“Tom! Are you still asleep, you lazy bugger?”
Yvan Girard pounded the door again, hurling another mouthful of feigned outrage at his roommate. Tom and Girard make for an odd pair.
Girard — a francophone born on the Gaspé peninsula — lives in his meticulously kept room where pictures of Jesus Christ share the wall with a TV antenna that he cobbled together from steel wire and a two-by-four. As the only tenant of 5901 Monk Blvd. with a cell phone, Girard acts as Tom’s proxy more often than he’d like.
“Sometimes I feel like his secretary,” Girard said. “I’ve been telling him to get a flip phone because I can’t keep taking his messages.”
Whereas Girard is short with a booming voice, quick wit and a don’t-fuck-with-me demeanor, Tom is long-limbed and soft spoken, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the late Pete Seeger. He speaks French with an English accent and communicates with Girard in a franglais gumbo that’s rather endearing.
The unlikely duo are the final tenants fighting what they say is an illegal eviction that would force them out of a run-down boarding house in Montreal’s Sud-Ouest borough. Girard claims the new landlords have stopped collecting rent or making repairs in a building where exposed wires and faulty fuse boxes could pose a fire hazard.
They sent eviction notices in February, and last month a man claiming to be a bailiff came by with an offer to help Girard to move into a boarding house across town. When Girard asked him to show proof he was a bailiff, he says the man refused.
These new landlords, who bought the building for $1 million last summer, convinced 14 of 16 tenants to leave their homes and have since put the property back on the market for $1.5 million. So what exactly justifies a 50 per cent markup in less than a year?
Walking through the building last Friday, I saw one cracked window held together with tape and another kept in place with a broom handle. There were toilets stripped of their parts, garbage strewn across the hallway and a breaker box with popped fuses. Since it’s clear no major work has been done to improve the property, where is the added value?
An online listing of the building calls it an “investment opportunity” and promises to deliver the building “free of tenants.” The implication here is that, without tenants paying a measly $500 a month, the new owners can gut the building and convert it to luxury apartments in the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood of Ville Émard.
Here’s the problem with that. It’s illegal, in Ville Émard, to convert a rooming house into anything other than social or community housing. The building code was amended to protect boarding houses two years ago during the real estate boom that swept across the Sud Ouest borough.
For people like Girard and Tom, that amendment helps keep a roof over their head.
On the verge of homelessness
“People living in rooming houses are in an incredibly vulnerable place,” said Julie Bélanger, the chief of staff for Sud-Ouest borough mayor Benoit Dorais. “You have folks who are on the verge of homelessness, or folks who just got off the street. These are people who spend most of their monthly income just to have a place of their own, they’re trying to pick up the pieces, they deserve some protection.”
Even if they manage to evict Tom and Girard, the building’s owners are bound to the building code. If they apply for a permit to modify the house’s zoning, they won’t get it. At least, that’s what Mayor Dorais’ position is.
But there’s another wrinkle to this story. The building on Monk Blvd. is being used as a boarding house but, on the city’s land registry, it’s listed as four residential units with a commercial space on the first floor.
“It was converted to a rooming house illegally,” said Saguy Elbaz, the real estate agent who listed the property. “That’s the information provided by the sellers. We’re just the messengers, I can’t speak to the intentions of the owners.”
This might come down to an issue of the law’s interpretation. A rooming house is “any building or section of a building where at least four rooms are rented and services, such as meals and maintenance, are offered” according to the Sud Ouest’s building code. When the new owners purchased the Monk Blvd. property, it fit the criteria of a boarding house.
“Even if the boarding house isn’t certified as such on the land registry, the borough’s building code prevents it from being converted to any other usage,” Bélanger said. “Furthermore, the building is listed on the Sud-Ouest’s official registry of boarding houses.”
Beyond the legal implications, there’s a moral component at play as well. Before moving into the building in 2016, Tom spent a year sleeping in shelters across Montreal.
“I’d fallen on some bad luck, I was living out of a suitcase and another homeless person told me about this place,” said Tom, his voice cracking. “Nobody who moves here wants to stay in this building. We all want to move along to something better but we stay because it’s all we can afford. The neighbourhood is gentrifying, the city is gentrifying and we’re being pushed out of it.”
Tom hasn’t had much luck finding a new place. The closest boarding house he can afford is a few boroughs over, in Côte-des-Neiges. But since there’s no community kitchen, Tom would have to make meals on a hot plate and toaster.
“We’re not the only ones in this position, it’s happening everywhere in Montreal,” Tom said. “I don’t really have a choice, we have to move. There’s no maintenance on this building, it’s 100 years old, the city inspector came by yesterday and said the roof isn’t looking too good. You’ve seen the broken windows, you’ve seen the wiring.”
Girard said he was tipsy when he first visited the unit he now lives in. Shortly after moving in three years ago, the 61-year-old suffered a stroke and decided to quit boozing for good. He hasn’t picked up the bottle since. Girard keeps an immaculate room. When I visited, the floors were freshly washed, he had fashioned an old mayoral election sign into a kitchen shelf and there wasn’t so much as a dirty spoon in the sink. A small television tuned to TVA Nouvelles faced a la-z-boy chair that’s seen better days.
He had dozens of receipts tucked away in a desk drawer, each indicating he’s always paid his rent in full and on time. He also keeps a copy of the notice of non-renewal of his lease.
The notice, printed on letterhead to make it appear like an official government document, doesn’t include information about when Girard is supposed to move or why his lease is being discontinued. These red flags were enough for the tenant to contact the renter’s rights group POPIR, who claim it’s illegal.
“There’s little to no information provided but if it’s about kicking people out to convert it away from a boarding house it’s plainly illegal,” said Ines Benessiah, who works with the renter’s rights group. “These people are intimidating tenants and they’re allowing the building to become unlivable. It’s a common tactic used against people living in poverty.”
There’s yet another question in the saga of 5901 Monk Blvd. Who bought the building and did they know what they were getting into when they dropped seven figures on a run-down property in Ville Émard?
Officially, the building is owned by 9445-5433 Québec Inc. — a numbered corporation whose only shareholders are Ilan Rubin and a holdings company called 9425-0412 Québec Inc. When you punch that name into Quebec’s corporate registry, you get the name Daniel Malka as the sole shareholder.
The only other place I could find Malka and Rubin’s names together is on a LinkedIn page for something called Global Coin Solutions — a cryptocurrency service. But the company isn’t on Quebec or Canada’s corporate registry and the phone number provided by LinkedIn leads to an out of service message in Spanish. The domain name associated with their company isn’t connected to a website.
In an excellent La Presse article about the Monk Blvd. building, Frédérik-Xavier Duhamel tracked the owners down with some old fashioned gumshoe reporting. When he happened upon them outside the boarding house, they refused to answer his questions.
There are just over 40 rooming houses in the Sud Ouest borough, and they’re increasingly rare across Montreal, according to Bélanger. And while situations like the one on Monk Blvd. play themselves out in working class areas, homelessness also happens to be on the rise. That fact isn’t lost on Tom.
When I met with him last Friday, his hands shook as he described his predicament.
“A lot of us are hanging on by a thread,” he said. “I’m not someone who causes trouble, I’ve worked most of my life, I just want a place I can afford. I live on about $1,000 a month. There’s not much breathing room for people like me in this city.”