The Hunger Games
Dirty tricks, illegal tactics and bribery in Montreal's rental market.
“You don’t have to wear your masks, that COVID stuff is all bullshit anyway.”
It’s not ideal for your prospective landlord to be a conspiracy theorist but three bedrooms and a backyard for $1,500 a month superseded idealism. So I gritted my teeth and nodded as he went on about Justin Trudeau being Fidel Castro’s secret love child.
I tried to diffuse the tension with neutral language, words that indicate I neither agree nor disagree that Justin does, in fact, have Fidel’s eyes.
“Well, they do sort of look alike,” I heard myself say.
He led us up a flight of stairs, knocked on the door and barged in. No one home. The place smelled like nacho cheese and cryptocurrency.
Just then, someone emerged from his bedroom, startling us. I say bedroom but it was really a living room with a bedsheet where the door should be. Another young man scurried past on his way to the kitchen, avoiding eye contact.
The back balcony overlooked a jungle gym with rusted out bicycles piled under it.
“This used to be a daycare,” the old man said. I did not believe him.
Surprisingly, that wasn’t our worst experience in Montreal’s tightening rental market. If anything, I am relieved the landlord is a person and not a property management firm. Increasingly, we’re seeing listings where you have to write your rent cheque to limited liability corporations with names like “145-147 Rue Marguerite Bourgeoys LLC” or “2110 Main Street Inc.”
One potential landlord, Canadian International Finance, sounded like a front for people who import illegal exotic birds. But it was a real company. I know this because they ran a background check that required us to provide reference letters for our cats.
“Do you think it turns them on to see how far we’ll debase ourselves?” my partner, Marie-Pier, said. “I can’t do this. I refuse to do this.”
But, we did it. We tracked down a former landlord to write us a note vouching for Noir — a 13-year-old longhaired Siberian who eats houseplants even though he knows it’ll make him sick. That part wasn’t included in his reference letter.
It gets better.
After agreeing to approve our application, CIF increased our rental price from $1,450 to $1,700 a month because, they claimed, it would be impossible to sell the building with tenants paying such a paltry sum. But even if we agreed to pay 18 per cent over the initial asking price, the agent said we still might get evicted by the new owners if they decide to give the unit to a family member or do major renovations on it.
So we threw ourselves back into the Hunger Games of Montreal’s rental market.
“Real estate has been weaponized. All of the rules have been thrown out the window. The market isn’t tied to any intrinsic value anymore. There’s not a logic or a formula, it’s just whoever is willing to throw the most money at the thing will get it.”
—Mary Lamey, real estate agent
This crisis brings out the worst in people. Everywhere we’ve been for an apartment visit, we cross paths with other families and wish some sort of terrible fate upon them. Sometimes I catch myself praying our rival tenants have bad credit and zero cat reference letters. I’m not proud of those thoughts.
Four years ago, I was living the high life in Pointe-St-Charles, paying $800 a month for a two-bedroom flat with a view of two parks and a bus stop that takes you right downtown. Last month, for nearly three times that price, we were considering a place located directly under the flight path leading to Trudeau International Airport. Aside from jet engines screaming by every ten minutes, it’s a nice apartment.
“You have a lovely place,” I told the landlord, over the roar of an Airbus.
“Thank you, I moisturize every day.”
That dialogue was made up but the part about the flight path is true.
How did we get here? How did a city once considered a renter’s dream turn into this vampire capitalism nightmare? And if it’s this hard for a white couple whose baby has a quirky name then what does the market look like for people of colour or immigrants without a credit history or proof of income?
When I started writing this, I set out to tell a funny story about our adventures in the rental market. I’ve since gone down a rabbit hole of illegal evictions, real estate moguls, high-paid lobbyists and a culture of bullying enabled by politicians who seem content looking the other way while our city burns.
You’d think Mary Lamey would be thrilled with Montreal’s housing market.
Lamey is real estate agent in a sector that’s been defying the laws of gravity. Typically, the average price of a single family home in Montreal grows by 4 or 5 per cent every year. But prices have increased by 38 per cent since the pandemic began two years ago.
In raw numbers, the home that cost $400,000 in February 2020 goes for $550,000 today. That’s roughly 10 years of growth crammed into just two. Oddly, single family home sales are down 17 per cent compared to last year. But somehow the median price of a home rose by 21 per cent in 2022.
There’s a fortune lining our streets but Lamey sounds almost despondent.
“Real estate has been weaponized,” says Lamey, a former journalist. “You have corporate investors who don’t particularly care about the rules. They’ll illegally evict someone, pay a $14,000 fine to the rental board and turn around to sell their property for over $1.3 million. That’s just the cost of doing business.”
“The way prices are going, it’s brutal. All of the rules have been thrown out the window. The market isn’t tied to any intrinsic value anymore. There’s not a logic or a formula, it’s just whoever is willing to throw the most money at the thing will get it. Rents won’t keep up with mortgage payments, property taxes and insurance.
“Something’s gotta give.”
Under Quebec law, tenants can challenge unjustified rent increases before the province’s housing tribunal. Increases must be tied to a rise in the cost of heating and maintaining an apartment or a hike in municipal taxes. But even in a white hot market, the tribunal limits increases to between 2 and 4 per cent each year.
And that’s a good thing for renters. Because while Montreal real estate prices have more than doubled in the past 13 years, median incomes have not. In fact, they’ve stayed constant at around $34,000 a year in Montreal. But if you own a building, capping rental hikes eats into your profit margin.
This is where things get messy. Desperate to cover the ballooning cost of their investment, landlords are turning to dirty and illegal tactics like renovictions.
A source who calls herself MJ was treated to a textbook renoviction two years ago. Her new landlords wanted MJ and the other tenants in her building out so they could gut it. She resisted. Instead of going to Quebec’s housing tribunal, the owners started destroying the building around her.
“They just straight up stopped fixing things. They would turn off the water without warning and keep it that way for days, they would do demolition work and leave the hallway in shambles,” said MJ, who does not want her real name published for fear of reprisals. “What they were doing was plainly illegal but I didn’t have time or money so I couldn’t fight this and they knew it. I just moved.”
MJ is just one of thousands of Montrealers affected by renovictions.
The practice exploits a loophole in Quebec’s housing regulations that allows owners to evict tenants for “major renovations.” With the tenants gone, landlords slightly change the apartment’s dimensions and put this “new” unit rental back on the market at a huge markup.
This pattern was documented in a report by the renter’s rights group RCLALQ — which argues Montreal was hit with a historic rise in renovictions last year. Of the 874 attempted evictions for “major renovations'' that came across their desk in 2021, the majority targeted tenants who’d been living in their apartment for over 10 years. They paid an average of about $750 a month in rent.
So while most tenants were older and paying a modest rent, what sort of investor was trying to kick them out of their apartment?
Well, in 53 per cent of the cases seen by RCLALQ, owners pushed for evictions within months of buying the building. In other words, they’re flipping houses to make a quick buck rather than looking at real estate as a long term investment.
I’ve seen the new landlord of a boarding house present tenants with fake eviction notices made to look like official documents from the city of Montreal. When some still refused to leave, the owner trashed the building until it was condemned and below freezing in the hallways.
He allowed three people, including an elderly man, to live in a building deemed unsafe by the city and it appears he did so by design.
There was also the real estate investment firm LS Capital Group, which waited until five days before Christmas to try to evict a single mother and her special needs son from their home. She fought the eviction for a year until finally, she left and her old place was gutted and flipped.
Two years back, that same investment firm started demolishing a west end apartment complex after some tenants refused to leave their rent-controlled units. When the sledgehammers came down, they caused asbestos contamination in the building. We only know this because one of the tenants paid $500 to have dust he found in his apartment tested in a private lab.
The firm’s owners have been hauled before the housing tribunal dozens of times but their operations continue unabated.
“The housing tribunal is toothless,” Lamey said. “For people dealing with investments that go into the millions, these fines — if they even get fined — are a drop in the bucket. I’m a working real estate agent but I’m also a mother whose kids need to find an affordable place to rent while they’re in college or starting their lives.
“What good is all this profit if only a smaller and smaller group of people have access to it? Even from a business standpoint, the market doesn’t work if people can’t afford to buy that first home. I have young buyers who drop out because people don’t have $650,000 to spend on a two or three bedroom tarted up condo in a central neighbourhood in Montreal.
“Unless you’re going to the bank of mom and dad — and that’s if they have that kind of money to spare — you can’t afford to make a down payment on something in the city. You need first time buyers, the market falls apart without first time buyers. If young people can’t afford to buy in and people who want to upgrade are afraid to sell because they won’t afford the next thing, the market is stuck.
“It’s getting to the point where the only people “sitting pretty” are the ones who sell their house so they can go into assisted living. That’s not good for anyone.”
Quebec’s rental market turns into a spectator sport every summer.
As the rest of the country celebrates Canada Day, most of the province’s leases expire on July 1. Picture tens of thousands of Montrealers toiling away in the heat, carrying old couches and refrigerators down spiral staircases as they nod and watch as their neighbours do the same.
There’s always some poor bastard in a pickup truck, enlisted to haul furniture from one narrow road in the Plateau to another, zigzagging past rented U-Hauls and discarded bookshelves. Eventually he realizes the pickup truck he owns will doom him to an eternity of helping friends move on July 1 so he either sells it or plans a camping trip every Canada Day.
It’s a chaotic way to spend the country’s birthday but it also gives us a clearer picture of how tight the market is. In the midst of the city’s rental crunch, it’s a foregone conclusion that hundreds of families across Montreal face the prospect of homelessness on July 1.
“It’s not uncommon for landlords, at the last minute, to ask if someone is a permanent resident. That is 100 per cent illegal but they do it because they get away with it.”
—Amy Darwish, housing advocate
Two years ago, an unprecedented 395 households in Montreal were without a new apartment after their lease expired in July. Only 116 found an apartment by summer’s end. The rest had to rely on Montreal’s emergency housing service to avoid sleeping on the street.
“They were housed in motels, some had to move from one emergency shelter to the next for months,” said Véronique Laflamme, a spokesperson for the renter’s rights group FRAPRU. “We heard horror stories, people living in their cars or having to beg relatives to stay on their couch for weeks at a time.”
At the time, Montreal’s vacancy rate was about 2.7 per cent — low but not quite at crisis levels. Conventional wisdom dictates that once more rental units open up, the problem goes away. But when the vacancy rate shot up to 3.7 per cent in Montreal last year, there were still hundreds of people who couldn’t find a home by July.
In total, 392 households called on Montreal for emergency housing on July 1. Those are almost identical to the previous year’s record-setting numbers. What happened?
“There are more available units on the market but almost no one can afford them,” Laflamme said. “For the landlord, it’s better to have a unit sit empty than to have someone living in there and paying a reasonable rent. If it’s empty, you can sell the building. If there’s a tenant, it’s a lot harder.”
The crisis is even worse in neighbourhoods with large immigrant and racialized populations.
“There’s rampant housing discrimination against immigrant and racialized tenants in Montreal right now,” said Amy Darwish, who works with tenants in the city’s Parc Extension neighbourhood.
“It’s not uncommon for landlords, at the last minute, to ask someone if they’re a permanent resident. That is 100 per cent illegal but they do it because they get away with it. You have immigrant families being told that, once their potential landlord meets them for the first time, that actually the unit is reserved for students.”
Parc Extension is historically one of Montreal’s most impoverished districts but one that’s always been welcoming to immigrants and refugees. That started to change a few years ago when the Université de Montréal bought up a swath of formerly-industrial land in the neighbourhood and used it to expand the college’s campus.
Since then, Darwish says, there’s been a push to get rid of working class tenants and replace them with students or young professionals.
“We used to be alarmed when we would see 30 eviction attempts in one year,” Darwish said. “Now you might see 30 attempted evictions in one week. I’m anticipating it’s going to be a really bad July 1 this year.
“Landlords feel emboldened enough to use illegal tactics. They’ll incessantly bang on people’s doors and demand they leave, they’ll call at all hours, they’ll stop fixing things and they make life so miserable that people break down and take a deal to leave.”
Darwish says this is creating an “exodus” of poverty into the suburbs. More and more vulnerable people are leaving the island of Montreal — where they at least have a social network and support from community groups — to find something within their means in suburbia.
But this leads to another problem.
As bad as things are in Montreal, it’s one of the only major cities in Quebec with a vacancy rate above 3 per cent. Forty-one of the province’s 44 largest cities have a lower vacancy rate than Montreal’s, according to the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation. But if you’re stuck without affordable housing in Joliette or Sherbrooke, you don’t have access to nearly as many emergency services as you would in a city the size of Montreal.
At the lowest end of the economic spectrum, Montreal’s rental crisis is an unmitigated disaster. A tightening market coincides with a surge in homelessness and the emergence of tent cities across the island. By some estimates, Montreal’s unhoused population has doubled in the past two years.
On a given night, there can be over 4,000 people sleeping outside. Some prefer roughing it because they’re afraid of catching COVID-19 or bed bugs at a crowded shelter so they put themselves at risk and sleep on a cardboard sheet in some downtown laneway.
Last year, two unhoused people reportedly froze to death on the streets of Montreal. Another two died this winter. Just like the rental crisis, this disproportionately affects people of colour and Indigenous folks.
At Resilience Montreal — a shelter where most clients are Indigenous — it’s getting harder for street workers to help people find a way off the streets. The shelter’s housing program is stalling as landlords jack rent on cockroach infested apartments or tell tenants outright they don’t rent units to Indigenous people.
“One of our clients, Tina, pays $600 a month for a room that has bed bugs,” says David Chapman, who works at Resilience. “She asked me, ‘Can we find something without bed bugs and cockroaches?’ So I called my contacts, scoured the market and they basically told me ‘$600 is a good deal for bed bugs and cockroaches. We know people who pay $800 for those kinds of units.’”
One of my contacts, who we’ll call Mark, sleeps in a tent on the hard packed soil under the Ville Marie Expressway. Sleeping outside means he’s more liable to drink and use heroin to cope with the stress of sleeping rough. His road back to sobriety starts with getting a roof over his head but that’s unlikely in this market.
“I have bad credit, I don’t have any references outside of the shelter, I’m not exactly an ideal candidate,” Mark said. “You used to be able to find a slumlord who didn’t care as long as he got his cheque eventually. But now you’re actually competing with other tenants to see who gets to live in a dumpy apartment. We’re fighting just to live in filth.”
There is no rental crisis.
That’s the official position of the Coalition Avenir Québec government.
During a heated exchange in the National Assembly in April 2021, Premier François Legault told opposition MNA Manon Massé that it was still possible for people in Montreal to find an apartment for $500 a month. After he was lambasted in the press for being disconnected from reality, Legault claimed he actually meant that two roommates could each pitch in $500 to pay for a two-bedroom apartment.
The same month of his now infamous $500 gaffe, Legault and his wife sold their Outremont home for $4.25 million. They downgraded to a $3.2 million penthouse overlooking the Saint Lawrence River. It’s hard to see what’s happening on the ground when you live on the top floor of a skyscraper.
There are 188 lobbyists courting the provincial government and municipalities across Quebec on behalf of real estate developers. The condo giant Devimco has 20 files before the government totalling more than $1.3 million in lobbying fees.
While critics of the premier might be tempted to chalk up his ignorance of the crisis to another Montreal versus “les régions” wedge issue his party thrives on, it’s actually a Quebec-wide phenomenon. Quebec City, where the CAQ has a strong foothold, saw 200 households request emergency shelter last July compared to just 77 the year before.
In Trois-Rivières, another CAQ fortress, there were 2,000 households on a waiting list for subsidized housing last year. Per capita, that’s worse than Montreal’s waiting list of roughly 25,000 households.
But even if it's affecting his base, Legault isn’t about to change his politics on affordable housing. This year’s provincial budget allocated no new funds for social housing and the premier has indicated Quebec is abandoning subsidized housing to private sector investment in “affordable housing.” Instead of funding the construction of 15,000 social housing units, as its platform outlined in 2018, the CAQ has changed its tune.
Now, Legault’s plan is to spend $200 million on affordable housing — a move that’s been criticized by community groups across Quebec. And who gets this money? Private developers.
If you type in “real estate” to Quebec’s lobbyist registry, you might get an idea as to why the CAQ seems so reluctant to defend tenants.
There are 188 lobbyists courting the provincial government and municipalities across Quebec on behalf of real estate developers, according to the registry.
The condo giant Devimco has 20 files before the government totalling more than $1.3 million in lobbying fees. These include paying for face to face meetings with representatives of Quebec’s environment ministry, its transport ministry and the ministry of culture. Lobbying allows developers to change zoning laws, get derogations from environmental requirements and access public investment funds.
On the matter of Quebec’s rental crisis, Devimco reneged last year on a promise to include social housing in a downtown Montreal development. They paid a small fine and moved on. A few months later, Elisapee Pootoogook crawled into the unfinished development to get off the street on a cold November night. She was found dead the next morning. Construction resumed within a day of her passing.
This is just one company, using a handful of lobbyists to gain access to the halls of power. There are dozens just like it, spending millions to bend public policy to its will. Renters don’t have this kind of influence.
Instead, they rely on people like Amy Darwish, Véronique Laflamme and other underpaid, overworked advocates to wage an unwinnable battle for them. In fairness, there have been some small victories.
After MJ was renovicted, she joined a group that pushed the borough of Verdun to get tough on abusive landlords. At a meeting 16 months ago, the borough amended its zoning laws to prevent landlords from creating the kinds of subdivisions used to justify evicting tenants for major renovations.
The measure is only effective on buildings with five rental units or more and by the time it was passed, much of Verdun’s working class avenues had already been gentrified but it’s a start.
The night they changed the zoning laws was also the beginning of a new mission for MJ. She showed up to borough council with other renters where landlords were waiting for them, ready to fight the amendments in court if they had to. MJ noticed many of these landlords were active on Facebook, with some forming private groups where they would share gossip, laugh at memes and trade secrets about how to get around regulations set by Quebec’s housing tribunal.
She knows this because she wound up infiltrating one of their groups.
“Mostly, it’s just them bitching and gossiping,” she said. “But occasionally you’ll see them ‘joke’ about how to get rid of unwanted tenants. They’ll say, ‘don’t you have a ‘sister’ that needs to move in.’ It was surprising how brazen they were, openly talking about fraud on accounts with their real names attached.”
Lately she’s noticed a new landlord scam. After the re-election of Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante last fall, the city is set to adopt a renter’s registry that records rental increases from year to year and makes it easier for tenants to fight unreasonable hikes.
“Now, the landlords know they have to have the tenant on their side,” MJ said. “So what I’ve seen a lot on the Facebook group lately is a plan where the landlord colludes with their tenant to get around the registry. Let’s say they list the “official” rent at $1,800 a month but they don’t want the tenant to contest it. What they do is, collect the money from the tenant then draft a side contract where, every month, they give the tenant some of that cash back.
“That way, when they need to sell the building, they can list the rent as higher than it actually is without anyone noticing. It’s creative.”
MJ used to spend hours on the Facebook group every week, taking screenshots and sharing some of the more salacious details with journalists but lately she finds it all rather depressing.
“Most days I think they’re winning, I think they’re getting almost everything they want and we have no real power,” MJ said. “So most days I don’t feel like I’m actually doing a good thing.”
The provincial government could create a province-wide rental registry, as Québec Solidaire proposed in 2019, but they refuse to. Municipalities could start taxing landlords 1 per cent of the value of their properties if they remain vacant for more than six months a year, like Ottawa did earlier this year.
These measures could rein in the real estate market and allow ordinary people to spend less on rent and invest more in local businesses. But this isn’t a priority for the CAQ.
The most effective way to make sure people don’t end up on the streets July 1 would be for the provincial government to create thousands of new social housing units but they’ve ruled that out. So here we are.
The agent led us down a hallway to meet our new landlord.
He leaned against the windowsill next to his 26-year-old son, who helps manage the family’s rental properties. It felt like one of those secret meetings in a mafia movie: we shook hands, negotiated through a briefcase-wielding intermediary and set the terms of a $23,000 deal.
We’d been to a few of these sorts of meetings before. The agent would introduce us to the owner and we all stood their awkwardly as they inspected us. Sometimes I would joke about making a “security deposit” or hint at a bribe to see if it would get us to the front of the line. Sometimes the owner would outright ask for a first and last month’s rent, which is illegal in Quebec.
Standing in what we hoped would be our future home, it was hard to seem like a tough negotiator while I held a six-month-old whose vomit dripped onto my coat. This was never truly a negotiation though. We have no bargaining power here.
Just before we shook hands on $1,900 a month, I foolishly mentioned our cats. The word ‘cats’ caused our prospective landlord to stare daggers at his agent.
“You didn’t tell them our policy?” he said.
We sensed that if we handled this wrong, the deal would fall apart and it’d be back to the Hunger Games for us. Before I could make sense of the situation, Marie-Pier stepped up.
“We can find them a new home,” she said. “We didn’t know about the policy.”
Marie-Pier loves her cats and maybe I do too. Okay I do. A lot. But we need a place to raise our kid and this is the best deal we can manage. So we’ll break another one of those promises we made to ourselves when we set out on the apartment hunt.
The quest for a new apartment began with a few unmovable principles; three bedrooms, a backyard, no more than $1,700 a month and the place has to accept pets. We got three bedrooms.
That’s capitalism. One man owns a portfolio of buildings valued in the millions, the other has a net worth that once doubled because he won a $2,000 football pool. Sometimes I remind myself that we have it easy compared to most people on the market for a new place. It helps direct the anger into something productive.
“You’re going to be very happy here,” the agent, Patrick, said. “Once this place is furnished, it’ll really shine.”
I smiled and gathered whatever was left of my pride.