A perfect storm is about to hit Quebec’s rental market and, when it does, hundreds of people could be out on the street.
Landlords are increasing rent well beyond legal limits and they’re turning aside tenants on the basis of race, marital status and physical impairments. They’re getting away with this because there’s no real incentive for them to stop.
Soaring real estate prices and low vacancy rates have shifted the balance of power almost entirely into their hands.
This isn’t just happening in Montreal. Cities like Rimouski, Joliette, Sherbrooke and Gaspésie have seen an unprecedented demand for emergency shelter as the summer nears.
And while renters’ rights groups have implored the government to increase funding for emergency housing, the province has been unresponsive.
In fact, Premier François Legault refuses to call it a crisis and his government has blocked legislation that would provide oversight of rent increases.
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Government fiddles as crisis worsens
Last year a record-setting 270 Montreal households asked the city for help to avoid winding up homeless on July 1, which has been dubbed Moving Day because it’s when most leases in Quebec expire. Now, with just over one month to go until July, that record has already been broken.
In Quebec City, 200 requests for emergency housing have been made compared to 77 last year. In Trois-Rivières, nearly 2,000 people are on a waiting list to find affordable housing before their lease ends.
“We’re in a situation where people are wondering whether they’ll be sleeping in their cars when their lease expires on July 1,” said Véronique Laflamme, who works at Le Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), a renters’ rights group.
“It’s incredibly depressing. We’re a month away from July 1 and we don’t even know which cities have emergency shelter programs and which don’t. We’ve been writing to the government for weeks and they haven’t responded. All we’re asking for is information and they won’t even give us that.”
Case workers will work until the 11th hour to make sure people have a roof over their heads. Most of these people won’t end up homeless.
But some will.
“I worry we’ll fail these people,” Laflamme said. “And the reality is we will fail some of them. It’s not right. It’s not fair. But in Quebec right now, that’s the way things are.”
Martine Dubé is Indigenous but says that having a “Québécois-sounding name” makes it easier for landlords in Joliette to return her messages.
But that’s about as far as it will get her.
“There’s a lot of descrimination here but this year has truly been the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Dubé, who hails from the Manawan reserve north of Joliette. “Once they hear my accent, everything changes. They’ll say, ‘Call back in 20 minutes.’ So I call again and again and no one answers.
“I’ve had a landlord see my face and once he realized I was Indigenous, he had his arms crossed the entire time we spoke. He told me to leave because he was expecting another potential renter. At the end of the visit he said he doesn’t accept children in his apartments, in violation of Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
“It’s not a barking dog, it’s a child, a human being. And I can’t have my child with me if I want an apartment.”
Ripples from Montreal’s real estate boom
Joliette is about an hour north of Montreal and has a vacancy rate of under 1 per cent. Despite clear signs of a crisis, the city refuses to put in place an emergency aid program for people who can’t find an apartment before their lease expires.
“Some cities won’t set up the program because the provincial government only funds half of it,” said Amélie Pelland, who works with Action-Logement Lanaudière. “We’re asking the province to fund 100 per cent of it during this crisis. We haven’t had a response to that.”
Pelland says the Lanaudière region has seen an influx of new homeowners who couldn’t afford to buy property in Montreal’s booming real estate market. When they settle in the region, it often means they displace renters and further drive down the vacancy rate.
Last year, real estate sales across Quebec grew by 28 per cent — the highest spike in 18 years, according to the Canadian Housing Mortgage Corporation. While there’s also been a boom in the construction of new homes, Laflamme and Pelland say none of the people they work with can afford to live in them. Often, what little rental stock remains is on the verge of being condemned, Dubé said.
“I visited one place and I had to ask the woman, ‘Would you live here? Would you want anyone in your family living here?’” said Dubé. “She stopped and thought about it. She said no and then apologized to me.”
‘On the verge of something catastrophic’
Trois-Rivières was once the heart of the province’s pulp and paper industry.
Sitting at the midway point between Montreal and Quebec City, it boasted commercial ports and steel mills and provided transit to the logging camps just up the St-Maurice River.
Though it was hit hard by industrial decline in the 1970s, the city is in the midst of a revitalization — drawing in immigrants, university students and young Indigenous families looking to establish themselves outside of Atikamekw territory.
But this revitalization has brought scarcity into the rental market. At about 1.3 per cent, Trois-Rivière’s vacancy rate is one of the lowest in the province.
“Normally we get about 1,200 calls for emergency assistance before July 1. We’re at about 1,800 so far this year,” said Carol-Ann Côté, who works at InfoLogis Mauricie, another renters’ rights group.
“We’re on the verge of something catastrophic, immigrant families with five or six children who could wind up on the street on July 1. I have one client who has disabilities, a physical handicap, and the landlord wants them gone so they can renovate and charge more. There have been Indigenous families with kids threatened with eviction over the slightest infraction.
“People are living in fear of what’ll happen on July 1. It’s out of control.”
A drop of water in the ocean
Two years ago, the Coalition Avenir Québec government was presented with a proposal to create a province-wide rent registry.
The registry could prevent abusive increases by making landlords enter the amount they charge their tenants into a publicly available database to ensure they’re abiding by provincial regulations. %highlight %center “I remember being flabbergasted by their response.”
In theory, all apartments in Quebec are subject to strict rent controls. But as scarcity becomes the new norm, tenants are willing to look the other way and absorb illegal increases just to have a place to live. And new tenants often have no way of knowing what their predecessors paid unless they track them down.
“It’s a pretty inexpensive, effective way of keeping landlords accountable,” said Andrés Fontecilla, the Québec solidaire MNA who helped draft the proposal for a rent registry.
The CAQ shot down Fontecilla’s proposal.
“I remember being flabbergasted by their response,” he said. “They said it would be too expensive to create the database.
It was something like between $5 million and $15 million. When you compare that to the hundreds of millions we need to spend on social housing, it’s just a drop of water in the ocean. But renters are not a priority of this government.”
A representative from Quebec’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing did not return Ricochet’s request for an interview or respond to written questions provided to them.
The registry is just one in a series of solutions that experts say would alleviate the burden on Quebec’s rental market. Significantly expanding social housing in the province would provide a more lasting answer to the crisis.
In the 2021 budget tabled by the CAQ, however, the government only set aside enough funds to continue housing projects promised by previous governments. Quebec will build about 5,000 new social housing units over the next few years.
The RQOH — a housing advocacy group that represents 1,200 nonprofits across the province — estimates the government needs to build 5,000 new units per year to keep up with demand.
“Social housing isn’t a priority of this government, clearly,” Laflamme said. “If things don’t change we’ll be in crisis mode every year from now on. That’s a scary thought.”
Two-tiered rental market
Oddly enough, the vacancy rate in Montreal’s rental market is up to 2.7 per cent this year — still low but not enough to set off alarms.
Even so, the city’s poorest tenants are in crisis mode.
“The problem is that the new units aren’t affordable. Landlords would rather have their properties sit empty than charge less,” Laflamme said. “It is especially bad for families.”
She points to her organization’s research, which found that vacant two-bedroom apartments are 43 per cent more expensive than a two-bedroom apartment that’s currently being rented.
“The average rent on a two-bedroom right now is $907 a month and so that’s not that bad,” Laflamme said. “But if you had to move, for whatever reason, the average cost on the open market is $1,300. There’s clearly abusive practices going on and Quebec isn’t doing much, if anything, to enforce its own rent controls.”
To Laflamme’s point, the vacancy rate may be 2.7 per cent across the island but for units under $925 a month, that number sinks below 1 per cent.
“It’s essentially a two-tiered market,” she said. “In one of them, where people have resources, there’s vacancy. In the other, where people don’t, it’s a scramble to find anything.”
Average rental costs across the city rose by 4.6 per cent last year, which doesn’t sound like much but it’s six times higher than the increase recommended by Quebec’s rental board.
“Right now, the onus is always on the tenant to bring their landlord before the rental board,” said Fontecilla. “It’s essentially the honour system and there’s no incentive for landlords to act honourably. Tenants don’t want to be seen as troublemakers, they want good references so they mostly just accept whatever the landlord asks of them.”
After a brutal few months looking for a place to live, Dubé finally found something. But it was from a landlord who had been reluctant to rent to an Indigenous person two years ago.
“Back then, the owner asked me if the apartment was really for me or if I was going to sign the lease and hand it over to other Indigenous people from my community,” Dubé said. “I told them, ‘I know my rights now, and back then I could have taken you to the rental board.’ I’m a mother and a worker and I deserve a chance to live somewhere and pay my rent like everyone else.
“If you’re out there, looking for an apartment, you have to know your rights. There was a time where I didn’t. Now I have to. We all do.”