Jordan: Back in the days when we didn’t discuss COVID-19 every day. We often talked about the rental crisis. And by that I mean the rental crisis in Toronto, the rental crisis in Vancouver, the rental crisis in the North, and the rental crisis in PEI. And Claire, every time we did one of those shows, how often afterwards did we end up just talking wistfully about Montreal?
Claire: Oh, all the time. And I mean, I’ve told you this before, I’ve lived in so many terrible apartments in Toronto and sometimes terrible apartments with multiple roommates. And I remember just out of curiosity, sometimes looking online at apartment listings in Montreal and seeing how I could get something so much better for so much cheaper. It’s really heartbreaking for us Torontonians.
Jordan: Well, when I was in my mid twenties, which is not as long ago as you might think it was, I had younger friends who were in school in Montreal, and I would go visit them and I would walk into their beautiful apartments with high ceilings and spiral staircases and back patios in which they had a whole separate room just sitting empty for guests. And I’d asked them how much they paid, and they’d be like, Oh, we pay about $400 bucks each a month. And I think about my basement apartment in Toronto for $900 something dollars and I’d want to cry.
Claire: Yeah. I did seriously consider moving to Montreal a couple of times, and I guess I never did because I always thought that that cheap rent would always be there. Just kind of waiting, right? That I could make that move whenever I wanted. But I feel like that’s not so much the case?
Jordan: No, and this is a story that kind of slipped past me, but today’s guest reached out to us and she painted a picture of another big Canadian city that’s fighting the short term rental monster and spiking rents from landlords and is now on the verge of a full blown rental crisis. Now.
Claire: On the verge of a serious rental crisis in the middle of a pandemic. That’s not a good place to be.
Jordan: No, it’s not. And Montreal has such a high percentage of renters that our rental crisis is even more dangerous there than in other Canadian cities, especially in a pandemic. So today we’re going to take you to a Montreal that, if you’ve only ever dreamed of moving there or you haven’t lived there in awhile, is probably radically different from the image you have of the housing that’s available. We’ll do that right after Claire catches you up on everything you need to know about COVID-19 in Canada and the world. Claire?
Claire: Well, Ontario and Manitoba have now extended school closures. Manitoba says schools will be closed indefinitely, while Ontario says its schools will be closed until at least May 4th. And they follow other provinces, including Nova Scotia and Quebec, which have already said schools will be closed until at least May. In Toronto, all city led events, festivals, conferences have been canceled until June 30th and that includes the Pride parade, which was supposed to take place June 28th mayor John Tory says Pride month will still take place in some form. Quebec now has more than 4,100 cases of coven 19 which is more than half of Canada’s total. The province saw 21% increase in cases in 24 hours and 31 deaths. Premier Francois Legault says the province could run out of protective equipment for medical workers in the next few days. In the US the death toll has reached more than 3,500 which is more than China’s official count. New York state is still the deadliest hotspot with more than 1,550 deaths, most of them in New York City. As of Tuesday evening, more than 8,500 cases of COVID-19 in Canada with 96 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer and reporter. She dug into the looming rental crisis in Montreal for Maisonneuve magazine. Hi, Tracey.
Tracey: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Jordan: No problem. Why don’t you start by just telling me about kind of the, the stereotype or the image that most Canadians have of rental units in Montreal and the renting culture there in general?
Tracey: Yeah, Montreal has this kind of permanent reputation as the place to go if you want to live cheap in Canada. It is known for having pretty affordable rents, old apartments, you know, those famous spiral staircases. That you could live and be an artist or permanent student, which a lot of people opt for, musician, a writer, you know, you could actually do what you want to do in your life, and live reasonably well. That’s kind of the impression people have, and that’s the impression that they’ve had for a long time. But I don’t think that that’s necessarily true anymore.
Jordan: Well tell me what’s been happening. You describe in your story a woman named Tanya Dubois.
Tracey: So Tanya is just one of the many people who I spoke with for this article. And Tanya’s story is about how, you know, one day– actually it was Christmas Eve– she was getting ready to leave to go to her parents in the suburbs of Montreal, for a Christmas celebration, and she got a knock on the door and it was her new landlords and they said, you pay rent to us now. And then she said, Oh, okay. I didn’t realize my landlord was selling the building. Are you going to make any repairs? Because I have a few things that I need repaired. And they were like, Actually, we’re going to repair the whole building and we’re going to convert everything to Airbnbs and kick everybody out. So that was the start of her long, protracted battle, which is still ongoing today. And this is something that’s happening to a lot of people throughout Montreal, and actually throughout Canada, I would say, and probably anywhere where Airbnb exists. So, around the world.
Jordan: So when did this start to happen in Montreal and why in particular in Montreal, what changed?
Tracey: It started getting pretty bad in Montreal around, I would say probably 2016. 2015-2016 is when people really started to notice the squeeze. And I think there wasn’t really a really noticeable change. Like there was nothing, there was no one thing that happened that made the squeeze start tightening. It was more an accumulation of factors. So one is that people started noticing that Airbnb was a pretty lucrative venture, and if you had the capital to invest in property, why wouldn’t you just go ahead and do that? And then instead of renting to longterm tenants, just convert your rental units into short term rentals. So more and more people started to do that with property. So that was one thing that happened. And then, you know, over the next few years, you know, Quebec, and the rest of Canada. But speaking specifically about Montreal, a lot of migrants came into Montreal. You know, people from, you know, war torn countries, but also people from France, you know, students, people coming from other parts of Canada and the US coming to study. There are four major universities in Montreal that have 40,000 students per school. There are a lot of young people that are, you know, transitory. And so there’s just a lot of people coming in and out of Montreal. And so that was one of the other factors and people in Montreal who’d lived there for a long time, they were just kind of used to the deal. You know, you have a July 1st to June 30th lease, and if he decide to leave it, historically, it hasn’t been hard to find another apartment. You know, you can just look on Kijiji or Craigslist or Facebook now and just find a new place to live. But that’s really changing. And a lot of the people who I spoke with say that it’s super competitive. They’re even overbidding on apartments just trying to find a decent place to live that’s not infested with bugs or rodents. And it’s really tough out there for a lot of people.
Jordan: And we’ve heard similar stories about, you know, overbidding or huge amounts of competition for places here in Toronto. But I can’t imagine what kind of crisis that must create in a city where, like, almost everybody rents. Right? So tell me a little bit more, I guess, first of all, about the traditional moving day, because that’s very unique to Montreal.
Tracey: Yeah, it’s a Quebec-wide policy, but because Montreal is the biggest city, and because, as I mentioned earlier, there are so many students, in Montreal in particular, and because so many of Quebec’s migrants are located in Montreal, Montreal really is the nexus of moving day. And so what moving day is, is it happens around July 1st. So it used to just be July 1st. But now it’s kind of like two weeks before and two weeks after July 1st, and now it’s spread even further than that as people get more and more desperate to find housing. And basically it’s the time when everybody moves. So, in previous recent years I would say, I did a story for CityLab last year where I got figures that said 70,000 households moved. Like in one summer.
Tracey: So, you know, but people are used to this dance. You know, it’s just baked into how people live in Montreal. The reason why Quebec has this policy is really just because at some point, maybe 40 years ago, the Quebec government decided to have Moving Day, and it was supposed to be like a temporary measure. You know, it was supposed to just be like a suggestion. But then everyone was like, well, let’s just keep it July 1st and make things easy. So it just kind of became the de facto rule.
Jordan: So there’s kind of a system in place for a culture that relies on renters and tenants and landlords moving around at a certain date. And it’s competing with a run on Airbnb properties. And this is something we’ve seen in lots of cities, but what’s happening now, or what’s going to happen in the next few months as Montreal grapples with COVID-19?
Tracey: Yeah. Well, who knows, really? It’s changing every day it seems, but the situation is pretty dire. You know, people in Montreal are used to living pretty much paycheque to paycheque. There’s a lot of service industry people in Montreal, like Montreal is so famous for its bars and restaurants, but what happens when all those businesses have to close? All those people are out of work. And the government has promised assistance to those people, but it won’t come by the first. So what are those people do to pay the rent? And so there is a growing movement for a rent strike. But it’s not a tenant versus landlord type situation. What they’re calling for, what the, with these people behind the rent strike movement– it’s called white sheets for the rent strike– are calling for. Is to have tenants and landlords get together because they’re both kind of screwed. Yeah, like the government and banks have said, okay, we’re going to allow people to have mortgage deferrals. But, you know, good luck finding anyone who’s been successful and actually getting through to their bank to get a deferral. Especially if you’re a landlord who has rental properties, you know, it’s very difficult to actually get that deferral on time. And so it’s just kind of getting everybody together and saying like, we just can’t pay for housing right now. Like, if you want us to stay inside, put your money where your mouth is and make us stay inside. Sure. Like, don’t make us live in this situation where we kind of feel pressure to work, you know, regardless of, you know, what’s happening with the pandemic. In terms of housing, there’s the rent strike the other jurisdictions and you know, people, for example, I saw in British Columbia, there’s been a, you know, a moratorium on evictions. The government has announced some kind of rent support. There are different measures being put in place, but it doesn’t seem like it’s really enough for the actual situation. With regards to what’s happening with the Airbnbs, what a lot of people are doing, or what I’ve seen on, you know, Facebook groups where people have apartment listings and stuff like that, you can see like tons of fully furnished apartments suddenly up for rent that, you know, are obviously Airbnbs that people can’t rent to tourists. Because they have like really nice pictures and they have pictures of like folded up towels on the bed and tables set with dishes. Like pictures you would see on Airbnb, except they’re on rental groups now. And the owners of these Airbnbs are just so desperate to get any income they can, that they flip their short term rentals back onto the longterm rental market, even just marketing them as sublets or temporary rentals. So they’re not even promising to put them back on the longterm rental market. They’re just trying to, you know, fill the gap while the pandemic continues to ravage their investments.
Jordan: So traditionally, what options do tenants in Montreal and Quebec have to protect themselves from this kind of stuff? And what’s the government doing now? Because again, you mentioned policies against evictions in BC. There’s also one in Ontario. What are they doing given the fact that they have a higher percentage of renters than almost anywhere?
Tracey: Right. So the rental tribunal has stopped listening to eviction hearings. So people can’t be evicted right now for not paying their rent in Quebec. So that’s, that’s a positive for tenants. But of course, like, no one likes to be in a disagreement with our landlord, like the stress will carry over into future months and your relationship overall with your landlord. So that’s not good. There’s also the factor that because any lease is a contract between two individuals, the Quebec government can’t override that agreement and dictate terms to anybody. So what it’s saying and what the City of Montreal is saying is, it sure would be nice if you would give your tenants a break, but you know, it just seems as though some landlords are more generous than others, and the province and the city are really relying on the generosity of landlords to get renters through this.
Jordan: I mean, I’m a lay person, but that doesn’t sound like a recipe for everybody getting what they need.
Tracey: No, it’s not.
Jordan: Well, what should we be looking for in Montreal in the next few days and weeks then? Will we get a sense, now that it’s April 1st, of how many people are taking part in the rent strike, how widespread it is, how many landlords are giving people a break? Are we going to just start seeing that anecdotally or is it big enough that people will notice?
Tracey: The White Sheets for the rent strike movement, so what their ask is that they want people who either can’t afford their rent now, or people who are just supporting people who can’t afford their rent, to hang a white sheet out of their window, off their balcony, out their front door, whatever. Just as a show of solidarity. So anecdotally, like if you’re walking around in Montreal, you might be able to see that. This movement has already spread. I don’t know how big it is, but you know, there have been pictures online of people doing it as far as Chicago, Los Angeles, there are talks of rent strikes across Canada. You know, in big cities and small communities too. So we’ll see, you know. And people may have had enough savings to pay for April 1st, but who knows what’s going to happen for May 1st if this pandemic keeps getting worse. You know, like people might still be having to stay at home for the entire month of April, and then, you know, at that point, their savings, for most service industry people at least, and you know, for most people just living paycheque to paycheque, their savings will be decimated at that point. So I think April 1st will be like an interesting test. But by May 1st the crisis will be far more advanced.
Jordan: And then my last question I guess, is has anybody been thinking about what happens if this lasts longer, you know, than we think? I mean, we’re being told three months, six months, et cetera in some places. And what happens on moving day, if Montreal is still under lockdown?
Tracey: I don’t know what will happen on moving day. I think governments are going to have to seriously consider how they’re going to deal with property owners. Especially people who own rental properties. Because a mortgage deferral, may still come with interest and it may affect your credit and they’re not necessarily that easy to get. And so people are really desperately looking for solutions. And Canada and Quebec have been really good about announcing all kinds of bailout measures for all kinds of different organizations and businesses. You know, Trudeau has announced, you know, keeping afloat small, medium, and large businesses, 75% of businesses will be able to keep people on payroll just because they don’t want like huge, massive unemployment. But what are they going to do for renters. Like people still need a place to live. And as generous as people may be, and as understanding as people may be, like, people still need to pay their bills at some point. So, you know, we’ll see as April goes on how the situation develops. Right now it’s kind of the beginning, because it is the 1st of April. But as May 1st comes around, it will be a totally different ballgame.
Jordan: Thanks for explaining the situation in Montreal to us, Tracey.
Tracey: Yeah. Thank you so much.
Jordan: Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Montreal. And that was The Big Story. If you need more worth thebigstorypodcast.ca But we need more from you. As you know, we’re collecting stories of what you’re doing under lockdown. Use the voice recorder on your phone or take a video or do whatever you want to do, but you can send them via email too, firstname.lastname@example.org and of course you can listen to us wherever you get your podcasts. You can find us on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, or on Spotify. And I will leave you now with somebody who’s been way, way more active than me during this lockdown. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Cassandra: Hi. So my name is Cassandra. I am in Montreal right now, quarantined. And I am currently leading live spin classes through Instagram from my apartment. It’s going really well. My neighbours have yet to complain about the noise, and I got a whole bunch of my riders bikes from the gym before we closed down a couple of weeks ago. And it’s been a lot of fun. So, still trying to keep active, trying to help keep people seeing as well as myself and just trying to move forward and adjust.
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