Montrealers have always fought to keep rent low. What happens when they no longer know who or how to fight?
Tanya Dubois found the perfect apartment six years ago. The 1910 building on Parc Avenue, in Montreal’s Mile End, had the best location the then-twenty-five-year-old could have asked for. She’d sit on her balcony to see the twinkling lights of the Rialto Theatre marquee or to people-watch: hipsters, Hasidic Jewish families, foot traffic in and out of small businesses—all mainstays of the neighbourhood. She was on a first-name basis with her grocer and with the owner of the flower shop down the street. For $1,050 a month split with a roommate, Dubois was in her element.
There was also the apartment itself. It was the sort of place most Montrealers have lived in at some point; old hardwood floors that looked beautiful, even if they creaked when someone dared walk on them. An original chandelier—brass, maybe—hung over the salon, anchored by an intricate ceiling medallion. Other touches like the wall sconces, bay window and a stained-glass transom helped make up for the crooked bathroom vanity, cracked tile, uneven plaster walls and plaintive floors. It wasn’t perfect, but it was home.
She remembers the exact moment she learned she’d likely lose it. She was pulling on her boots and wool camel coat on Christmas Eve of 2017, about to head out for a holiday celebration at her parents’ house, when she heard a knock at the door. Opening it, she was greeted by a pair of strangers. The men got straight to the point.
“They informed me that they had just bought the building and that they were our new landlords and to pay the rent to them,” she says. Dubois was surprised—her landlord hadn’t mentioned anything about selling the building. They handed her a piece of paper, but it had no name, no phone number, no email address. Who and where should I send the rent to, she asked. They hadn’t thought of that. She fetched a pen and, using the wall as a backing, wrote down an email address where she agreed to e-transfer the January rent.
At first, she’d found the exchange “funny and strange.” But when she asked if they planned to do any repairs, one man’s answer immediately gave her a panic attack. “He said, yeah, that he was actually planning on doing a ton of renovations and evicting everyone,” she recalls. Shortly after, she and her roommate got an eviction notice.
Dubois and some of her neighbours banded together to fight the eviction, attending local housing rights workshops, poring over the website of the provincial rental tribunal, the Régie du Logement, and then calling staff at the Régie with more specific questions. Eventually, the group contacted a lawyer. The case would “be a breeze,” he told them; the landlords had evicted everyone on the premise that they would change the zoning of the building from residential to commercial—one of the only ways to evict people, in famously tenant-friendly Quebec—but it was impossible to change the zoning in that area.
Then they went to the Régie court—and lost, in a first-of-its-kind ruling. Judge Francine Jodoin noted that the new owners actually didn’t need to change the zoning. Rather, they could operate a vacation-rental business while maintaining their residential status.
Their lawyer was flummoxed. Jodoin, who has a reputation for being fair and meticulous, had dismissed his arguments without explanation, which was confusing, considering this sort of question had never gone to the Régie before. “Our case was setting a precedent,” says Dubois. “I don’t think that they realized how easy [that ruling] would make it for landlords to just evict people in mass amounts.”
In fact, the laws have since changed, with legislators trying to keep up to make such evictions far tougher. But unscrupulous landlords are also trying to keep up, to find new ways around new laws. And Dubois, of course, while the situation was fought out, still lost her apartment.
Welcome to Montreal in 2020, where a housing crisis doesn’t only mean that rent is rising, but that the very nature of renting—the rules that define this city, where it’s a tradition not to own your home—has been thrown into chaos.
Montreal has been a haven for working-class people who rely on cheap rent since the earliest days of the colony. The Irish labourers who built the Lachine Canal. The leather-workers who spent their days inside of Saint-Henri tanneries. The Jewish and French-Canadian tailors who stitched the latest fashions in Plateau and Mile End garment factories. The workers who bottled beer at the Molson Brewery. The musicians, artists and poets who flourished with a low cost of living and paid the city back with the rich culture from which it now profits massively by way of tourism dollars.
Now, with 45 percent of residents still living in rentals, Montreal has the second-lowest rate of homeownership in Canada—second only to nearby Sherbrooke. Some rent because they can’t afford to buy, but many choose to live in rentals. And why not? Montreal, unlike many cities in Canada, was intentionally built for apartment living; behind its beautiful, twisted wrought-iron staircases is dense, efficient plex-style housing, a rich supply of small units, many dating back to the turn of the century.
They are old places that have long since repaid their mortgages. And years ago, when rents were still impossibly low, Quebec devised a certain kind of rent control. The system is looser than that of Ontario, which has had rent control since the 1970s. Rather, it’s a series of mathematical equations released each winter by the Régie, suggesting what a reasonable rent increase would be for that year. Quebec landlords don’t automatically need to respect these suggestions—but if their tenants challenge them, the Régie will crunch the numbers and impose a limit.
Quebec renters could be forgiven for their longstanding self-assurance; their overall rights are elaborate, going well beyond rent control. A tenant can stay in their apartment as long as they please, with perpetually self-renewing leases, even if the building gets sold. On top of that, a renter can leave a lease early by transferring it to someone else, which locks in the rent and prevents a landlord from raising it in between tenants.
All of this once felt like a security blanket, a comforting fallback in case you ever got into a jam. But protecting the city en masse is a different task. The rules work well for renters who are savvy and stubborn enough to apply them. But it takes only one person’s failure to refuse a too-high rent hike to destroy an apartment’s future affordability, for example. Just one person neglecting to fight an unjust eviction can take a rental property off the market forever.
That’s a problem right now, because there’s unprecedented pressure on Quebec tenants, beyond what the most nightmarish individual landlord could create.
Some of the reasons are simple: the province is booming, along with the demand for housing. The threat of sovereignty has dissipated since the 1995 referendum. The economy is thriving, thanks in large part to high-tech jobs. The population is growing rapidly, with tens of thousands of migrants—fifty-two thousand in 2018 alone—settling in greater Montreal in recent years. “The main driver of that increase of net migration is what we call non-permanent residents—foreign students, temporary workers from abroad and refugees,” according to Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation economist Francis Cortellino.
Then there’s the whole Airbnb thing. Montreal has transformed into a tourist utopia, drawing more than 10 million visitors a year, many of whom want to “live like a local” by renting out short-term apartments in residential neighbourhoods. Real estate markets have responded in kind by building more and more luxury units.
And some of it is less simple. Even though short-term rentals eat up perhaps just one percent of the roughly half a million apartments on supply in Montreal, they have had an outsize impact on speculation and real estate investment—both of which have helped vastly distort the way people look at housing (but more on that later).
All of this has driven up rents to never-before-seen amounts in this city. Economists say the housing market is at equilibrium when the vacancy rate sits at 3 percent. In 2019, the vacancy rate for a two-bedroom in Montreal was 1.5 percent. Units with three or more bedrooms are scarcer still, with a vacancy rate of 0.7 percent. Montreal’s huge supply of rental units was able to insulate the city somewhat from previous perilous dips in vacancy rates. Not anymore.
Still: As Montrealers are used to hearing, Montreal rents may be bad, but they’re not Toronto or Vancouver bad. If they had a dime for every time they heard someone say that, well, they’d be able to pay the rent.
But Montreal is not like other places. Other cities may have failed to address rising rents in time to stave off speculation; in other places, the people who trusted governments to protect them were hung out to dry. But Montrealers don’t trust The Man to protect their interests. Instead, they’ve always believed they can band together, whether at street rallies, over drinks or in Facebook groups, to defend the fabric of the city.
This is probably why in other cities, too, blooming rent crises may not feel like such a bitter heartbreak. Montrealers built their proud legacy of affordable housing over the decades. Low rent is not just a quirk of the city; it is a consequence of its character and history. That’s why, to many locals, this isn’t just a shift in the real estate market, but a cultural collapse, a system collapse. For the first time, citizens and government are both fighting their hardest to preserve the city they know, but—for what also feels like the first time—it hasn’t been enough.
About a kilometre north of Dubois’s place, last June, it looked like a bomb had gone off. Worn couches, saggy mattresses and rickety kitchen tables were piled up on the edges of sidewalks. Sasha Dyck, a nurse, watched as his soon-to-be former neighbours stacked up their lives inside of cardboard boxes salvaged from local businesses and alleyways.
Up Parc Avenue from Mile End is a set of train tracks, with traffic-clogged boulevards running through a couple of gritty underpasses. Together, these have created the barrier to an enclave known as Parc-Extension, or Parc-Ex for short. Compared to Dubois’s neighbourhood, it’s devoid of trees and overstuffed with shabby housing. If the hip areas of the Plateau and Mile End have traditionally been home to university students, artists and musicians, Parc-Ex is where some of Montreal’s poorest families—most of whom are immigrants and racial minorities—have found shelter.
This is where you can really understand why, and how, this crisis is happening, at least if you spend enough time tracing the stories there.
Across Montreal, the end of June is not like in any other city. One of the city’s oddities is that most leases end the same day, on June 30—which means Moving Day for the whole city is on July 1 (and of far more consequence to most locals than Canada Day). This has always created a city-wide game of musical chairs, a moment when seventy thousand households pick up simultaneously and move, seeking a bigger place, a cheaper place, a better location, more responsible landlords. It’s chaos, but for years, it was relatively easy to leapfrog from apartment to apartment without too much of a bump in rent.
Musical chairs has turned into a bigger and more frenetic game. In Parc-Ex, on July 1 last year, cube trucks dotted the streets as people played Jenga with piles of boxes. But in retrospect, Dyck says, that day was only the boiling point for a long-simmering exodus. Months later, on a snowy December day, Dyck sat at his kitchen table and recounted how, on his block alone, nearly ten families had moved within a few months that year, his own included.
There were a variety of different reasons for the departures, he says, at least ostensibly: building renovations, other evictions, and even two eyebrow-raising building fires. But Dyck started to notice a certain pattern to many of them.
One neighbour, Elizabeth Carriere, asked Dyck for help after she and her ailing husband were evicted from their Parc-Ex home of seven years. The couple, aged fifty-four and sixty-eight, paid $695 a month—75 percent of their $920-a-month income—for what Carriere describes as a cockroach- and mice-infested ground-floor apartment.
The Carrieres’ son used to live in the unit above them. The year prior, he’d been a couple of weeks late on rent and neighbours watched as bailiffs tossed his belongings off the balcony and onto the street, kicking him out. Not long after, Carriere says, their landlord coaxed her husband to unwittingly sign a document agreeing to leave their apartment, which would allow him to raise the rent.
She tried to fight their case at the Régie by arguing her husband was in no state to sign any document, but she lost. Carriere was unable to find anything in the city for less than $850 that would accept her dog. The couple ended up living on a campground near the off-island community of Châteauguay for a week before finding a rental home near Joliette, seventy kilometres northeast of Montreal, for $900 a month.
One day at school pickup, Dyck’s across-the-street neighbour asked him for help, too. She told him a flood next door had filtered into her unit, leaving standing water in her basement. But her landlady was dragging her feet on fixing it, offering instead to allow the tenant to break her lease and leave.
Not long after that, Dyck saw the landlady in the alleyway. She approached him, asking him how much he and his wife paid in rent. He reluctantly told her it was $1,250, heat included (this is high for Parc-Ex; he’d not been given much time to find a good deal after his family was pushed out of their last place). “Good, good. I’m going to get some students,” the landlady replied. Shortly after, seeing no relief from the flood, the neighbour who’d asked for help left, spending her savings on Airbnbs while she searched for a new home.
“It’s not a good year to move unless you have to,” says Craig Sauvé, a Montreal city councillor who acts as the council’s main advisor on housing. He’s referring, in a sense, to the idea of musical chairs—don’t give up your lease unless you’re sure you have another one ready. In a normal game of musical chairs, one person is left without a chair to sit on. In Montreal’s increasingly high-stakes version of the game, there are hundreds. The city hasn’t seen such high numbers of people being left out on the street in more than ten years, Sauvé told me. Last Moving Day, one help line fielded 450 calls from people panicking as their leases ran out. The city helped place dozens of families in emergency housing, while others ended up in shelters or on friends’ couches. Overall, ninety-four households were left without a new home.
But Sauvé also knows that these days, the idea of “having to” leave has also taken on new seriousness. Under heavier pressure from many landlords, tenants often need to consider how much they can fight, and what they’re willing to put up with.
Sauvé has seen it all: Evicting people under the guise of major repairs, only to slap a new coat of paint on the walls and double the rent. Landlords self-sabotaging their own buildings by, for instance, trying to make their water pipes explode. “There’s some serious heinous action going on out there. We spotted a group [of landlords] that specializes in renovictions and getting rid of tenants. It’s crazy. It’s completely unethical,” Sauvé says.
That term is one I’ve heard Dyck use as well: “renovictions,” a portmanteau struck to describe how landlords drive tenants out under the guise of extensive renovations, as in Dubois’s case.
Dyck lends his spare time to volunteer tenant advocacy, which includes helping put together a local newsletter called “Voice of Parc-Ex.” The copy he hands me includes articles about biking and housing, including a satirical condemnation of landlords who take advantage of tenants. The back page lists resources, including for legal aid and housing. He and other locals also hold community meetings and stay active in online neighbourhood groups, constantly commenting on Facebook posts and responding to questions.
But it’s also becoming clear that the problem is not just greedy landlords or uninformed tenants. It’s that in so many cases, like Carriere’s, tenants do seek help and do already know many of their rights. And they still can’t hold onto their leases.
In the forty years since the creation of the Régie du Logement, its name has become an incantation in Montreal. Landlord trying to evict you? Call the Régie. Too high of a rent increase? Call the Régie. Did the Airbnb next door create a bed bug infestation in the building? Call the Régie.
Older Quebecers also remember that the province didn’t create the system out of benevolence. Quebec and its biggest city have grassroots tenant advocacy going back to the 1940s, in ways that seem foreign to other places. Labour and social organizations—a number of them led by women and members of cultural minorities—are credited with taking up the mantle of affordable housing during and after World War II. In her book on this history, Magda Fahrni writes, “This was a cause upon which the classes could agree: working- and middle-class Montrealers undertook parallel campaigns, and sometimes worked together, to demand affordable housing.”
The Régie was born in 1980, when René Lévesque’s péquiste government was in power. That government not only agreed to create the Régie, but worked to ensure Quebecers knew their rights by holding information sessions for seniors, students and new immigrants, and by taking out ads on TV and the radio.
But with each passing generation since then, the right and the privilege to challenge landlords has become less assured, at least for some. Take Parc-Ex: ever since the neighbourhood’s establishment in the post-war years, it has been a landing strip for new arrivals to Canada. Italians and Jews were among the first to settle there after the Second World War, building duplexes and triplexes. Gradually, they were replaced by Greek immigrants, who bought homes in the 1960s and ’70s.
Since then, the neighbourhood has shifted composition once again, as evidenced by the halal, dosa and curry restaurants that line main drags Jarry and Jean-Talon. In 2020, Parc-Ex is among Canada’s most culturally diverse communities. Two-thirds of residents are people of colour and 90 percent are either first- or second-generation immigrants, according to figures from Centraide/United Way. It’s also one of the poorest communities in Canada, with 38 percent living below the poverty line and many more spending most of their income on basic necessities. Almost everyone—79 percent—is a renter.
Today, many residents don’t speak French or English fluently and often can’t get legal advice. Many don’t know their rights, not having been given any kind of public education on the Régie. And those who do know their rights may stay quiet out of fear of eviction. This has allowed bad landlords to flourish, with many Parc-Ex tenants living in buildings pockmarked by mould and infested by cockroaches, bed bugs, mice and even rats.
But another major change has come to Parc-Ex, too. In the last year or so, a new breed of tenant has emerged: students. They came to study at the Université de Montréal’s new MIL campus, named for its position in the middle—“milieu”—of the city. It opened officially in September of 2019 in an old railyard sandwiched between Outremont and Parc-Ex. When the campus is complete in 2022, it will feature a collection of gleaming glass boxes containing thousands of students.
Many of those students—particularly those coming from outside the province—don’t know, and perhaps don’t care, about the difference between a good deal and a bad deal when it comes to Montreal rent. And though each individual student may only be in the neighbourhood for a short time, their cumulative effect is already destabilizing Parc-Ex’s housing situation. Just one tenant who accepts a $100 or $200 rent increase sets the apartment up for higher rents for the rest of that building’s life.
And this, of course, motivates some unrighteous landlords of other buildings—the ones where people do know their rights, where they will fight—to find some way, any way, to get rid of savvy tenants and take advantage of skyrocketing prices. Already, a cursory glance at online classifieds shows two-bedroom apartments in the area going for $2,000 a month at the high end—double, triple and quadruple the prices from just a few years ago.
Concerned citizens like Sasha Dyck protested the campus’s construction, warning of the devastating impact it would have on housing. Now, Dyck says the Université de Montréal has made no genuine efforts to address the housing crunch in Parc-Ex its presence is helping to create. “We’re not burying our heads in the sand, but our mandate is not to build social housing,” a spokesperson for the university told La Presse last June. But if it’s not their job to restore balance, whose is it?
Take a short walk around downtown Montreal at night and you’ll notice something that was unheard-of just a few years ago. Way south of Parc-Ex, in the heart of student meccas around McGill and Concordia, hundreds of apartments don’t have a single light on. No one lives there.
The rent crisis crept up on Montreal so quietly that people barely noticed what was happening. Around 2015, local developers were unhappy with a sluggish condo market languishing with unsold units. So they abandoned condos and began building rental properties. In fact, CMHC economist Cortellino tells me, the number of rentals being built hasn’t been this high since the 1980s, with ten thousand new rental “starts” per year in 2018 and at least that many in 2019.
But there’s a major price difference between a two-bedroom for rent in a quirky 1920s duplex with slanted hardwood floors, and a two-bedroom for rent in a brand-new apartment complex with a rooftop pool and private gym. Very few of the new units are social or affordable housing with subsidized or below-market rent. Cortellino says the average Montreal rent in unoccupied rental units is also tracking 25 percent higher than their occupied counterparts.
This building trend suggests that developers merely slapped a new name—“purpose-built rental housing”—on the same style of condo-like housing they’d been building all along. “Since 2011,” writes the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in a paper on rental housing, “increased rental starts have not been due to public funding or tax incentives, but rather answer a demand for new, mostly luxury rentals for people priced out of the [homebuying] market.”
This isn’t unrelated to the fact that a huge industry has also begun in Montreal, funded partly by foreign investment, explicitly dedicated to rent-flipping. For instance, Akelius, a Swedish-owned firm, makes its money by buying apartments, renovating them, then flipping them back onto renters at jacked-up prices. Akelius owns nearly four thousand apartments in the city, according to publicly available documents from the company.
But it gets worse. When we talk about real estate speculation, we often think about foreign—Chinese, or perhaps Swedish—investors. But foreign investors aren’t to blame for Montreal’s rental crunch. In fact, Cortellino suggests most speculation in the rental market is done at the local level by wannabe investors placing bets on the real estate market. In Tanya Dubois’s case, the people who took over the building lived within a ten-minute walk from her apartment.
This is all part of a phenomenon called the “financialization of housing,” a trend that has caught cities by surprise in recent years, thanks in one part to the 2008 financial crisis, and in another to the explosion of the Airbnb-style short-term rental market. According to the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing, financialization happens when housing is commodified and treated as a “vehicle for wealth and investment rather than a social good.”
“In developing economies, often informal settlements or long-existing neighborhoods located in ‘prime land’ are subject to evictions and displacement to make way for speculative investment. Residents are often rendered homeless, replaced by luxury housing that often stands vacant. The vast amount of wealth [the markets generate] has left governments accountable to investors rather than their international human rights obligations,” writes the Ottawa-based UN rapporteur, Leilani Farha.
This affects all kinds of housing. It helps create real estate bubbles for would-be homeowners, delaying the time when they’re able to buy their first home. It drives up property valuations and taxes for existing owners. It’s partly to blame for why so many storefronts stand empty around the city.
But the real fruit of housing market financialization is the short-term rental market. Though Airbnb and its ilk started as home-sharing—people renting a room of their own houses to travellers—it is now dominated by people renting out properties they don’t live in. This kind of temporary housing is often geared at tourists but is increasingly used by temporary students, workers, refugees and evictees, and it pays incredible dividends. Five nights of renting an apartment as a short-term rental can yield the same return as an entire month of renting to a long-term tenant.
Apartments can be left to fall into a certain degree of disrepair, because, well, what kind of three-day occupant complains about a loose faucet, leaky pipe or drafty back door? Danielle Kerrigan, a PhD student at McGill doing housing research, says many landlords she’s spoken with have admitted they prefer renting to short-term guests because it helps them skirt many of the legal responsibilities of being a landlord.
In the end, all types of short-term housing—student apartments, Airbnbs, forcibly truncated regular leases—are deadly to Montreal, even more than to most other cities. Montreal was not built to withstand this turnover. Its legal mechanisms—a tenuous hold on rent control, the tenant’s obligation to refuse increases, perpetually self-renewing leases—are built around the premise that if you wanted, you could stay in your apartment forever, plan your life around your rental the way other people do around the homes they own. Short-term rentals short-circuit this process, speeding up housing cycles to a pace at which Montreal simply can’t move.
Tenants are beginning to find new ways to fight. Now, every winter—right around the time the Régie publishes its annual percentages—Facebook groups for renters light up with questions from people crowdsourcing advice. Can my landlord claim building repairs as part of a rent increase? How can I refuse? Is an email enough, or do I have to send a registered letter? Answers sprawl across the comment sections, with people offering links and tips.
Facebook is an outlet—for outrage and information. In apartment-search groups, when landlords post ads asking for too-high rents, people simply comment “LOL” and “is this a joke?” When house-seekers write their own posts listing a maximum budget, group members advise them to remove the dollar amounts to avoid landlords hiking their prices.
But Facebook can’t solve everything. One major flaw in the Régie system is that tenants, even if willing to fight a rent increase, can’t easily know if a new landlord is lying to them about the last tenant’s rent. The most recent rent is supposed to be disclosed on every new lease, but it’s hard to fact-check the number the landlord scrawls down when you have no way to get in touch with the people who just moved out. But there are ways around that. “It’s Montreal moving day!” wrote one woman on Twitter last July 1. “Some reminders… leave your lease for the next tenant. somewhere the [landlord] won’t find it! You have ONE MONTH to register a refusal of rent increase.” People have been known to hide a copy of their lease in cupboards or other such spots—places where the landlord probably won’t see it but future tenants will eventually find it.
Community groups have pushed hard for two changes that would help tenants avoid this kind of desperate scramble to stay in touch. One is a provincial rent registry, says Maxime Roy-Allard, the spokesperson of housing rights coalition RCLALQ. These kinds of databases allow rent prices to be viewed by the public, providing transparency to new tenants. They are the unicorns of rental markets; few places have registries at all, and even fewer have ones that can be consulted without an access-to-information request.
Citizens have tried to create this on their own, too. A free, open-source website called MonLoyer.quebec popped up a while back, asking people to voluntarily input their rents. The collaborative tool, built pro bono by university students, has had some meagre success but lacks up-to-date information for most apartments.
An official, centralized rent registry would take this burden off regular people’s hands. But Roy-Allard says that while the minister responsible is “considering” it, he worries that the landlord lobby will quash it, along with other attempts to keep rents low.
The group’s other ask is real, binding rent control. Rent control, Roy-Allard says, would relieve tenants of their responsibility to refuse an unjust hike, and instead make landlords prove their rental increases are merited. In Quebec right now, “the burden is on the tenant’s shoulders,” he says.
Many solutions to what ails Montreal seem obvious, if not easy. Build more affordable housing. Expropriate delinquent landlords. Institute real rent control. Tenants’ rights groups have been asking for these things for ages, since before the crisis came to a head.
And some efforts have been made. Like in other jurisdictions around the world, the Quebec government is trying to get a handle on short-term rentals like Airbnbs, and it has gone further than many other governments. In 2019, it introduced fairly strict rules about who could rent, and for how long. It established that those who rent out their primary residence for fewer than thirty-one consecutive days will have to pay an annual fee of between $50 and $75, to register the unit with Revenue Quebec, the province’s tax collector, and to note their registration number on all online listings of the unit. Those who rent out a secondary residence on a short-term basis will be subject to different, tighter rules. Revenue Quebec is responsible for enforcement.
Reining in Airbnb is not enough, though, and the province seems to have stopped there. The minister responsible for housing, Andrée Laforest, has denied there’s a crisis. Her office didn’t respond to requests for an interview. Roy-Allard says the minister also balked at the idea that speculation was a problem.
Montreal is trying where the province is failing, experimenting with strict policies that have attracted attention across the country. One of Mayor Valérie Plante’s new measures is a bylaw known as 20-20-20, which will come into effect on January 1, 2021. This pioneering policy dictates that any new construction over fifty units needs to contain 20 percent social housing, 20 percent affordable housing and 20 percent family housing. Or, instead, the building owner can choose to make a financial contribution to social housing that is indexed to their project’s square meterage. Canada is generally new to this kind of inclusionary zoning, which means “including” lower-income people in new construction; even Toronto is still sorting out its own forthcoming policy. Elsewhere, such rules normally only require some prescribed amount of affordable housing, without allotting certain amounts of social and family housing.
The city also enacted a new power called preemptive right, which allows municipal government to call dibs on property should its owner ever elect to sell it. This unique rule could be used to, say, secure an apartment building and convert it into public social housing. Other cities struggling with many of the same problems are watching how these two policies shake out in Montreal.
There are some emergency measures that can help, too; to ensure existing housing is safe and sanitary, city councillor Sauvé mentions that the city has increased the number of building inspectors and is using new techniques to catch and fine delinquent landlords. Sauvé says these changes led to three thousand inspections in 2018—many of them surprise, spot inspections—up from about a thousand annually in recent years.
But really averting a rental apocalypse before it’s too late requires greater and faster collaboration from the province, Sauvé says. The Régie is still integral to preventing wrongful evictions and keeping rents fair, he continues, but it is funded and managed by the province, not the city. “We need the Régie out there in full force and properly funded,” Sauvé says.
Many tenants see things the same way—their rights may fall short, but it’s crucial right now to exercise them anyway. It’s arguably even worth it if they lose their cases, if only for the paper trails they generate. All Régie decisions can be easily found in a Quebec justice ministry partner’s database for free, by looking up a landlord’s name. Tenants can find a lot of information about their would-be landlords if they do their homework.
In any case, the battles rarely have a clear end. After a long back-and-forth via text, in which Tanya Dubois’s new landlord implored her to leave her apartment post-haste, the two parties agreed on a sum: he would pay her $10,000 and she would leave July 1. In Quebec, when owners repossess a building, they owe compensation to their tenants to cover moving costs.
The renovations began in early 2018; early in the morning, late at night, power and water randomly turned off without warning, dust everywhere. “It was like living hell,” Dubois says. When she left as agreed, the owners never paid her the $10,000. She says that after the Régie ruled in their favour, her landlords reasoned that they no longer owed her the money. Her small-claims court case against them has recently been approved, but she was told it could take up to three years to be heard.
After the takeover of Dubois’s building, she noticed she wasn’t the only one who hadn’t given up. One of her neighbours, whose eviction hadn’t been done fully by the books, created a Facebook event inviting dozens of people to report illegal Airbnbs. “If you see a combination lock box—often used for Airbnb keys—on city property, you can also call 311 to have it removed,” he advised.
On a grey Saturday morning in mid-December, I wandered onto the street I had lived on for nearly three years, in a three-storey fiveplex nestled between the Gay Village and the Plateau, near the glorious Parc Lafontaine. I rang my former neighbour’s doorbell. There was no answer.
I peered into the hallway through the glass-paned door. A pair of dingy white sneakers cluttered the entrance, but there were otherwise no signs of life—no paintings on the walls, no plants, no lights, no books. My neighbours had been an older artsy couple who smoked pot and drank wine on their back porch in the summer. It felt like they’d lived there for a hundred years. I had thought they would be lifers.
I’d stopped by to see what they knew about the building’s situation. I had lived in the three-and-a-half above them (in non-Quebec parlance, a one-bedroom apartment, with the bathroom forming the “half”). It had a large double room—bedroom on one side, office on the other—and high ceilings, original chair-rail moldings and a gorgeous wood-and-glass door separating the kitchen from the living room. By the time I left in mid-2017, my rent was $865 plus utilities, thanks in part to my own rent increase refusals. Overall, I considered it a decent price considering the prime location.
Recently, though, I’d spotted my old apartment on Kangalou, an online housing ad board, going for $2,400 a month. It was available on short-term leases only, the ad appealing explicitly to students and professionals wanting to live in the apartment for months, not years, at a time. How could that price be possible?
I was about to leave the building when a familiar white-haired man came down a spiral staircase next door. “Hey! Salut!” I shouted. André turned, a faint look of recognition washing over his face. He was the downstairs neighbour I’d been in search of. He and his wife had moved to the next building over, downsizing to a smaller place now that their son had moved out.
I explained why I was there and asked what he knew. “It’s changed a lot. It’s all Airbnbs,” he said, telling me that the grand double salons in his old apartment had been split into individual bedrooms. The building had been sold sometime in 2018. The only remaining tenant from my era, he said, was the family I referred to as the “porch-sitters”—a group of old-school francophones who, in the warmer months, sat on the porch from morning til night, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap beer. I’d hated being their neighbour, my only window directly above their porch, sucking in their smoke and incessant joual chatter. But at that moment, I found some comfort in knowing they’d been able to resist removal.
A few days later, I saw André’s former apartment listed on a Facebook group for Montreal apartment rentals, advertised as a nine-and-a-half with six bedrooms. The asking price: $4,400. According to the city’s property tax roll and the Quebec business registry, the building now belongs to a partner in a turnkey rentals company in Montreal that makes its money charging exorbitant rents in a renovate-and-flip scheme.
That company, registered as a business at the tail end of 2017, appears to be owned by three young men from Montreal—two working in finance, the other in home renovations. But the company is, in many ways, a ghost; its social pages are inactive, and the young men’s LinkedIn pages don’t mention their side hustle. The cheapest apartment on their site is a $1,400-a-month studio measuring just 350 square feet—just a touch bigger than a standard hotel room. Many of the apartments are also listed on vacation-rental sites.
My notifications lit up when I posted in the Facebook apartment-search groups, asking people to tell me about their rental woes. I ultimately received more than a hundred replies.
Some people said they’d simply given notice on their old leases, excited to find something better, before realizing what was happening to the city. Three years ago, Sonia Ksouri, a divorced mother of three, gave up the Rosemont three-bedroom she rented for $960 a month after her landlady, who lived downstairs, began incessantly knocking on the ceiling to protest Ksouri’s family walking around. But when she went to look at new places, she realized things were different, despite her good credit.
“They see that I wear a hijab…they ask how many kids I’ve got; I have three. I fill out the application form, but they never call me,” Ksouri explains in French, her voice tinged with anger. She’s been looking for three years while her family lives in a “horrible” two-bedroom in Saint-Léonard, much further from downtown and infested with cockroaches and rodents. In retrospect, she deeply regrets not sticking it out at the old apartment.
One woman I interviewed stayed in an abusive relationship for two years because she was unable to find a one-bedroom apartment within her budget. Many single people, including high-earning ones, said they simply could not find a decent place to live; one single woman and a male friend told landlords they were a couple to avoid the single-person discrimination. Another person only got an apartment when the previous tenant, willing to transfer her lease to a stranger but overwhelmed by applicants, pulled her name out of a hat.
In a sense, Dubois is happy her eviction happened to her. It could have happened, after all, to someone less stubborn or well-equipped to take the new landlords to task. The situation has been anxiety-inducing, yes, but it has also been an opportunity for her to help friends, and friends of friends, fight for their homes and their city—“such a unique, special city,” she says. Her protracted and gruelling battle has made her into a dispenser of advice and useful links.
She tells me this from Toronto, where she moved after her eviction, even if her phone number is still preempted by a 514 area code, the sign of a person conflicted about leaving. Dubois, a born-and-bred Montrealer, says “my whole family is there, and it’s hard not to have that support system, but…I don’t know. Right now I’m just kind of turned off.”
Still, living in Toronto is like living on another planet, she says. In Montreal, “people are able to dedicate time to their arts. They don’t have to work crazy jobs,” Dubois says. “Toronto—it’s insane. Everyone’s working all the time. It’s all anyone thinks about, it’s all anyone talks about. People...are working so much in order to pay these crazy rents.”
To Dubois, driving out her own city’s musicians, artists, bon vivants and vibrant cultural communities would be the ultimate shame. “We have such a beautiful culture in Montreal,” she says. What the housing crisis really threatens is homogenization: a distilled version of a city, boiled down to luxury condos and the people who can afford them—a city like almost any other.