If this was supposed to be a joke, no one told Frieda Weinstein.
The only thing standing between her apartment and a room contaminated with asbestos is a sheet of plastic lining not quite thick enough to be a shower curtain.
“Standing” might be a bit of a stretch in this case. It actually dangles from a strip of tape, allowing carcinogens to float into the home that Weinstein shares with her chronically ill husband.
The tape came unglued Wednesday.
This is the latest in a series of problems that have arisen since Weinstein’s west end apartment complex was sold to LS Capital Group in 2019. The Montreal firm has a track record of buying up old buildings and using major renovations to evict tenants so they can jack up the rent and sell the property at a profit.
Emails obtained by Ricochet show that LS Capital has been aware of potential asbestos contamination at the Coolbrook Ave. complex since September. But that didn’t deter the company.
Instead, demolition went ahead until it was shut down by Quebec’s workplace safety board, in December, after an inspector discovered asbestos on site. It was only on Jan. 22, four months after promising to test for carcinogens, that LS Capital finally acknowledged the problem in a letter to tenants.
Their solution? They told the few remaining tenants on Coolbrook Ave. to take their things and leave by Feb. 12 so their homes could be decontaminated. In other words, after knowing about an urgent problem for months, the owners gave tenants three weeks to take their asbestos-covered belongings and leave in the middle of winter. It was unclear when residents would be able to return.
The company offered a few months’ rent as compensation.
Renovicting in a pandemic
Experts say that even amid a pandemic, the practice of “renovictions” is thriving in Montreal.
Last summer, 479 tenants in the city asked for emergency assistance in finding a new home as their leases were set to expire. Of those, about 40 per cent were forced out so the unit could be renovated, subdivided and leased to new tenants at a much higher price, according to a study by the tenants’ rights group FRAPRU.
With vacancy rates at a 15-year low in Montreal last summer, rental units being advertised online were about 43 per cent more expensive than market averages, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
The pandemic does not appear to be slowing things down.
“At first, it looked like maybe COVID-19 had put a stop to things,” said Patricia Viannay, a community organizer with POPIR, another tenants’ rights group in Montreal. “Usually, we would see eviction notices start to roll in around October so people could leave by the summer. That didn’t happen this year.
“But when we got back from our holidays, we realized that the eviction notices came around Christmas. We’re seeing it a lot in neighbourhoods in the Sud-Ouest borough, we’re seeing cases of intimidation where landlords didn’t file their paperwork in time but they’re making their tenants’ lives difficult to get them to leave.”
Viannay is working with tenants in St. Henri, where an investment group has successfully evicted 20 of 43 tenants in one complex. She says that the units that have been renovated were put back on the market at double their previous price.
“It’s a way of getting around rent control, of maximizing a return on your investment,” said Viannay. “But in the process, you’re exacting a huge toll on working families and vulnerable people.”
Weinstein and her neighbours don’t mince words when it comes to LS Capital.
“They’ve put us through hell,” said Weinstein, who has lived in her apartment since 1989. “The heating in my kitchen barely works anymore. I have to use the oven to keep it warm. I can’t use my washer and dryer because they’re covered in asbestos. We’re living above a major health hazard.” The first interaction between LS Capital, Weinstein and her neighbours came in the form of a December 2019 legal letter asking each of them to leave by the end of their lease so the firm could begin renovating the apartments.
Weinstein’s neighbour Moussa Kouriat says the pressure has been relentless.
“One of the (LS Capital workers) told me, ‘What kind of a place is this to raise your family,’” said Kouriat, who lives with his wife and two young children. “They told me it would be best for me to leave.”
Weinstein says she feels she’s being intimidated.
“Just the other day, someone left an ad in my mailbox for an apartment available in April. Before that, I had someone leave a business card for a moving company on my windshield wiper.
“They’re not terribly subtle.”
Weinstein claims someone recently took a baseball bat to her car. There is no evidence linking that act of vandalism to her landlords, but the experience rattled Weinstein.
The tenants have tried to fight back. They’ve spoken to their city councillor, to their borough mayor, they’ve called the workplace safety board and, when things got heated, they even got the police involved.
Nothing seems to have eased the pressure.
“The whole point of renovictions is for tenants to live in a constant state of fear,” said Viannay. “People can resist, they can get the rental board to rule in their favour but they live knowing they’re not wanted, knowing that they’ll eventually be forced out.
“It’s an awful thing to do to someone.”
A ‘95 per cent tenant removal rate’
This isn’t the first time LS Capital has faced off with its tenants.
Rental board records show six cases where LS Capital CEO Joseph Shaffer tried to evict his tenants using “major renovations” as the justification. Each time, the board ruled against him.
But these are just the cases that made it before a tribunal. Most are resolved outside of court and leave no paper trail.
Media reports and public records show LS Capital has evicted tenants in Verdun, Côte-des-Neiges, the Plateau-Mont-Royal and Côte-St-Paul. They’re now active on Coolbrook Ave. in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, a neighbourhood where roughly one in four households lives below the poverty line. %highlight %center Removing tenants is essential to LS Capital Group’s business model.
The four buildings in N.D.G. aren’t directly owned by LS Capital but rather by 4741-4763 Coolbrook Avenue Limited Partnership. That company’s primary shareholder is Joseph Shaffer, the CEO of LS Capital Group.
“They set up a situation where it’s unclear who your landlord is or how you can reach them,” said Viannay, who defended elderly tenants against LS Capital two years ago. “They make it as hard as possible for you to know how to fight back.”
I first came across LS Capital in 2019, for a story that couldn’t be published because my sources were afraid to go on the record. Back then, I spoke to a 54-year-old woman I’ll call Cheryl about her pending eviction.
Cheryl used to rent an affordable apartment near Jolicoeur metro in Montreal’s west end. She lived there so she could care for her son with special needs and ailing mother in a neighbourhood they’d known their whole lives.
Her first contact with LS Capital was an eviction notice delivered by a bailiff five days before Christmas.
“All we have in the world is each other,” said Cheryl at the time. “I’ve been looking in the neighbourhood and the cheapest place I can find is twice what I pay now.”
She held out for almost two years, enlisting her city councillor, renters’ rights groups and legal clinic lawyers in hopes that she could keep her home.
In the end, she moved out.
Removing tenants is essential to LS Capital Group’s business model. Its website once boasted about a “95 per cent tenant removal rate” next to other statistics designed to attract investors. That entry has since been removed from the site, but the firm’s stated goal is to buy, renovate and flip a property in an 18-month timeframe.
It’s difficult to do that without evicting people.
A tenant warns of asbestos — and gets a sample tested
The situation on Coolbrook Ave. escalated last summer when workers started gutting the unit under Weinstein’s.
Kouriat, Weinstein’s neighbour, works in construction and said he was convinced there was asbestos contamination. So he pressed the new landlords to have the site tested.
In a Sept. 14 email to Kouriat, LS Capital manager James Elkabas wrote:
“Following your request, if there is any suspicion of asbestos during our work, we will have it tested immediately.”
Elkabas concluded his email by asking Kouriat to meet so they could set terms for him and his family to move out of their home.
“They never had anything tested, they didn’t even have qualified workers on site,” said Kouriat. “The workers didn’t speak English or French, they didn’t have the right tools … and here they were, working on a contaminated site, putting themselves in danger without even knowing it.”
Kouriat wound up taking samples of the dust at the construction site to a laboratory and paying $500 to have it tested.
“Sure enough, it was asbestos,” he said. “That’s what we’re living with.”
An inspector with Quebec’s workplace safety board shut the site down on Dec. 9 after more testing revealed the presence of asbestos at the complex. That same day, the city of Montreal sent LS Capital a legal letter, demanding to see a decontamination plan within five days.
Tenants only learned of the firm’s plan in a Jan. 22 letter from their landlord.
When contacted by Ricochet, LS Capital’s project manager Haim Elkabas denied any wrongdoing. “The tenants know exactly what we’re doing, the city has approved everything we’re doing,” said Elkabas. “I don’t know why you’re asking me all that. If you want any answers, call the Côte-des-Neiges borough and the inspector will tell you everything.”
Elkabas provided a phone number for LS Capital CEO Joseph Shaffer. He has not returned Ricochet’s phone calls.
City Councillor Marvin Rotrand says borough inspectors have visited the site and that “they didn’t always side with the tenants.”
“I think the crux of the problem is people are being asked to take their things and leave but that their things may already be contaminated,” said Rotrand. “I’ve told them to put things in writing, to contest these legal letters, to go to the rental board. We have good renters’ rights in this province but it’s not an easy system to navigate.”
A gaping loophole
Is there a way for legislators to put an end to renovictions?
Last spring, Rotrand presented his borough council with a motion to freeze permits for subdividing apartments in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce until they could come up with more comprehensive legislation. It was unanimously adopted on May 19 of last year.
That didn’t prevent LS Capital from getting permits from the city for the Coolbrook Ave. project. Rather than ask for a subdivision, the firm simply presented plans for major renovations. Those were approved in October.
There’s another problem with the legislative route. Article 1959 of Quebec’s Civil Code allows landlords to present tenants with an eviction notice for “major renovations” without having secured a permit first.
“Even if the city doesn’t issue a permit, they [landlords] can still send eviction notices,” said Rotrand. “But here’s where it gets even trickier: under article 1966 of the Civil Code, tenants have 30 days to contest the eviction notice. If they don’t, their lease is automatically terminated once it comes up for renewal.
“This is happening in two buildings in my district, and one of my colleagues has eight buildings where this was done. It’s a loophole in the law that can be abused, it exploits people who don’t know their rights and it needs to change.”
For Kouriat, the future seems bleak.
“I think we’ve lost already,” he said. “My wife and I, we’ve spoken about leaving, but where would we go? This was a nice, affordable place to raise our kids. I want to give up but I also don’t want to see this happen to others.”
On Wednesday, Weinstein; her husband, Benny; and their neighbour Andrew Lindsay brought me on a tour of the contaminated site below their apartment. The air was thick with dust, debris had been scattered across the apartment and one electrical wire was held in place by a rickety board. “We had to fight just to get them to put up this plastic,” said Lindsay. “This isn’t protecting anyone, it’s dry cleaning plastic for god’s sake.”
Benny has a respiratory illness, and after a few minutes on site, he went back to his apartment upstairs to rest. But even their home isn’t safe from contamination.
“An inspector told me I can’t vacuum or I’ll just kick up more dust, more asbestos,” said Weinstein. “The only thing that saved us, early on, was all the carpeting in my place. It was fashionable when I moved here, not so much anymore, but it may have saved us.”
She led us into the basement storage unit where she used to do laundry. Everything was covered in dust and debris.
“They want us to move all of this, to take it with us while they decontaminate,” she said. “But we don’t even know what it is, we don’t even know how contaminated it is. We live in a constant state of fear.
“I’m not so sure you could call it living.”