With Montreal renters getting squeezed, should the city take a cue from Berlin?

·5 min read
Montreal's downtown is dotted with new condominiums. But the average price of a rental unit has gone up. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Montreal's downtown is dotted with new condominiums. But the average price of a rental unit has gone up. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Standing at the top of Mount Royal, the possibilities for a place to live appear to be ever expanding.

Cranes dot the skyline, and new glass condominium towers reach into the clouds. But this development boom remains out of reach for many residents.

Even as new properties become available, the latest housing figures show low-income residents and families are increasingly being driven away from the city centre.

Montreal has seen an influx of capital into the real estate market, gobbling up the last parcels of land for development. Big firms have also increasingly taken ownership of rental properties.

Among the largest is Akelius, a Stockholm-based company, which owns 60 buildings in Montreal for a total of 3,527 units.

It was one of the companies targeted in a referendum last month in Berlin aimed at curtailing the sway of big firms over the rental market, which has spiked in recent years.

Residents of the German capital voted in favour of expropriating more than 200,000 housing units from the city's largest landlords and transferring them to public ownership.

Could such an approach work here? While the vote in Germany is non-binding, and such a plan would likely be subject to legal challenges, advocates and experts in Montreal say there is much to draw on from the Berlin example.

Paul Zinken/AFP/Getty
Paul Zinken/AFP/Getty

For one thing, such a drastic step would bring attention to the problem, said Jason Prince, an urban planner, community organizer and professor at Concordia University.

"The housing crunch has been growing and growing and people are getting squeezed so hard that it's becoming untenable," Prince said in interview.

"Our municipal government has to put on their pants and express clearly that there is a problem."

The situation in Montreal is, of course, different — roughly 63 per cent of people are renters here, compared with 85 per cent in Berlin, and the concentration of ownership among large firms is greater in Berlin.

Yet housing groups say they are increasingly concerned about the state of Montreal's rental market, which not long ago was hailed as a renter's paradise.

Rental prices shoot up

Prince says the rental market in Montreal, while still favourable to other major centres in Canada, has succumbed to market forces over the past two decades.

The vacancy rate hit a 15-year low in 2019. The crisis has eased somewhat during the pandemic, but prices are still going up, with the market flooded primarily with pricier units, some of which were previously used for short-term or tourist rentals.

On the island, many of the new units were located downtown, Griffintown and Verdun. The average rents ranged from $1,400 for a one-bedroom to $2,300 for a three-bedroom. Overall, the price of available units went up by 30 per cent.

Véronique Laflamme, a spokesperson for the housing group FRAPRU, says an injection of new firms in search of profits is part of the reason for the rise in so-called renovictions — whereby a building is bought up, the tenants kicked out, the space renovated and leased again at a higher price.

Laflamme says speculation in the housing market has resulted in residents in places such as Saint-Henri and Verdun being priced out of their own neighbourhoods.

Quebec hasn't made housing a priority

The solution, in the view of Laflamme and several other advocates, is for the government to buy up more housing stock — something Berlin did weeks prior to the referendum.

Julia Page/CBC
Julia Page/CBC

Otherwise, Laflamme says, it will become increasingly difficult for low-income renters to find housing they can afford.

"If we don't do anything, we know that more and more rental housing stock will become unaffordable for a good part of the population," Laflamme said.

Funding for social housing in Quebec is the responsibility of the provincial government, which has not made the issue a spending priority.

The CAQ government's first two budgets provided no funding for the construction of additional affordable housing units.

Previous governments promised 12,000 housing units for the province but they have yet to be completed.

This year's budget includes only enough funding to ensure that 5,000 of those units will be completed in the coming years.

Buildings sitting empty

Montreal has a $109-million housing fund, which can be used to purchase and temporarily hold properties for the realization of housing projects or community real estate.

A housing group in the quickly gentrifying neighbourhood of Parc-Extension has been pushing the city, with some success, to use this fund to purchase buildings in the borough to turn them into affordable housing.

But to develop the buildings the city acquired, it has to go through the provincial government program Accès Logis Quebec, which finances the program.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

The Plaza Hutchison and 7965 Acadie were bought a year ago and are still sitting empty.

"They've been cutting the funds in the last years so there's not enough money to build all the units that we need in Quebec," said Celia Dehouche, a spokesperson for the Comité d'action de Parc-Extension.

"Nothing is happening because they don't have money in Accès Logis to build the units we need. So that's one major problem that we need to solve urgently."

Dehouche stressed that government aid is necessary to mitigate the housing crisis, which she only sees getting worse.

She pointed to the many families who had to turn to the city to find housing last summer, saying better long-term solutions are needed.

"We need social cohesion in this society and solidarity regarding housing, because I feel like we've been talking about it more and more," said Dehouche. "Maybe we could see something like [Berlin's referendum] happen, but for now, I doubt it."

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