Paying rent but no place to live, a Montreal renoviction story

Allison Ryan has been unable to live in her Saint-Henri apartment since July
Allison Ryan
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In 2017 Allison Ryan moved into her two-bedroom apartment on the corner of Rose-de-Lima and Notre-Dame streets in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighborhood.

She got the apartment through a lease transfer from the previous tenant (a way of passing on a rent-protected lease in Quebec), whom she described as “turquoise obsessed.” She loved its charm.

“It was still quaintly vintage. All of the floors were this weird spackled white and black ceramic tile, kind of office-style ’80s.”

Her boyfriend was also in the building. The apartment was one of four that sat on top of a depanneur. She became friends with the people who ran the shop. She kept an eye out for another tenant who had significant mental health issues.

There was “a sense of community,” says Ryan.

The roll call is now shorter. In February 2020, the depanneur moved down the street. One of the tenants left in March 2021, another at the end of July 2021. The boyfriend departed too, after signing a non-disclosure agreement with the landlord.

Only Ryan remains — but she’s not even able to live in her unit.

Though she continues to pay rent, her apartment has become a construction site.

Evicted for Airbnb

I met Ryan outside Café Oxford on Rue Sherbrooke close to where she’s currently staying in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. She makes witchy boho jewellery (her Etsy shop includes necklaces of bees, moths, a weed leaf) and has just started back at school in graphic and web design.

Describing her rental situation, she switches between speaking in a tone of calm seriousness and breaking into exasperated laughter. She has kept a detailed, handwritten record of events.

In late 2019 Ryan received an eviction notice. Her landlord, Shiller Lavy, wanted to convert her home into short-term accommodation and rent it out through Airbnb.

The Montreal-based corporate landlord, which owns a number of buildings in the city, was most recently in the news for attempting to impose an exorbitant rent hike on Welch’s, a secondhand bookstore in the Mile End. Shiller Lavy did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Ryan, along with the other tenants in the building, fought the eviction. In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was accelerating and the market for Airbnb collapsed, Shiller Lavy told the tenants that they could stay.

Construction began on the space that used to be occupied by the depanneur in December 2020. (It is now a sandwich shop called Baguette Brochette.) A few months later, in March 2021, the landlord decided to convert the building’s oil radiators into an individualized electric heating system.

This meant removing the pipes of the old radiator system in Ryan’s apartment, which increased the amount of dust coming up from the construction below. It was “like mushroom clouds,” says Ryan, whose lease includes heating.

Allison Ryan in her Saint-Henri apartment before it was gutted
Provided / Allison Ryan

At this time, she was particularly concerned about her health — she was pregnant, which she told her landlord.

The landlord provided Ryan with two space heaters to replace the radiators. To prevent a fuse from blowing, one of the heaters was plugged into the wall of a neighbouring apartment using a 50-foot outdoor extension cord that travelled through the neighbour’s window and through Ryan’s balcony door. This situation persisted until August, when the baseboard heaters were fitted.

In April 2021 the landlord began renovating another apartment in the building. In May they sought to extend the size of that apartment by removing the fire exit for the building. On May 20 the borough put up a stop work sign, giving notice that the construction needed to halt because the landlord did not have a permit. The sign was ripped down. On May 26 the borough put up another stop work sign. Again, the sign was torn down.

At this time, Ryan was concerned about the possible toxicity of the dust in her apartment, which was coming from the surrounding renovations. Assuming that the level of lead in her walls would be similar to that of walls throughout the building, she decided to do a lead test.

In June, at her own expense, Ryan got Axxonlab to test the lead levels in her walls.

Allison Ryan's apartment before the renovations began
Provided / Allison Ryan

Apartment gutted without notice

Axxonlab found that the paint on her walls was lead-based.

Health Canada advises that children and pregnant people should be kept away from work areas during the removal of lead-based paints.

Ryan sent a copy of the test results to her landlord by email. On June 23 she received another eviction notice from her landlord, which relied in part on Ryan’s own lead test. Shiller Lavy stated that her home was too dangerous to live in and asked that she vacate the premises. She was offered $5,000 as compensation.

Ryan did not agree to the request. She miscarried in May, and on July 27 she relocated temporarily to a friend’s house in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce due to concerns about the impact of the lead.

She is still there. And she still pays $805 per month in rent for her apartment in Saint-Henri.

After she left to stay with her friend, the landlord began renovations without notifying Ryan.

Ryan returned in late August to find her apartment completely gutted: appliances were removed, floor tiles gone, walls reduced to wooden beams. In early September she found out the landlord had changed the front door locks.

She has taken her case to Quebec’s tenancy board, the Tribunal administratif du logement. There was a hearing on October 18, but the dispute is ongoing.

Homes have an animus, says Ryan, a spirit that persists despite repainted walls or a repositioned kitchen table. That made her sense of loss — in finding her home emptied of the flotsam of her life and scraped back to its frame — even greater.

“I love and care for this place,” she says, explaining she felt “violated” when she saw her home reduced to a building site.

“This is my home and then you completely rip it to shreds.”

Allison Ryan's apartment as it is now
Provided / Allison Ryan

‘Private housing is not the solution’

Over the last few years there has been a major increase in renovictions, says Maxime Roy-Allard, a spokesperson for the RCLALQ (Le regroupement des comités logement et associations de locataires du Québec), an organization that brings together different tenants’ groups throughout the province.

“Renoviction” is the general term used to describe situations where landlords use renovations or the threat of renovations as the basis for removing a tenant.

They are a symptom of the constant upward march of rents and house prices, Roy-Allard says.

In the Southwest borough where Ryan’s apartment is located, rents increased by 21 per cent from October 2019 to October 2020, according to statistics from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Data from Centris show that in the past year, residential sales in the same area increased by 47 per cent.

All of this makes staying in the community harder.

“Renovictions threaten ordinary people’s right to even exist in the city,” says Jason Toney of Prenons la ville, a coalition of activists and groups fighting for a greener and more socially just city.

Many tenants cannot commit to fighting an eviction in the same way that Ryan has, even if they desperately want to stay in their home. Helping them means implementing solutions that do not put the burden on tenants to protect themselves.

Roy-Allard wants Quebec to make renovictions harder. Currently, a landlord can evict a tenant for enlargement, subdivision or change of function of a home. Particularly now when the vacancy rate is below 3 per cent, Roy-Allard believes that landlords should not be entitled to evict tenants to enlarge or subdivide homes.

Ines Benessaiah, a community organizer at POPIR, a tenants’ rights organization that operates in the boroughs of Saint-Henri, Little Burgundy, Côte-Saint-Paul and Ville-Émard, would like city inspectors to follow up more actively on evictions to ensure that landlords are doing what they said they would to justify getting rid of their tenants.

Fundamentally, Roy-Allard says, landlords are trying to evict tenants in cases like Ryan’s because they think that they can charge a new tenant more. Under Quebec law annual rent increases are capped unless the tenant agrees to a larger increase or significant renovations have been done, but new tenants are often unaware of the previous rent or uninterested in challenging an increase. And even if they do, landlords can use renovations as a justification for the increase.

Real rent control would change that. It would reduce the number of evictions because it would take away the primary motivation for evictions: increasing the rent.

As well as taking away some powers from landlords, federal, provincial and municipal levels of government can also work to take away the landlords themselves.

“Private housing is not the solution for the amelioration [of] tenants’ conditions,” says Benessaiah. Instead, constructing and renovating social housing is “the best way to protect tenants.”

Ryan’s dispute remains unresolved. Her landlord is still accepting her rent payments. And she is still unable to live in her home.

There’s an understandable incredulousness in her voice as she speaks about her case. How did it end up like this?

Ryan has a profound sense that what has happened should not have happened, that it is wrong, that this wrong demands a remedy. This sense continues to motivate her.

“I’m going all the way with this and I don’t give a shit,” she says.

A sticker left on the door of the depanneur after it closed
Provided / Allison Ryan
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