Skyrocketing rents and real estate prices, short supply and a growing population have made housing in Montreal harder and harder to come by — and a hot municipal election topic.
"We have a market that is really tightened," says Jean-Philippe Meloche, a professor at the Université de Montréal's school of urban planning and landscape architecture.
"The supply is slow to come into the market and demand is rising faster than supply."
While the situation here may not be as bad as in Vancouver or Toronto, Meloche says, it still can be considered a housing crisis — one that is affecting not only low-income families, but more and more middle-class ones.
"The prices have gone up so far that a lot of people are priced out of either being able to rent or to buy," said Steve Baird, the director of Comité d'action des citoyennEs de Verdun, a non-profit organization that helps Verdun residents to find homes.
Montreal no longer a renter's paradise
Between 2019 and 2020, rents in the city increased by 4.6 per cent, according to statistics gathered by the Montreal Metropolitan Community (MMC).
In Verdun, Baird said, the situation is particularly stark.
"Five years ago, there were people who would come and say, 'Oh, you know, I have a budget of $700. I need a three and a half or something.' And it was like, maybe I could find something, you know. It was still possible," Baird said.
"Since then, what we see on the market is there's almost nothing that isn't double that."
Rentals are hard to come by and what is available is pricey. According to MMC statistics, the average rent for available units increased from $910 in 2019, to $1,198 in 2020, a whopping 30 per cent increase.
Part of that is pandemic-related, with the rental markets flooded with pricey units that were once used for short-term or tourist rentals like AirBnB.
The real estate and rental markets are tightly intertwined, Meloche says.
"When young people cannot afford their first house, well they stay longer in their rental unit. If they stay longer there, well, they don't vacate the units, so they don't empty this unit," he said.
"It's hard for [people] to rent if there is nothing available."
Renovictions and conversions remain big issues
With rising real estate prices, fewer middle-income families are able to afford to buy. Baird says stepping in, at least in Verdun, are numbered companies or real estate management companies.
"There are numbered companies and certain speculators who will buy up the building, kick out all the tenants and then, often, just resell it," he says, something often called renoviction.
"[They] just flip the building because it'll have a higher value if they kicked everyone out and did the dirty work of getting rid of the tenants."
The other issue, Baird says, is families, or again, companies, who buy plexes (a building with two or more homes) and convert them into single-family homes.
Last year, the borough council of Verdun voted to no longer allow the conversion of two units within a six-plex into one unit.
"Now, you can still do that with a triplex or a duplex, but they did restrict it for six- or seven-plexes," said Baird.
"As you can imagine, this is much, much, much more common with duplexes and triplexes … We're basically losing apartments more than we're gaining."
Fixing the problems
While laws about tenants' rights remain a provincial matter, municipalities do have some control over rising real estate and rental prices through their bylaws.
Baird points to the Verdun bylaw on conversions as an example.
For Meloche, the solution is ensuring more housing units are built so that supply can meet demand. The problem? Space is limited.
"If we want to build the city for future citizens, then in some neighbourhoods we have to change the design of the neighbourhood," he said.
"We have to change the life that exists in these neighbourhoods to allow higher buildings, more density."
In some cases, that means highrises, but Meloche says boroughs have to reconsider bylaws that restrict buildings to a maximum of three or four floors.
"It's maybe not the main problem but it's one of the factors that we have some control on," he said.
When it comes to rental units, Baird says a rent control system or registry could curb the rise in prices. But he says there also needs to be a certain amount of pressure from municipalities to get the Quebec government to take rental issues more seriously.
"If the politicians in Montreal, like in other big cities, aren't making this a priority and aren't saying this is really a huge problem, then we can expect that we're going to keep not seeing real action on the part of the Quebec government to fix the kinds of loopholes and systematic abuses that we see over and over and over again."
Here's where the parties stand:
Projet Montréal has committed to building 60,000 affordable housing units over 10 years, tapping into federal and provincial funds and making use of municipally owned land. The party has also said it would implement an "owner certificate" for landlords who own places with eight units or more. The certificate would act as a register to control illegal rent increases and keep track of renovation or construction requests.
Ensemble Montréal has yet to make a comprehensive announcement on housing, but its platform notes that the party would also create a registry.
Mouvement Montréal says it too would create a register, to serve as a rent control system. A landlord licensing system would also be put in place with the idea of conducting yearly inspections of rental properties. The party has committed to increasing the city's housing budget two per cent every year for four years. It says it will also build 30,000 affordable rental units next to major transportation hubs.
Ralliement Montréal did not reply to requests for details on housing.