, advised tenants not to move “because it’s going to be difficult for them to find affordable housing.” That advice reflects the grim reality facing renters in Montreal and across Canada.
Statistics from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation show that the vacancy rate for tenancies remains low in Montreal outside of the downtown. In the neighbourhood of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, the vacancy rate for a two-bedroom was 1.4 per cent as of October 2020. (Anything under 2 per cent is usually considered low, and therefore advantageous to landlords.) In Montreal North, a lower-income neighbourhood, the vacancy rate for a two-bedroom was a mere 0.4 per cent. The average rent in Montreal for a vacant two-bedroom apartment at that time was $1,304. This was an increase of 3.6 per cent.
Photos that circulated on social media earlier this year captured what these statistics look like: a queue of about 40 people waiting to visit a two-bedroom unit in Verdun that was being let for $975 per month.
This same crisis is affecting tenants across the country in different ways. In New Brunswick, tenants are experiencing the largest percentage increases in rent in the country. Between March 2020 and March 2021, the average increase there was 4.8 per cent.
In Halifax, the homeless population doubled during 2020. In November last year, the Nova Scotia government imposed a 2 per cent cap on annual rent increases in response to soaring rents.
In Toronto, the main issue facing tenants is eviction due to loss of income, says Geordie Dent, the executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations. “COVID has cut the legs from under a number of tenant populations.” Right now, Dent explains, about 400,000 people in Ontario are facing eviction.
According to Vince Tao of the Vancouver Tenants Union, Vancouver has “perpetually been in a housing crisis for about half a century.” During the pandemic, he says, “speculation continues to rise.” At the start of the pandemic, Selina Robinson, who was the B.C. minister of municipal affairs and housing at the time, sought to speed up development timelines by reducing the consultation processes required for approvals. “Democracy around development, if there was such a thing, has completely gone,” Tao said.
To understand Canada’s housing crisis, we need to go back to 1992, Dent says. Nearly 30 years ago, the federal government stopped treating housing in the same way as other infrastructure like schools and roads. In 1993, it legalized the first real-estate investment trust. Housing, in the eyes of the Canadian government, shifted from being a public good to being a commodity to be traded like any other investment product. At the same time, more and more money started pouring into the housing market.
“We have a new wave of private equity firms,” Dent says, that are looking for a return on investment and have turned to Canadian real estate markets to receive those returns. These equity firms are not simply carrying out repairs on properties, but undertaking major renovations and sinking money into apartments, in the hope of renting or selling the properties at higher prices.
Turning houses into homes
The dispute at Le Manoir highlights two different conceptions of housing.
For some, housing is a reliable investment. It generates revenue for investors, developers, a landlord’s retirement. But for others, like the tenants at Le Manoir, it means something else. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Hollow City, “it’s the terms on which the most intimate aspects of their lives are played out: home.”
Daniel Garcia has lived in Le Manoir ever since he moved to Montreal from Cuba in 2013 with his wife and daughter. His daughter now attends a high school in nearby Rosemont. His wife teaches at a kindergarten in the community. Garcia describes La Fontaine Park as “our garden”: “We watched our daughter grow up here.”
Fundamentally, housing advocacy groups across the country are asking for governments and municipalities to look at housing as being a home rather than an investment product. The crisis at Le Manoir makes clear all that is taken away from tenants — their community, their friends, their garden, their childhood — when a landlord makes them leave their home.
On April 19, the municipal council of Montreal adopted a declaration requesting that the Quebec government establish a public register for renters. That would allow new renters to see the previous rents in a building and determine whether the landlord is now charging too much. Dent said that the equivalent in Ontario “worked well.”
On May 5, Quebec’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Andrée LaForest, said that creating the register would be too expensive. The declaration also asked the provincial government to revise the Civil Code to better protect renters, and for collaboration to find solutions to the problem of renovictions. Van Nooten says that “first and foremost” the province needs to repeal Article 1959 (which allows for evictions for enlargement and subdivisions). “Housing is too important a right to permit it to be legally undermined by alleging the project [are] protected by 1959,” she states.
Le front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), a housing rights organization in Montreal, is calling for Quebec to establish mandatory rent control. Currently, a landlord is free to ask for any rental increase that they would like. For buildings more than five years old, the tenant has the right to refuse an unreasonable rent increase. If the landlord and tenant are unable to come to an agreement, the landlord can go to the Tribunal administratif du logement for a determination.
Outside of Quebec, different proposals have been suggested to respond to the particular needs of other provinces.
In New Brunswick, a number of organizations, including the New Brunswick Coalition for Tenants Rights, wrote to the premier seeking, among other things, a moratorium on evictions and the introduction of a rental cap of 2 per cent retroactive to September 2020.
In Vancouver, Tao considers that the fundamental change needed in Vancouver is “a cultural shift around tenancy and land ownership.” People need to appreciate both how severe the problem is and the kinds of tools available to fix it. In Toronto, the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations wants more funding for tenants’ rights and education, as well as the enforcement of existing laws, which Dent says are “just not being enforced.”
“We believe in this really radical notion that landlords ought to follow the law.”
Throughout Canada, more social housing is needed. This was stressed by many of the organizations that I spoke to. In Montreal alone, about 24,000 families and individuals are on the waitlist for subsidized housing. In the latest budget, Quebec’s government committed to building only 500 new units for the whole province. In the latest federal budget, Canada’s government increased funding for housing-related programs by $2.5 billion, but advocacy groups like the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association say it is not enough.
The patchwork of banners hanging from the balconies at Le Manoir gets to the heart of the tenants’ concerns: the landlords have neglected the building and now the tenants, who have built and spent their lives here, whose sense of self is bound up in their homes, are being told to leave during a pandemic, a housing crisis, and a recession.
Until the Tribunal decides the case, the tenants must live with looming uncertainty about their futures, enduring what Garcia described as a “psychological war” with their landlords. Across Canada, people are feeling that uncertainty about whether they can find a home or stay in their home.
For now, though, Garcia remains upbeat. “We’re still happy,” he says. “We fight to keep our happiness there.”
[Top photo: The first few floors of Le Manoir. (Duncan Fraser McLachlan)]