Real estate: More renters face eviction as vacancies hit 15-year low

It’s not easy to find an affordable apartment in Montreal these days. Vacancy rates are lower than they have been in 15 years, hovering around one per cent — or even lower in some areas. The cost of rent is rising in response. And so are the number of evictions.

According to lawyer Daniel Bitton, who specializes in defending tenants facing eviction or repossession, now that the rental market is so tight, it’s becoming increasingly common for landlords to look for loopholes in the law to get rid of tenants paying below-market rent so they can re-list those units at a higher, more profitable rate.

“No one keeps track of who’s getting evicted. It’s a private matter. But the phone’s ringing off the hook,” Bitton said.

In some cases, units are repossessed with the excuse that a family member needs to move in, but the unit is put back on the market soon after — and the rent is much higher. In other cases, building owners may say they want to do a renovation project that will require the tenant to move out for an extended period, in the hopes that the tenant will leave. Those who are exploiting the system often don’t follow through on those renos, Bitton said, and go on to rent the now-vacant apartment to someone else at market rates.

Tenant protection laws are supposed to prevent tenants from being evicted in order to renovate and re-list apartments, yet complaints of “renovictions” are becoming more frequent, said Regroupement des comités logement et associations de locataires du Québec (RCLALQ) spokesperson Maxime Roy-Allard.

“Here in Quebec, when the landlord wants to make renovations, the tenants have a right to come back and still live there,” Roy-Allard said. “But many landlords try to convince people to move out and never come back.”

When the landlord does have the legal right to evict a tenant, Roy-Allard said, they are required by law to provide notice and to pay compensation to the tenant. The problem is, many tenants don’t know their rights. Others don’t have the time or financial resources to take their concerns to the Régie du logement.

With affordable apartments downtown increasingly difficult to come by, it’s more important than ever for renters to read up on their rights and act to protect themselves if served with an eviction notice, Roy-Allard said.

Bitton rallied tenants to come out to the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough council meeting on Feb. 3 to ask municipal politicians to declare a moratorium on issuing permits for major renovations of tenanted apartments until council can study the issue and implement bylaw changes that would help stop renovictions.

“We have rent control, but this would make rent control actually have teeth,” Bitton said.

The RCLALQ has also been advocating for these measures, as well as an increase in the compensation paid to tenants when a landlord takes a rental unit off the market, as when a family member moves in.

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According to Michelle Tompkins, who was served with an eviction notice less than two weeks before Christmas, if there’s one piece of advice for tenants in this situation, it’s this: If you feel your landlord is pressuring you to sign papers, don’t — at least not before getting advice from a lawyer or your local comité de logement.

In Tompkins’s case, she was told she had to leave so that a family member of the owners of the Rosemont triplex could move into her unit. She turned to Bitton and her local tenants’ association for advice. It was only then she learned she is entitled to compensation from her landlord for moving expenses. Had she signed the papers given to her along with the eviction notice, she said, she would have had more difficulty disputing the terms.

“Trust your gut. No one should be pressing you to be signing anything at that moment,” she said. “My advice, don’t sign anything until you go to your comité de logement to show them the papers, and they will advise you correctly.”

The family has lived in the triplex for seven years, and would like to stay in the neighbourhood, but rents have increased so much that it may be financially impractical. Tompkins currently pays $985 per month for the large one-bedroom-and-den she shares with her partner and three-year-old son. Few comparable vacant apartments are available. Those Tompkins has seen are renting between $1,500 to $2,000 per month.

BRIANA TOMKINSON, SPECIAL TO THE MONTREAL GAZETTE Updated: February 5, 2020

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