Down and Out in Montreal's Never-Ending Housing Crisis
Major renovations push dozens from their homes in what is becoming an all too familiar story in the city's traditional working class neighbourhoods.
I’m proud to introduce the next phase of this little experiment of ours. Starting today, we’ll do our best to bring you stories from emerging journalists who aren’t getting their due in traditional media. This week, we have a brilliant piece on Montreal’s rental crisis from Savannah Stewart, whose work has appeared in Cult MTL, Briarpatch Magazine and The Link.
I’m excited for you to read this and for us to keep introducing you to my favourite writers. Onward!
There Goes the Neighbourhood: Speculation and Renovictions Transforming Southwest Montreal
By Savannah Stewart
“The point of a rooming house is to house people who can’t live anywhere else,” says Tom. He watches his white terrier Freudig bathing in a kiddy pool, a reprieve from the heat.
We’re at the Le Ber dog park in Pointe-Saint-Charles, down the street from the Ash Ave. rooming house Tom has been living in for two years. He’s not especially attached to his room, roughly 12 by 6 in an “L” shape, but he likes the neighbourhood. His social worker has an office at the Pointe-Saint-Charles community clinic just a short walk from the park, and he’s on friendly terms with some of the other tenants.
There’s been a lot for the tenants of the rooming house to talk about lately, ever since a new owner, Henry Zavriyev, took over in July. An employee of Zavriyev’s soon began knocking on the doors of the 35 rooms to inform residents of upcoming renovations and offer cash buyouts to vacate before the work starts.
But in Montreal’s worst housing crisis in 15 years, Tom doesn’t know where he could go if he left.
“This crisis is not just about housing availability, but also about pricing,” says Véronique Laflamme, a spokesperson for the renter’s rights group FRAPRU. Laflamme says that Pointe-Saint-Charles is part of the sector of Montreal that saw the highest rental pricing increase last year, rising by 21%.
This increase was largely driven by increased speculation and owner practices like renoviction—landlords using major renovations to evict tenants and raise rents for a more affluent clientele.
Zavriyev’s company hasn’t applied for a renovation permit yet. On August 24 a city inspector visited the building and shut down some excavation work for the second time since the building changed hands.
Zavriyev said the major renovation work wouldn’t begin until everyone had made arrangements with his employee, the property manager. Some 15 tenants have signed an agreement to leave the building for various sums of money. But community workers in the area are concerned about the tactics used to reach those agreements, and that some who signed might not have been aware that they had the right to refuse.
“People are used to doing what they’re told when their boss or their landlord tells them to,” says Sébastien Laliberté, who works with the Regroupement Information Logement (RIL). The group has been informing the building’s tenants of their rights: they don’t need to sign anything they don’t want to, and they have the right to stay. The RIL is concerned some residents, like the elderly or those living with mental illness or addiction, were more easily talked into signing an agreement that is not in their best interest.
“There is no homogeneous group in this building, which is what a lot of people think when they think of rooming houses,” says Patrick de Gruyter, a community worker with Saint Columba House. “For some of them, life is a little bit harder. And for those, it’s also harder to deal with a situation like this where they’re being evicted, or they’re being told that they’re being evicted.”
Zavriyev insists that no one is being evicted, and residents who wish to stay can return after renovations are done. “It’s being facilitated in a very humane and just way,” he says.
Though Zavriyev told me they will be able to return post-renovations, the RIL has been hearing from tenants that the message they’ve gotten is they should find a place elsewhere. The question is, where?
Searching for apartments in Pointe-Saint-Charles will turn up the very occasional room for rent as low as about $550 a month, but the vast majority of units are listed around or above $1,000 monthly. Add to that the disappearance of rooming houses city-wide in the last 20 years and the fact that many places don’t accept pets, and people like Tom find themselves with very few options unless they look further and further away from the city and their community.
“They were thinking of the short term, but I’m thinking more long term,” says Tom about those who signed an agreement to leave the building. Freudig is now sitting beside him on the picnic table in the park, wet and panting, and Tom pets him absentmindedly. “I’m thinking about what I’m going to do in a few years from now.”
Tom studied mathematics at a post-graduate level, and conversation with him often takes detours into economics or political theory. He worked at an insurance company for 14 years before becoming profoundly disillusioned with capitalism. He hated feeling like he was exploiting people for money, and cut ties with the company following a dispute with his boss over shady practices. After a few rough months of active job hunting, he went on welfare.
The main benefit of living in the rooming house is affordability. Tom’s $400 rent is low enough that he’s able to feed himself and his dog without having to rely on foodbanks. His social worker advised him not to sign any agreement, and he’s followed that advice. Besides, he says that the deals he’s been offered so far don’t provide the stability that staying put does.
By law, Zavriyev is required to pay three months’ rent and cover moving expenses. He says that he believes those who have signed an agreement have been offered $5,000 to $6,000. Residents dispute this, and at least one tenant reports accepting an offer of $2,000. This does meet the legal requirement, but it doesn’t take long for that money to run out in today’s housing market.
“We need this for people who can’t afford housing in this sky-rocketing rental market,” says Tom.
In the Sud-Ouest borough, where Pointe-Saint-Charles is located, buildings that have special status as rooming houses are protected, so Zavriyev will have to keep it as such. But the neighbourhood has seen the price of its rental housing soar, and the building is in an attractive location for students — on the 57 bus route that ends at Concordia University’s downtown campus.
The reality is that quite a few of the people in this rooming house [...] will end up without housing. And that could be 30 people that become homeless, more than we already have.”
—Patrick de Gruyter, community worker
“There is such a housing shortage that he will likely be able to raise the rent considerably,” says Laliberté.
Some of the tenants who signed wanted to leave and are already gone, but about half of those who signed have voiced regrets to the RIL. But they’re not out of options yet.
“They still have an opportunity to dispute this. We can change this,” says de Gruyter. “For that, you need lawyers, and lawyers are really hard to find right now because we are in a huge housing crisis.” The RIL has put tenants in touch with a lawyer to begin this process.
De Gruyter is fed up with the slow progress in addressing the housing crisis in Montreal. It’s why he’s running as an independent for city councillor in the Sud-Ouest. “The reality is that quite a few of the people in this rooming house [...] will end up without housing,” he says. “And that could be 30 people that become homeless, more than we already have.”
Sud-Ouest city councillor Craig Sauvé says some renovation will likely be legally required given the state of the building, and the city will be monitoring the situation. “We’re watching it super closely and we’re working directly with the RIL,” he says.
Sauvé says that though there are laws against rent hikes after renovations, like that hikes be capped at $2.58 per $1,000 spent, it’s easy for landlords to get away with more than that in the current system. This is especially true when leasing to a new tenant since they don’t always know how much it was rented for before them. He says more legislation and oversight is needed at the provincial level to stop rent hikes that contribute to the housing crisis.
A legal, proportional rent increase post-renovation for all tenants who wish to remain is a reasonable solution for Tom. He knows the building would benefit from some work and that work entails an increase. But right now, the tenants at 591 Ash are getting the sense that they’re not even welcome back in their own homes.
For the time being, he and Freudig are holding fast. Tom doesn’t see any other choice.
About the Author…
Savannah Stewart is a freelance writer, editor and translator from Montreal. She is a regular contributor for Cult MTL, and her work has also appeared in The Link and Briarpatch. She tweets at