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When the group representing Quebec’s housing committees and renters’ rights associations published its yearly report on forced evictions at the end of 2022, the results were bleak.
With data from its 58 member groups and news reports, the Regroupement des comités logement et association locataires du Québec (RCLALQ) observed a 150 per cent increase in forced evictions in the province compared to the previous year — the highest-ever increase since they began compiling this data. Outside of Montreal and Quebec City, the increase jumped up by 508 per cent.
A forced eviction is any situation where a landlord infringes on a tenant’s right to remain in their unit by using undue tactics to get the lease terminated, such as intimidation or the much-discussed phenomenon of renovictions, using major work, or the claim of major work, to vacate the unit.
By all accounts, this surge is continuing into 2023.
“It’s certainly not slowing down,” says Cédric Dussault, spokesperson for RCLALQ. Across the province, housing committees are seeing not just an increase in evictions, but a refining of the tactics, too.
“Landlords are clearly talking to each other. There are Facebook groups for landlords where they are discussing the best ways to evict tenants, sharing tips.”
And it’s hard to even know the full extent of the problem.
“Even though we know this issue is getting worse, it’s important to note that there are many more evictions that happen that we don’t hear about,” says Dussault.
Most of them aren’t flagged to housing groups or brought to the Tribunal administratif du logement (TAL), Quebec’s tribunal for all matters pertaining to housing, he notes.
The goal of these evictions, community workers say, is to take advantage of ineffective rent control measures when signing a lease with a new tenant, allowing landlords to hike rents against the provisions in Quebec’s Civil Code and with no repercussions.
“What’s become clear through the explosion of evictions is the lack of effective rent control,” Dussaut says. “Because there is an almost complete absence of oversight when a new tenant comes in, landlords have considerable financial interest in evicting their current tenant to get a new one in.”
Montreal — currently ground zero for renovictions in the province — is where the handful of commonly used eviction tactics were tested before spreading through the rest of Quebec.
A new owner comes knocking
Elizabeth Gervais had been living in her apartment in a Montreal suburb for three years when it was bought by a new owner in 2021. Soon after, she says that all the tenants of the four-plex were told that the building was unsafe because the foundation had sunk.
“[The property manager] said that the building had to get pinned down. He used a bunch of complicated words. I was stressed out because I didn't know what it meant.”
She was told the work would go on for many months and that she would have to relocate, she says. She was then offered to start a new lease in a nearby unit with the same owner, smaller than her own, for the same price.
“When I moved in, I was just not happy. It was really small. I was upset that I was paying the same price as my place. Then what ticked me off the most is that after I moved, they did a bit of work on my apartment and people moved in right after.”
She says she talked to the newly moved-in tenants, who told her they were not aware of issues with the foundation and that their rent was double what she had been paying. After confronting the owner, they agreed on compensation and terminated her lease. She found another apartment, in a different area, for a higher rent.
Mélissa White, a community worker with the Comité logement de Montréal-Nord (Montreal North Housing Committee), says this kind of situation is what they see most often in renoviction cases.
“We’ve seen multiple buildings where a new owner buys the place, then immediately begins insisting all the tenants sign agreements to leave,” she explains. “Often the tenants only realize after they sign a lease termination that they had the right to stay and didn’t need to sign anything, but then it’s too late.”
Montréal-Nord has a high proportion of new arrivals and asylum-seekers, who are even more vulnerable to abusive practices like fraudulent evictions.
“When people have just arrived, they don’t know their rights. Some landlords really take advantage of that and try and exploit them.”
Then there’s the language barrier for many, imposing further difficulty, effectively being forced to defend their rights without speaking French or English. This is especially true for immigrants and refugees.
“There’s clearly a link there,” says White.
Making way for major work
Situations where a landlord claims an eviction is necessary because of major work, when in reality no major work actually took place are surprisingly common, says Alain Deschamps, a community worker with the Comité logement Plateau Mont-Royal.
Even when major renovations do take place that require the unit to be evacuated, the tenant always has the right to return to the unit upon completion. In such cases, the landlord is responsible for covering the cost to stay elsewhere and any moving fees, while the tenant continues to pay the same monthly rent.
Still, community workers see many cases where landlords cite the need for major renovations when sending eviction notices or offers of compensation to terminate the lease.
“There are always people who will just accept the money or leave when they get a notice because they’re scared; they don’t necessarily know what their rights are. Once one person leaves, the owner starts the renovations there. Then it gets touchy for the others because it causes dust, the rain gets in,” says Deschamps.
“Having renovations going on in the neighbouring unit will always create problems in your own unit.”
Harassment and intimidation
Manuel Johnson, a lawyer specializing in housing law, says he has seen cases in which tenants are intimidated into signing lease terminations. Once signed, it is very difficult for those agreements to be nullified.
“Everybody’s presumed to be in full mental capacity [when signing an agreement]. So it’s not always easy to prove that you signed it under duress or that you were a victim of fraud, because you have to show that you either feared for your security or that you were lied to,” he says.
“My landlord was using a lot of intimidation to get me to leave,” says Anaïs Bonotaux, a tenant in Montreal. “She started to really fixate on my flowers on the balcony. She was saying I wasn’t allowed to have them and sent me letters telling me to remove them. She would show up on my balcony and touch my stuff, without warning. I told her I would like her to advise me 24 hours before she comes to my place. Then she sent me an eviction notice.”
Bonotaux took the case to the TAL, contesting the eviction and accusing her landlord of harassment. The ruling did not find that the landlord had harassed her but did find that there were no grounds for an eviction.
“I told myself maybe she would just leave me alone after that. But she just kept harassing me,” she says.
She continued to receive letters about her possessions on the balcony, which she says included accusations that she was trying to cause damage to the apartment. On one occasion, she says her landlord brought a man to the apartment for an inspection, which Anaïs suspects was not legitimate as the man would not identify himself.
“Then she sent me a letter through a lawyer asking me to leave in exchange for three months’ rent. I was scared of her. I accepted the offer.”
The situation took its toll on her mental health, she says.
“Whenever she would send me a letter, I cried, I couldn’t sleep. And it was in the middle of COVID, we had no choice but to stay at home, so to feel uncomfortable in your own home like that, it was hard.”
For Philippe Desmarais at the housing committee P.O.P.I.R. in Montreal’s Sud-Ouest borough, the renoviction tactic he is seeing the most is through bad-faith repossession.
A landlord has the right – in most cases – to repossess a unit for themselves or a direct family member, either a child or parent.
In the Sud-Ouest there has been an increase in cases where the landlord claims they are repossessing the unit for a family member, “but it’s not the child or parent who ends up moving in,” Desmarais says.
Like all the other common forms of fraudulent or bad-faith evictions, tenants can go to the TAL to contest – but doing so is an uphill battle.
“If you look at the contested cases of repossession that are won by the tenant, it’s around 15 per cent,” explains Desmarais.
The tenant has to prove the repossession for a family member didn’t occur because of bad faith, a high bar, he says. And even if they do win, they can’t get the apartment back.
“Landlords often take the chance that, even if the tenant does take them to court and wins, worst case scenario, they’ll pay a $15,000 fine.”
The tenant and the TAL
The main reason forced evictions are so common, all community workers interviewed agreed, is the inaccessibility of justice through the TAL.
The TAL has a double mandate: inform citizens of their rights and responsibilities, and provide recourse when one party, landlord or tenant, is accused of not meeting their responsibilities. But community workers are saying the TAL is failing on both these mandates.
Since the pandemic, citizens can no longer go to the TAL’s offices without first making an appointment. Appointments can be made through a portal on their website, but users in the Montreal region will quickly notice that all offices in the area have delays for appointments ranging from days to weeks. Reaching an employee through the phone line can also prove challenging, often involving long wait times.
For certain situations, such as contesting an evacuation notice or a rent hike for a new lease, tenants must contest by submitting a file to the TAL within 10 days. If the tenant can’t secure an appointment within that time frame, they effectively lose the ability to contest, something Deschamps says he has seen happen.
Those tenants who do open a file must be prepared for a months’ long endeavour.
“It causes a lot of stress. If you refuse a repossession (notice of which can be sent to tenants six months ahead of time), it’s the landlord who has to open a file at the TAL and they have a month to do so,” Desmarais explains.
“By the time you get to the date of your hearing, it’s already about two months before you’d have to be gone. Then the judge doesn’t issue a decision right away; they have some time to deliberate. It doesn’t give people much time and there’s the stress of not knowing whether you’ll win, so some people prefer to just leave than to have to deal with that.”
Eva (not her real name), a tenant in Montreal, is considering pursuing her former landlord for compensation for being fraudulently evicted, but is hesitant because of the commitment it would involve. She asked to remain anonymous in case she does choose to proceed with legal action.
“I got a notice that there would be major work in my apartment, I was being offered three months’ rent to leave,” she says. “At that point, I decided to refuse. I told the landlord’s lawyer that I was prepared to negotiate but that I was refusing their offer.
“We had a lot of exchanges after that. It was a really negative environment, and I just didn’t want to be in that situation anymore.”
She knew that the sum she was being offered would disappear quickly in Montreal’s current rental market, and she wanted to negotiate a larger compensation. But when she started looking around for her next apartment, she quickly realized she wouldn’t be able to hold out for much longer.
“All landlords ask for references from previous landlords now. My landlord was called for an application of mine and told me, ‘If you don’t accept my offer, I can’t give you a good reference. We have to have a good rapport for you to be able to find somewhere else to live.’”
Eva is now in a different apartment with a higher rent, and she hasn’t benefited from any compensation. After she had already made the decision to leave, she learned that the notice of major work she was sent did not comply with the law. She’s now weighing the pros and cons of seeking a higher compensation.
The main barriers: “It’s the money, the time commitment and the emotional toll,” she says. “I’d be losing money because I’d have to miss work when I go to court. Will I even be able to get the day off?”
A high burden of proof
“In most cases, the responsibility to prove the landlord has acted in bad faith is on the tenant,” says Dussault. “It’s a structural issue that contributes to the frequency of these kinds of abuses and the fact that fraudulent evictions are more common than legitimate ones.”
Johnson says that the law doesn't have enough teeth to punish landlords who act in bad faith.
“Even when we manage to show that, for example, the tenant signed an agreement that was abusive or invalid, it’s really hard to get the Tribunal to give an amount of damages,” he says.
He says it’s one thing to prove that the tenant was misinformed, but to actually prove malicious intent on the part of the landlord is a high bar to meet. He believes that the onus of proving bad faith should shift away from individual tenants and to the collective.
“We, as a society, have a collective interest to be sure that everyone is decently housed at a price they can afford. We can avoid a lot of social problems by doing that.”
One way Deschamps proposes doing that is by recreating the system currently used to enforce labour laws, with a Commission that can take landlords to court on behalf of the tenants in cases of alleged illegal tactics.
Opening the door to discrimination
Tenants who do go to the TAL to contest their landlord’s actions risk discrimination down the line, housing groups warn.
“Landlords systematically ask for credit checks now, and landlords often won’t take tenants with a file at the TAL because it shows they had problems with a past landlord,” says Deschamps.
He believes this is a significant issue with the current system, and says that the only files that a landlord should be able to see when searching a potential tenant’s history at the TAL are files related to non-payment or evictions.
“I can't tell you the number of times that tenants have decided not to pursue something because they know next time they rent, if they bring a case to the TAL, there’s going to be a ‘stain’ on their record,” says Deschamps.
“It’s true that legally a landlord cannot discriminate, but if I’m a landlord, I don’t have to tell you that I’m discriminating against you,” says Desmarais. “I can decide for myself that anyone who has been to the TAL, I don’t want as my tenant. I don’t need to tell you that’s why I’m not renting to you.”
The solutions, community workers says, aren’t hard to find: implement a mandatory rent registry, fund social housing, and raise fines for landlords found to have used an illegal eviction maneuver. But they all require political will on the part of the provincial government.
“You can say (property speculators) are greedy, and they lack morals,” says Johnson. “But the legal framework is there for them to do this. We can denounce their behavior, we can try to sue them, but ultimately, the solution has to come from the state.”