In September 2018, Rebecca Bain received a phone call from someone called Cynthia.
Bain rents a two-bedroom apartment in a sixplex not far from Parc Saint-Henri in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighborhood. Cynthia, who would not give her full name to Bain, said that she represented Bain’s new landlord, Hillpark Capital. Cynthia advised, in a manner that suggested “there were no options,” according to Bain, that by March 1, 2019, Bain would have to vacate her apartment. Hillpark was going to start doing major renovations.
In Quebec, a landlord can evict paying tenants for one of two reasons: the landlord or a family member intends to move into the property, or for enlargement, subdivision or change of function of the property (such as changing a dwelling to an office).
But a landlord can also require tenants to vacate their apartments for as long as necessary while they make major improvements and repairs.
Increasingly, landlords are using renovations, and the threat of them, as a backdoor route to get rid of tenants. In February, firefighters evacuated tenants from a Côte-des-Neiges apartment building owned by Hillpark, citing increased fire risk from renovations. At the end of March, Hillpark told the tenants of a 96-unit apartment building by Parc La Fontaine that they needed to vacate by July 1 so the landlords could undertake “urgent repairs and renovations” that could take up to seven months.
While renovictions have become common in the city, one tenant has shown it’s possible to stay put. Rebecca Bain fought to keep her home — and won. She still lives in the same two-bedroom unit and pays just under $800 a month.
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‘It wasn’t fancy, but everything was functional’
In Parc Saint-Henri, a leafy green patch surrounded by grand houses that were originally built for the owners of factories on the Lachine Canal, Bain and I sit at a picnic table close to a fountain.
Bain, a medieval musician by trade, sits quietly, her grey hair in a bun, a slight smile flickering at the ends of her mouth.
She spots her mother, activist Freda Guttman, across the park. “This is her favourite place to be. She comes here to sit,” says Bain. Guttman has been living with Bain for about two years. She comes over and joins us.
Bain grew up in nearby Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. After travelling for some time, she ended up in Saint-Henri, 15 years ago. In 2017, she moved to her current apartment. The rent was then $750 per month. Her landlord, who was elderly, had just renovated the apartment. “It wasn’t fancy, but everything was functional, new,” says Bain.
The next year, her landlord sold the building. On September 18, 2018, Bain received a letter from Hillpark, her new landlord. Hillpark is owned by notorious developers Brandon Shiller and Jeremy Kornbluth. Recently, they made news by purchasing buildings in Montreal’s Chinatown (resulting in calls for the area to be protected as a heritage district) and were responsible for the rent hikes that forced iconic cafe Le Cagibi to leave the Mile End.
About 10 days later, Cynthia called.
Bain immediately called POPIR (Projet d’organisation populaire, d’information et de regroupement), a tenants’ rights organization that has been helping people in the boroughs of Saint-Henri, Little Burgundy, Côte-Saint-Paul and Ville-Émard since 1969. As a comité logement, it is run by tenants to defend the individual and collective rights of tenants.
“Without them I don’t know what would happen to this city,” Bain says.
POPIR told her that they had heard from a number of other tenants who had received calls from Cynthia. Hillpark had just purchased 43 units in four buildings in Saint-Henri, which had been owned by Bain’s old landlord. They were looking to undertake “major renovations” in all of them. The tenants — some of whom were 80 years old and had been living in their home for 50 years — were all told they would have to leave by March 1, and in some cases earlier.
“What’s wrong with your heart if you make that kind of phone call?” asks Bain.
POPIR gathered the tenants for a meeting. Following the organization’s advice, Bain tried to speak to the other people in her building. Ultimately, she was the only one in her sixplex that attended the meetings.
The others were already planning to leave or didn’t “want fuss,” telling Bain they had been offered some money from the landlord to leave.
‘You can’t push this woman around’
POPIR then took several steps. First, they organized a meeting with the city. The city’s representatives agreed not to give Hillpark the kind of permit that would allow for the subdivision or conversion of apartments (e.g., changing two smaller apartments to one bigger one). The landlord would be permitted to do interior renovations, but no structural renovations, in any vacant apartments.
Tenants attended local borough meetings to try and raise the issue. POPIR arranged a demonstration outside Hillpark’s offices in Westmount, and their campaign began to receive some media coverage.
Meanwhile, Hillpark representatives continued to call the tenants. On one particular call, Cynthia said she was in a room full of lawyers and told Bain, “So I think you should be reasonable.” Again, POPIR guided tenants in how to deal with situations like this, advising them to record phone calls from their landlord and to keep a paper trail where possible of any dealings.
As is common in Montreal, Bain’s lease and those of the other tenants were set to renew on July 1. About three months before that date, they received a letter from Hillpark that outlined the new rent for the following year. The tenants rejected the increase. According to Quebec law, this gave Hillpark one month to respond with an alternative offer. When Hillpark did respond, more than a month had passed. So Bain told the company they had no right to increase the rent. Hillpark relented.
Finally, Bain felt, Hillpark began to appreciate that “you can’t push this woman around.” She says the company harassed her less after that.
Bain spent the summer of 2019 alone in the sixplex. The other tenants had moved out, and the landlord was renovating the vacant apartments.
Bain feared that Hillpark would use the construction as a way to get her to leave, by making it particularly hard for her to keep living in her apartment. So she explained her situation to the construction workers and asked, for instance, that they didn’t start construction earlier than 7 a.m.
The apartments were renovated and now look “fancier” and “like a magazine,” according to Bain. The landlord filled the apartments, but in most cases it took longer than a year.
Bain thinks this was by design. In Quebec, for buildings that are more than five years old, rent is set by reference to the previous year’s rent. But if no one has rented the property for a year, there is considered to be no previous rent to base the new rent on. Ines Benessaiah, a community organizer at POPIR, says she has seen this tactic used elsewhere.
In this case, Bain recalls seeing rent for a downstairs apartment in her building listed at $1,675.
Hillpark is represented by a PR firm, National. A representative of the firm declined to answer specific questions sent to Hillpark and to National, but provided the following statement by email.
“Hillpark is constantly reinvesting in and improving its properties to ensure a high standard of living experience for its tenants, while contributing to the character of the neighbourhoods in which they are located. All our projects and work are done in this sense.”
A ‘sense of solidarity’
This year, Bain’s rent increased slightly. She doesn’t “have much to do with” her landlord now, she says. But her success provides a guide of sorts on how to respond to threats of eviction.
First, she says, tenants must know their rights. In Quebec, if your landlord tries to renovict you, “you can say no and the law protects you.” Information on tenants’ rights can be found on the website for the Tribunal administratif du logement and by contacting your local comité logement.
Second, tenants should try and speak to other people in their building. It is likely that they will be dealing with the same landlord and also figuring out how to respond to them. At Le Manoir Lafontaine, an apartment building in the Plateau that Hillpark is trying to clear, the tenants have organized so successfully in part because they had a Facebook group that allowed them to share their experiences and pool information.
Benessaiah agrees. “The sense of solidarity that can exist between neighbours or other tenants that live in similar situations is very important and can give a strong message to the landlords.”
In Bain’s case, the other tenants in her building did not try and fight the eviction. That made contacting POPIR even more helpful. While Bain may have been alone in her building, she says “you’re never really alone” because you can connect with other tenants with similar experiences.
POPIR brought together tenants from different buildings so they could offer each other support and more effectively respond to the landlord’s eviction attempts. This also allows tenants to share “the landlords’ tactics in order to better denounce them publicly,” according to Benessaiah.
Organizing together allows a tenant to see the bigger picture and to understand a landlord’s actions as part of a larger strategy to kick them out.
‘The whole city loses’ with renovictions
Bain’s success shouldn’t obscure the ongoing changes to her neighbourhood and Montreal. “It’s not just about little individuals living in their little apartment,” she says.
Of the 43 units that were purchased by Hillpark, about half of them have new tenants. Between October 2019 and October 2020, rent increased by 21 per cent in the Sud-Ouest, the Montreal borough that includes Saint-Henri, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
That kind of rental increase continues to displace or at least make life harder for residents like Bain. It has meant, for instance, that POPIR had to relocate its office from Saint-Henri to nearby Little Burgundy. It can also trap tenants in an affordable, but perhaps unsuitable, home. Bain and Guttman didn’t intend to stay in Bain’s apartment, but they’re not going to move now. They’ve looked around, and “there’s nothing else.”
Increased rents can also attract residents who, perhaps because they are students or only moved here for work, are more transient and less invested in the community. All of the new tenants in Bain’s sixplex have since left. Bain recalls speaking to one new tenant from Manhattan. He said he “knew about gentrification” and was keen to fight the rent increase. He did not, and no longer lives in the building.
As Sarah Schulman wrote in Gentrification of the Mind about the spiritual impact of gentrification: “There is a weird passivity that accompanies gentrification. I find that in my own building, the ‘old’ tenants who pay lower rents are much more willing to organize for services, to object when there are rodents or no lights in the hallways.”
“It’s not only the city that has changed, but the way its inhabitants conceptualize themselves.”
To push against this kind of rampant gentrification, both Bain and Benessaiah want Quebec to introduce rent control. While there is a formula for rent to be set in cases of disagreement (in reference to the previous year’s rent), a tenant and landlord are currently able to agree to any rental increase.
They also want more social housing. Bain wants to see “a shitload more money [put] into public housing.” The waitlist for subsidized housing in Montreal sits at 24,000. Benessaiah wants to see municipalities taking action to make evictions harder. That could include campaigns to educate tenants that an eviction notice does not mean the landlord is entitled to evict you, and systematically following up on renovation permits to make sure the landlord is doing what they said they were going to do.
At this point in the interview with Bain, Guttman interrupts. “Well, there is another solution: revolution.”
Bain, in the way only a daughter can, gives a loving roll of her eyes. “But until the revolution, everyone needs to put as much pressure on [Premier] Legault as possible to start making housing a priority. Because it is not,” she says.
Stories of renting in Montreal often involve tenants fighting valiantly to protect their homes but ultimately not being able to beat their landlord and what Guttman describes as “the forces of oppression” that are working to displace residents in communities like Saint-Henri.
Bain has personal qualities — a deep resilience and a love, it seems, for a bit of drama — that made her particularly adept at pushing back against her landlord. Not everyone can respond with her determination.
But what she did — knowing her rights, connecting with a tenants’ rights organization, talking to her neighbours — offers a relatively simple roadmap for tenants threatened with eviction.
Ultimately, as she sees it, fighting an eviction is about fighting for the community.
“I don’t want to be too harsh on people who don’t want any fuss, but the more people who [leave], the harder it’s going to be for everybody. If you leave your apartment and allow them to come in and renovate, then the whole neighbourhood loses. The whole city loses.”
Although Bain now feels “relaxed” in her home, there remains a lingering “feeling of insecurity.” She would like the comfort and stability of living in a cooperative, but waiting lists are long there too.
“When you have a landlord,” she says, “you’re never secure.”