At the end of 2019, I moved in with my girlfriend and left behind what felt like an unspeakably good deal: a beloved one-bedroom apartment less than five minutes away from the metro with a monthly rent under $650 dollars.

Rent in Montreal had begun creeping up, and while I was excited to cohabitate, I felt nervous about finding an equally affordable apartment. My partner and I looked for a lease transfer: at the time in Quebec, if a tenant wanted to get out of their lease, they could simply find a tenant to take it over, renting the spot at the same rate. A landlord could refuse the transfer only for serious reasons, like if the prospective tenant couldn’t reliably pay rent.

Thankfully, we quickly connected with someone in the neighbourhood who wanted to leave her sunny two-bedroom. She wound up also being interested in my apartment, so in the end, we took over her lease, and I happily transferred my old place to her. We each got out of our leases early and landed in affordable units — and our landlords each got solid tenants without having to do the work of looking for anyone new. Everyone won. 

Had we been in the same situation today though, the process may not have been so smooth. 

In February, Quebec passed new housing legislation, Bill 31. The new rules included several controversial changes to housing laws in the province, one of which was effectively killing lease transfers. Now, landlords can reject lease transfers without a serious reason, and opt instead to end a tenant’s lease early. Most landlords prefer to raise the rent in between tenants, so their willingness to reject transfers is likely to be high. Tenants, for their part, have lost an effective tool that has helped to preserve some housing affordability.

“Bill 31 was nothing more than a frontal attack against tenants in Quebec. In a context where the landlords-tenants relations were already heavily tilted in favour of landlords, this will only worsen the situation.” 

While the new rules around lease transfers dominated headlines, the new laws affected a number of other areas including evictions and the development of new housing. Some elements of the bill — such as new rules that will require higher compensations for renovictions — add protections for renters. But others, like the weakening of lease transfers, will leave vulnerable tenants more at risk. 

Housing minister France-Elaine Duranceau has insisted the new laws are meant to address Quebec’s ever worsening housing crisis. But tenant and housing rights advocates feel that even the bill’s pro-tenant content doesn’t go far enough to significantly impact housing affordability or security. They worry that the loss of lease transfers could actually accelerate the crisis.

“Bill 31 was nothing more than a frontal attack against tenants in Quebec,” says Yaya Baumann, a member of the housing rights group le Front de Lutte pour un Immobilier Populaire (FLIP). “In a context where the landlords-tenants relations were already heavily tilted in favour of landlords, this will only worsen the situation.”

The housing crisis in Quebec has deepened rapidly in recent years as rents have ballooned, renovictions have skyrocketed and homelessness has increased provincewide. Rather than introducing legislation to boldly tackle these problems, critics say, the province has missed an important chance to act to improve housing rights and security at a crucial time. 

Vacancy rate is lowest in two decades

Quebec has the highest percentage of renters in the country, with nearly 40 per cent of people renting their homes. But what was once considered a renter-friendly haven is becoming more hostile. 

Last year, the average price for a housing rental rose by almost 11 per cent — higher than the 8.4 per cent average observed across the country. 

As rents have increased, landlords have become more aggressive in their bids to force tenants with lower rents out. In 2022, housing advocate group le Regroupement des comités logement et association locataires du Québec (RCLALQ) found that forced evictions in the province had gone up by 150 per cent  compared to the previous year. 

Meanwhile, housing is increasingly difficult to secure. Quebec’s vacancy rate is the lowest it’s  been in 20 years — in some parts of the province, it sits below one per cent. 

Between 2018 and 2022, the province saw a 44 per cent increase in homelessness, which Andrés Fontecilla, the housing critic, says is indicative of the worsening crisis. “The housing crisis manifests in many ways, including a rise in visible homelessness,” he says. “In Montreal, Quebec City, even smaller towns like Joliette and Gaspé.” 

Housing advocates are concerned that Bill 31 will most affect renters who are already the most vulnerable to the housing crisis. 

Montreal renters protesting Bill 31. Photo via The Link

The changes to the law not only make it much harder for tenants to secure affordable rent via lease transfer, housing advocates say, they also open the door for more housing discrimination. 

“Housing discrimination is illegal, but it’s also very hard to prove when it happens,” says Véronique Laflamme, a spokesperson for Le Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) a tenant rights group in the province. Laflamme explains that’s especially true when multiple tenants are vying for the same unit, as landlords don’t have to disclose why they chose one tenant over another.  

Advocates do know, however, that housing discrimination is increasingly common. In 2023, for example, Quebec’s Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse investigated 10 per cent more claims regarding discrimination linked to housing access than in the previous year. 

Laflamme says that she’s heard from LGBTQ+ people who have favoured lease transfers as a way to avoid homophobic or transphobic housing discrimination. Other vulnerable groups have also used lease transfers to secure stable housing. “People without status, people with lower-incomes, single mothers fleeing domestic violence — they may not be the first people chosen by landlords,” she says. “Lease transfers allowed some vulnerable tenants the ability to access a more affordable place.” 

Lease transfers, she said, were also the easiest way to prevent abusive rent increases. But there are other rules  in place to avoid large rent increases between tenants in Quebec, she explains. 

Most landlords in Quebec don’t have the right to raise rents as much as they want — there is a cap on the legal amount most rents are allowed to increase, even after a lease is broken. When a tenant signs a new lease, their landlord is supposed to indicate the highest rent paid on the unit in the past 12 months in a part of the lease called “Section G.” Absent major renovations, the difference in the amount tenants pay year to year should, in theory, be minimal (these rent control measures only apply to buildings older than five years). 

But these rules are rarely enforced, Laflamme says, and landlords can often jack up rents in between tenants with impunity. 

“Expect to see us in the street in the future,” Baumann says. “We are only starting!”

Should a tenant learn their landlord has significantly increased their rent, the onus is on them to take their landlord to court to get their rent reduced back to the legal rate. 

I went through this process recently, and it wasn’t an easy one. Two years after moving in together, my girlfriend and I moved again, this time without seeking a lease transfer. Upon signing our new lease, we learned that the landlord had raised the rent by almost $450 between the last tennant and us — nearly a 50 percent increase. 

We opened up a file at the Tribunal Administratif du Logement, Quebec’s housing court, and a judge eventually ruled in our favour.  Our rent was lowered and we were reimbursed, but the ordeal took nearly a year and a half, start to finish. Throughout that period the instability of our housing situation often felt all-encompassing: I spent  hours researching and preparing our case, and talking to housing advocates. I frequently got so stressed I couldn’t sleep. 

For us, the fight was worth it, but it’s unrealistic to think all tenants will be willing or able to assert their rights in similar ways. I speak French, am in reasonably good health, and am lucky enough to have a job and a life that allowed me time to prepare for my case and attend two separate court dates. Someone with fewer of these privileges may not have been able to fight the same way. 

“People without status, people with lower-incomes, single mothers fleeing domestic violence — they may not be the first people chosen by landlords. Lease transfers allowed some vulnerable tenants the ability to access a more affordable place.” 

Under Bill 31, any landlord who knowingly fails to fill out Section G, or who lies about the rent the previous tenant paid can be pursued for damages, but this too puts the onus on tenants, who are likely to be fearful of making their relationship to their landlords acrimonious from the start. “There’s too much pressure on tennant’s shoulders,” Laflamme says. 

Laflamme also points out that without a rent registry, these new rules can only go so far. “Most abusive rent increases happen when a tenant is leaving,” she says. “Without a formal registry, tenants don’t have any means to know what price the previous tenant was paying.” 

Advocates have been pushing for a rent registry for years, and the topic came up in the legislature while the bill was being studied. But the provincial government has not committed to putting one in place.  

While Bill 31 does include some changes to speed up the construction of social housing, critics worry they’re not the right ones. For the next three years, municipalities will be allowed to bypass some bylaws, such as landscaping or height restrictions, to approve new constructions so long as the projects are mostly made up of student, social or affordable housing. Critics worry these changes could make way for corruption

Where Bill 31 will be most effective is in the realm of renovictions. While previously tenants had to open a file with the TAL in order to refuse an eviction, now tenants who do not respond to an eviction notice will be assumed to have refused. 

Landlords will also have to compensate tenants the equivalent of one months rent for every year they’ve lived in the building, up to 24 years. This may dissuade some landlords from using bad faith evictions to force out tenants with low rents who have been living in a unit for decades. 

Tenants can now also pursue their former landlords for damages if they suspect they were evicted under false pretenses—even if they left willingly. The onus will be on landlords to prove they acted in good faith.   

The housing minister is accused of house flipping

Bill 31 didn’t pass quietly. It took eight eventful months to pass. 

During that period, reports emerged that housing minister Duranceau had previously participated in real estate flipping with a business partner who lobbies the Quebec government.  The ethics commissioner for the Quebec legislature eventually determined Duranceau had committed an ethics breach  and “abusively favoured the personal interests of one of her friends,”  by meeting with that partner in 2022.  

Protests popped up around the province, with people in multiple cities gathering to express their discontent with the proposed law, and with the minister’s behaviour over the summer. Advocates interrupted events that Duranceau spoke at in the fall. In the winter,  a group of self-described anarchists attempted to vandalize the door of the minister’s office with red paint in order to protest the bill, but they accidentally targeted the wrong building instead. Just days before the bill passed, protests against it continued. 

Baumann says that while opposition to the bill didn’t prevent it from passing, tenant groups can build on this momentum and keep fighting for more protections. 

Baumann says that, like Laflamme, they’d like to see a rental registry. “I believe that a protection that could be realistically obtained,” they say. They’d also like to see a province-wide rent-freeze. 

Some tenant groups have re-focused on reaching as many renters as possible, educating them about their rights. In recent weeks, as many tenants whose leases end on Quebec’s July 1 moving day receive their annual rent increases, rights groups have begun doing outreach to tenants to teach them about what constitutes an abusive increase and how to fight it. 

Others, like FLIP will focus more locally, advocating on the municipal and borough levels, and against corporate landlords. 

“Expect to see us in the street in the future,” Baumann says. “We are only starting!”