This article is co-published with Pivot, and you can read a French version here.
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According to Quebec’s lobbyist registry, Annie Lemieux, a real-estate business partner and friend of Quebec’s housing minister, has an active mandate to lobby her ministry — the same housing minister currently trying to cancel a tenant’s right to transfer their lease.
“I think France-Elaine sent you all the information — I received a message that the minister confirmed all the information,” said Lemieux, referring to the minister by her first name in a phone interview with Ricochet.
“We met [with] Sonia and France-Elaine” to discuss care for seniors, Lemieux said, referring to minister of housing France-Elaine Duranceau and Sonia Belanger, the minister for seniors.
Duranceau, a former real-estate agent, apologized yesterday for statements earlier this week that she described as “insensitive” to renters. But she has refused to back down from the most controversial elements of Bill 31.
By ending lease transfers, the bill tabled in the National Assembly last Friday would remove one of the only effective means of enforcing Quebec’s rent control legislation, by maintaining rent controls from one tenant to another. It has been described by community groups as a historic setback, and a move that would roll back the clock on tenants’ rights.
Business partners in real estate
Lemieux and Duranceau have worked together on multiple real-estate endeavors and operated at least two businesses together. One of those businesses, 9381-9795 Québec Inc., lists Duranceau as a shareholder and both of them as administrators. In 2019, that company bought a duplex in Montreal for more than $500,000 for which there is no mortgage record on file with the land registry of Quebec, suggesting a cash purchase. In a massive renovation, the humble two-story building was converted into what they dubbed “Le Briand,” a luxury condo building with five units — one of which sold for $800,000 in June of 2022, just months before Duranceau was elected.
Lemieux, for her part, is the founder of Groupe LS4, an umbrella company for several giants in the real-estate industry, which according to a recent profile includes a portfolio of thousands of rental properties in Quebec, the United States and Poland.
“The cash and me. Investing in real estate is good! Diversifying your investments is even better,” begins a 2020 French-language interview with Lemieux in Les Affaires in which she reveals her firm owns and manages $300 million in real-estate assets.
Lemieux said that her company has since sold off all assets in the United States and only maintains two buildings in Quebec with a combined 678 rental units, although her company website lists a number of other buildings and completed condo projects.
A current project underway in Longueuil, on Montreal’s south shore, is Le Novia, “high-end [rental] apartments designed for people of today and tomorrow.” The complex boasts 375 residential units that will be available to rent upon completion in July.
Duranceau and Lemieux also served together as board members for the Healing More Better Campaign of CHU Saint-Justine as far back as 2012 and are friends on Facebook.
Already under the microscope
The business interests of Quebec’s housing minister were the subject of scrutiny following her appointment by Premier François Legault to his cabinet last fall.
According to her personal disclosure with the Quebec Ethics Commission, she was a shareholder or administrator in several real-estate companies, in addition to being the fiduciary of several personal real-estate investment trusts.
“If there are actions to be taken, to comply with the directives [of the Commissioner], it will be done quickly,” Duranceau’s spokesperson told Le Journal de Montreal last year. According to the Commission’s website, no public inquiry was carried out, and according to the most current data listed in the Quebec business registry, Minister Duranceau remains involved in those business endeavors.
“The Ethics Commissioner cannot comment on individual cases,” wrote Anne-Sophie St-Gelais, a spokesperson for the commission, in response to an inquiry by Ricochet. “Personal and financial information is disclosed confidentially to the Commissioner who analyzes it in order to prevent a real or apprehended situation of conflict of interest.”
Phillipe Couture, Duranceau’s press secretary, told Ricochet in an email that the minister followed all the rules.
“Everything was approved by the Ethics Commissioner and certified as compliant,” he said. “Ms. Lemieux is indeed registered in the register of lobbyists but has no contract or employment relationship with Ms. Duranceau. There is therefore no conflict of interest in this respect.”
He did not respond to questions regarding whether or not Lemieux had directly lobbied the Minister.
Couture claims that the businesses which Duranceau and Lemieux ran together are inactive.
“With regard to the companies 9381-9795 Québec Inc. and NOMI Immobilier Inc. these are companies, which are still registered but which are inactive. Again, all of this was scrutinized by the Ethics Commissioner,” he said.
The minister has come under fire in recent days for refusing meetings with tenant groups while she prepared the bill. Meanwhile, the president of the Association des propriétaires du Québec registered a dozen mandates to lobby the minister, including one specifically seeking the change to lease transfers that Duranceau has now delivered. The Corporation des propriétaires immobiliers du Québec also met with the minister at least once.
Landlords could cancel rental lease transfers under new Bill 31
Questions around the housing minister’s potential conflicts come at the same time as she is trying to pass legislation that would effectively put an end to a vital protection for tenants across the province.
Bill 31 would allow a landlord to refuse a lease assignment and take back the lease from the tenant at the end of the term, which housing advocates say is likely to be a recipe for disaster.
“Lease transfers should be a minor right for renters, but because there is no effective rent control, it has become one of the only ways for renters to find some sort of affordable housing,” said Cedric Dussault, co-spokesperson for The Coalition of Housing Committees and Tenants Associations of Quebec, known by its French acronym RCLALQ. “It’s the only thing that prevents landlords from raising the rent to the level they want.”
He called the proposed legislation “irresponsible,” and a historic setback to tenants’ rights.
The Civil Code of Quebec stipulates that “the lessor may not refuse to consent to the sublease of the property or the assignment of the lease without a serious reason.” According to Dussault, it is one of the last remaining ways tenants have to ensure rents stay affordable.
In an interview with French journalist Étienne Fortin-Gauthier, the minister was asked if the new legislation will put renters in a tough situation.
Duranceau said she strongly disagrees with the law as it stands, claiming the tenant has no right to transfer the lease.
“You cannot use a right that is not yours to assign a lease, when it is not your building. The tenant who wants to do that, he should invest in real-estate,” she said.
Cession de bails:— Étienne Fortin-Gauthier (@EtienneFG) June 12, 2023
«Tu peux pas utiliser un droit qui est pas le tiens de céder un bail, quand c’est pas ton immeuble. Le locataire qui veut faire ça qu’il investisse en immobilier»
Je pose mes questions à la ministre @FEDuranceauCAQ#noovoinfo #immobilier pic.twitter.com/wgUZ2WYYu5
She has since issued an apology. “I'm sorry if that sounded insensitive. I was describing things in legal and economic terms," she said.
Leaders of Quebec Solidaire (QS) and the Parti Quebecois were quick to condemn Bill 31.
“A bill tabled at the last minute, including a major setback for tenants, the impossibility of assigning leases, and absolutely nothing to control excessive rent increases. The CAQ is working against tenants! #polqc,” tweeted QS MNA Andrés Fontecilla.
Un projet de loi déposé à la dernière minute, comportant un recul majeur pour les locataires, l’impossibilité de la cession des baux, et absolument rien pour contrôler les hausses abusives des loyers. La CAQ travaille contre les locataires! #polqc https://t.co/TUCINpKC47— Andrés Fontecilla (@AFontecillaQS) June 9, 2023
According to her LinkedIn profile, written in English, prior to her appointment in the CAQ cabinet, Minister Duranceau was a licensed realtor and worked as a Vice-President with Cushman & Wakefield, “a leading global real-estate services firm that delivers exceptional value for real-estate occupiers and owners.”
“She has the interests of the landlords and real-estate at heart,” said Dussault. “She doesn’t understand what the situation is for renters and tenants and she doesn’t even want to hear it.” Dussault said the RCLALQ has been requesting meetings with the minister and her assistant for months, only to be repeatedly ignored.
When pushed in an interview earlier this week on Radio-Canada's Tout un matin on whether or not there were still adequate rent protections for tenants in the province, Minister Duranceau pointed to section G of the provincial lease form, saying landlords are still required to disclose the rent charged within the last 12 months.
If a tenant finds that a rent increase exceeds the recommended maximum administered by the province’s housing tribunal, they can open a case to have their rent set according to those guidelines.
However, no provincial rent registry exists, and tenants might be reluctant to start off a relationship with their landlord on bad terms.
Additionally the Housing Minister doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for tenants, making her position on rent increases clear in an interview with the Journal de Montreal in January. “Rent increases are suggested guidelines, but obviously each landlord will look at their situation and judge what is relevant. Everything is increasing,” explained Duranceau in French. “There is not much to do.”
On Tout un matin, Minister Duranceau said that tenant’s should just presume that landlords are acting in good faith.
With files from Sam Harper at Pivot