This article is part of our joint investigation into Airbnb and the housing crisis with Pivot. You can read a French version on their site.
An audit of disclosure forms that detail the financial interests of all 103 Montreal municipal politicians has uncovered a potentially significant conflict of interest in how the city sets housing policy.
Among Montreal’s muncipal politicians, those who own the largest number of residential units also currently hold seats, or recently sat, on the Commission on Economic and Urban Development and Housing, the standing committee tasked with, among other things, finding affordable housing solutions.
“I think the conflict of interest is really substantial,” said Margaret van Nooten, a social rights worker at Project Genesis, a non-profit organization that advocates for housing rights in the city’s Côte-des-Neiges borough. “I don’t think they’re going to be defending their constituents if they are stakeholders [in the housing market].”
At the end of each year elected officials in Montreal are required to declare their “pecuniary interests,” which includes real estate holdings on the island, companies they hold interest in or administrate that are likely to do business with the city, debts over $2,000 owed, or that are due to people outside of their immediate family or a financial institution.
Maeva Vilain, a Projet Montréal borough councilor in the Plateau Mont-Royal; Angela Gentile, an Ensemble Montréal city councilor for Saint-Leonard; and Josée Troilo, an Equipe LaSalle borough councilor for LaSalle, collectively declared a financial interest in 58 apartments on the island.
Gentile also neglected to declare at least one fourplex in her name, valued at nearly $1 million by the city’s tax assessor.
Politicians are not required to declare properties located outside of Montreal.
Ricochet reviewed the city’s tax assessment roll, Quebec’s business registry, past court cases related to each declared building, and interviewed former tenants who were taken to court by the politicians or their significant others.
The results of the audit suggest that elected officials, across the political spectrum, are removed from the on-the-ground realities faced by many of those in the city’s renting class. And, in some of the most prominent instances, they may be directly contributing to the city’s growing lack of affordability.
Evictions, rent increases and unhappy tenants
Maeva Vilain, borough councilor for Projet Montréal in the Plateau-Mont-Royal, who sat on the city’s housing committee until 2022, declared interest in five residential buildings in Montreal — a total of 30 apartments, the largest number declared by any municipal politician. Most of the apartments are owned by her husband, Renaud Chartier, or his company 9263-1431 QUÉBEC INC. It’s an investment valued at nearly $6-million according to the city’s tax assessment roll.
“For transparency, I have always declared the properties that we’ve acquired as part of our joint assets, but I do not act as a shareholder of the companies and I am in no way involved in their management decisions,” she wrote in French. “I have never put myself in a situation of conflict of interest which would have led to favoring our personal interests.”
Ricochet investigated each apartment’s history at the Tribunal administratif du logement, Quebec’s housing tribunal, and found more than a dozen applications for eviction over the past decade, the most recent having been filed in December 2020, while Vilain sat on the commission. One case was for non-payment of $30. Another eviction was for rent that was less than three weeks late.
Vilain also repossessed an apartment for her mother in 2016, against the wishes of the tenant who had lived there for 16 years. When reached by phone, the tenant said losing her home was a traumatizing experience. “My god, what a nightmare … they’re not good people. They just want to make money,” she said, referring to Vilain and Chartier.
Ricochet agreed to give the tenant anonymity because she is currently looking for housing and doesn’t want trouble with future landlords.
She claims Chartier proposed an enlargement of her apartment that would add an extra room, but in exchange the rent would increase from approximately $700 per month to $1300 per month. “He tried to convince me it was in my interest… but it was not in my interest, it was in his interest,” she said. Permits for the work weren’t issued by the city and the plans to renovate fell apart. According to the tenant, she received a notice of repossession a short time later, giving her six months to vacate her home.
When contacted by email, Vilain defended her position and voting record on housing issues, claiming her personal interests have no influence on her decision making at City Hall.
“We have implemented some of the most innovative measures to deal with the loss of affordability in our neighborhood,” she wrote in French. “In particular, I would like to underline my support for the pioneering measures to regulate Airbnb in 2018 and to change our regulatory framework to prohibit mergers and subdivisions of housing, one of the main mechanisms of ‘renoviction’ that we had identified.”
“Nevertheless, I can testify that [my husband’s business] is exemplary in its rental management, both in terms of respect for tenants and building maintenance,” she wrote.
A current tenant of Chartier’s said the living conditions in his building are subpar, and his relationship with the landlord, tenuous. He claimed Chartier would come in and make some upgrades, then triple the rents in the building. “If I had to grade him on a scale of one to 10, I would give him a two,” he said. The tenant asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation from Chartier should his name be published.
“These [increases] are justified by the significant investment in major renovations, including the upgrading of plumbing and electricity, carried out to provide quality housing,” wrote Vilain. “It should be noted that this work has always been done when the tenants leave and has never been used as a pretext to evict them.”
Vilain maintains that her husband always fills out the former rent accurately on each new lease, and that no buildings have been converted into condos nor have any tenants been ‘renovicted.’
Angela Gentile, City Councilor for Saint-Leonard, with Ensemble Montreal, currently sits on the city’s housing commission in addition to being the chair of a standing committee in her borough which oversees social housing. She also declared interest in three buildings consisting of 16 apartments, the second most among elected officials — valued by the municipal tax assessment at over $3.5 million.
During the audit Ricochet was able to find an undeclared four-plex in Gentile’s name, and another four-plex in her husband and daughter’s name. The two other buildings add nearly $3 million to the councilor’s portfolio, nearly double the value she declared.
Also omitted from her declaration are certain businesses in which she is either a shareholder or administrator, some of which also hold properties on the island.
Gentile did not reply to a request for comment, but the press secretary for Ensemble Montreal forwarded Ricochet a decision marked “confidential” and addressed to Gentile, written by the substitute ethics advisor for the city of Montreal, Jean Hétu.
What information Gentile sent to the ethics advisor remains unclear.
“You inquired whether the mere fact that you own certain buildings in Montreal could put you in a situation of a conflict of interest. We answer in the negative this question for the legal reasons which follow,” wrote Hétu, in French. “The fact that an elected member sits on the Commission on Economic and Urban Development [and Housing] is not in itself a source of conflict interest even if the elected official owns buildings. If this were the case, few elected municipal officials could sit on the various committees or commissions of the municipal council.”
According to Hétu, elected officials are only required to declare buildings in their own name, and are not required to declare buildings owned by their spouse, or buildings owned by companies in which they hold interest.
“Indeed, the Court of Appeal recalled that the legal personality of a company is distinct from its shareholders or its directors,” wrote Hétu “An elected official does not have to declare the buildings owned by his company and he only needs to mention in his annual declaration that he owns shares in such a company.”
Additionally, councilors are only required to list companies that are likely to win contracts with the city of Montreal.
As for the four-plex in Gentile’s name that didn’t make it into her declaration, Hétu points out that an elected official can correct their declaration if they forgot to include a building, in good faith.
No other comment was provided.
Councilor and real estate agent also sits on housing committee
Josee Troilo, Borough Councilor for LaSalle, with Équipe LaSalle Team, a former real estate agent at RE/MAX, also currently sits on the city’s housing committee. She declared interest in two buildings consisting of 12 apartments, the third most among elected officials — valued at nearly $3 million by the city’s tax assessor.
Troilo’s and her husband went before the tribunal after their tenant refused a rent hike earlier this year. In its decision, the judge ruled that the rent increase “requested by the landlords is higher than the rent adjustment granted by the Tribunal under the Regulation.” In other words, they were asking for a rent increase larger than permitted under provincial guidelines. The rent was adjusted accordingly.
In 2017, Troilo also filed for eviction against another one of her tenants, later reaching an agreement for the tenant to vacate the apartment on July 1st.
Troilo did not respond to a request for comment.
Passing the buck
Last year, the housing commission released its recommendations on establishing a certificate for responsible landlords and implementation of a rent registry (Although Projet Montréal’s proposed certificate would only apply to buildings of eight or more units, excluding 65 per cent of Montreal landlords).
The report lists a wide array of housing issues faced by Montrealers as a result of the housing crisis, indicating the commission’s awareness of these issues and alleged interest in resolving them.
These included noting that rising rental costs have left low-income and marginalized households living in poor conditions, that rising housing prices “threaten the economic vitality of the territory, weaken its social fabric and contribute to the onset of homelessness” and that the World Health Organization has found housing is a key determinant of physical and mental health and shapes the ability of individuals to “lead healthy lives and participate in civic life.”
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It goes on to address the issues of evictions and living conditions, but deflects a majority of the issues mentioned to the provincial government. “Commissioners would like to point out that the City of Montreal is experiencing a major housing crisis, which must be recognized as such by the government of Quebec.
“The latter holds the tools, the legal levers and the resources to counter it and must take the necessary means in the face of the emergency,” writes the commission, suggesting that they will increase their efforts to speak before the provincial government on these matters.
While acknowledging some of the legislation lies with the provincial government, Margaret Van Nooten, a Social Rights Worker at Project Genesis, thinks the city and boroughs do have a variety of options at their disposal. “Different boroughs can pass restrictions and refuse to issue permits in order to permit landlords to change the size of the dwelling,” which would protect tenants from eviction, she said.
“I do think that we can see the potential for whoever happens to be in office, at the city or borough level, to have an impact on people’s right to maintain their occupancy and people’s ability to remain housed,” she said. “What we really need are policies and legislation that have teeth.”
Only one member out of 11 on the current committee is a tenant and two are major landlords. According to Statistics Canada 63 per cent of Montreal residents are tenants. Members past and present have significantly raised rents and filed for evictions.
“We need to have [elected officials] who are looking at housing as a right … and not a way of making money,” said Van Nooten.
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