Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, parts of Montreal face a worsened housing crisis
Avleen K Mokha
During a typical year, July 1 marks the end of many leases across Greater Montreal. The city is currently easing many restrictions placed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, moving houses during a pandemic remains far from easy.
However, residents and tenants’ advocates are worried many will have no choice to move – either to pay higher rents or end up on the street.
The Joseph family
Some families are saying their landlords are harassing them. Take for instance the Joseph family. Mr and Mr Joseph – who live with their three children – have tested positive for COVID-19. They are currently quarantining in a 5 ½ in Park Extension. Although they have lived in their current apartment for three years, the family says their landlord has been trying to force them out for many months.
In December 2019, the landlord filed for repossession. The closure of rental board hearings due to the pandemic has meant the Joseph family has been unable to take the matter to court.
In recent weeks, the harassment has escalated – with threats to change the locks, cut off water and electricity, and throw out the family’s belongings.
Mrs Joseph says her husband has pleaded with their landlord several times to leave them alone, to no avail. The landlord has been so persistent that he sent a visitor to the apartment, despite knowing at the time that Mr Joseph had tested positive.
The situation has taken a toll on the family. According to Mrs Joseph, children especially feel scared and discouraged.
The Joseph family is fighting for the right to stay in their apartment with the help of Committee Action of Park Extension (CAPE), an advocacy group for residents.
Amy Darwish, who works at CAPE, says that landlords are actively discriminating against families and hiking rent prices with the goal of attracting students looking for housing close to the UdeM campus.
The effect has been rent hikes lower-income tenants cannot afford. A report published last week by the RCLALQ showed the average rent of advertised units in the borough of Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension had climbed to $1121, with an average of $1509 for 5 ½ apartments.
Landlords have also been refusing to collect rent payments, according to CAPE. Darwish says landlords can refuse payment with the motive of later taking the tenants to court for non-payment.
“I have had many people tell me, ‘My landlord is not collecting the rent, what do I do?’”
CAPE acts in tandem with the Popular Action Front in Urban Redevelopment (FRAPRU).
According to FRAPRU, the number of tenants without a lease and looking for housing the day after July 1 is the highest since 2003. By comparison, 163 households in Montreal were looking for housing after July 1 in 2005. The data suggests the city’s rental market is a spike after fifteen years, with 182 tenants in Montreal looking for housing this year.
“FRAPRU remains very worried about the future if the Quebec government does not put in place adequate measures to better protect tenant households and does not quickly finance the development of new social housing to match the current need.”
Darwish warns that many families will face waves of evictions.
“July 1 is only the tip of the iceberg,” Darwish warned.
So far, all evictions were suspended due to the COVID-19 emergency. However, the rental board of Quebec is gradually lifting the suspension, starting July 6.
“Any plan to deal with COVID-19 and housing crisis must deal with evictions,” Darwish said.
The call to extend the eviction moratorium comes with the demand for more social housing units. But organizers like Darwish say development takes years, making promises of social housing insufficient to meet the need for housing.
Prevention instead of cure
Andres Fontecilla represents Laurier-Dorion, the electoral district which includes Park Extension, in the Quebec National Assembly. Fontecilla, who is also spokesperson for the Québec solidaire caucus on Housing issues, says the frightening future for Park Extension’s rental market has come from years of inaction.
“An emergency plan for July 1 is good, but a real strategy to fight the housing crisis would be much better,” Fontecilla said.
According to Fontecilla, a plan to create a supervised rent register can counter excessive rent hikes.
“When a simple phone call to Hydro-Quebec is enough to find out the energy costs of a home, why can you not find out how much the previous tenant paid for housing?”
If accepted, Fontecilla’s Bill 595 would allow apartment-seekers to know the rent paid by the previous tenants of any household.
Borough’s proposed ban on evictions based on conversions
The VSP borough recently took a measure to protect the rental market. On May 4 the borough council adopted a first reading of three regulatory measures. Landlords will now have difficulty obtaining permits to evict tenants to enlarge, subdivide, or change the use of their apartments.
This means permits cannot be issued for the reason of renovating or converting duplexes, buying more time for some tenants. However, the borough is doing a public consultation period.
A group of smaller landlords with families have mobilized against the adoption of the conversion ban. The anti-conversion group wants to create an exemption which would allow landlords to evict current tenants to convert properties into single-family homes.
However, Darwish believes exemptions to the borough rules would bring the issue closer to where it started.
“I really don’t think the borough should backtrack after taking such a good first step,” Darwish said.
“Ultimately, we will have to ask – which families do we want to prioritize: the families that can afford to buy homes, or the families that have been living here for years who happen to be struggling because of a pandemic?”
A version of this story appears in the print issue of Parc-Extension News, published on July 10. Click here to read the full issue.