BY April Tardif Levesque

Jo Roy and their partner moved to Montreal’s old port to be near their partner’s job. The waiter’s salary used to cover the pair’s living expenses, while Roy worked to finish their social work degree. The lease was signed in February 2020, and COVID-19 turned their plans upside-down shortly after.

“The income we thought would come in was completely wrecked,” Roy says. “My partner now regularly makes under minimum wage because folks don’t tip and aren’t coming in, so finances have been tight since the pandemic began.”

Roy’s partner found the level of uncertainty to be as high as their rent.

“My partner’s mental health was getting taxed by the finances and the clients at work,” Roy says. “It’s apparently so difficult for people to wear masks, so they have reduced their hours a bit. My partner might qualify for some assistance from the government, but we’re still looking into that.”

Jo outside in the old port area

Jo Roy poses in the area where they live. Photo by April Tardif Levesque.

To help with rent, Roy now works as a peer support training coordinator, is in the preliminary stages for two research assistant positions, and is a driver, all while doing an unpaid internship in an addiction response team. Despite all this, Roy had to ask his family for help.

Jo entering a Brit and Chips restaurant

Jo Roy walks into their partner’s workplace to visit them on their shift. Photo by April Tardif Levesque.

“The only respite we’ve gotten from the landlord is that there is no increase in rent if someone chooses to renew their lease, which we won’t,” says Roy. “They did have a sale on parking last fall, which saw a slight reduction in the $225 per month price tag for parking in our building.”

However, Roy was not anticipating much assistance from the rental company in charge of their building.

“Our building is owned by a rental conglomerate in the city,” Roy says. “I could hardly get a deal on shortening a parking rental last summer, so there is no way the building would reduce rent.”

Commercial rent. Video by April Tardif Levesque.

Maxime Roy-Allard from the RCLALQ tenant association says they had more inquiries during the pandemic from people unable to pay rent due to income loss.

“I would say it’s business as usual for a major housing crisis: evictions, massive rent increases, and discrimination,” Roy-Allard says. The tenant associations also had to close their physical offices, which made it more challenging for tenants to receive much-needed services.

“It’s hard to say whether landlords were more reasonable due to the pandemic,” he says. “Some did, allowing tenants to pay rent later, but others didn’t and we saw many eviction cases for non-payment related to tenants losing their employment income.”

Roy-Allard says the moratorium helped for a time, but only temporarily.

“When the moratorium lifted, evictions continued as usual and we saw many of them,” he says. “Many people have been consulting tenant committees concerning evictions.”

The RCLALQ says there was a rise of 40 per cent in households whose landlords wanted them evicted in 2020. Of the 597 attempts at eviction, 60 per cent involved a new landlord whose motive is assumed by the association to be turnover to increase rent revenue. According to the RCLALQ, half of those tenants have lived in the locations for at least 10 years, and pay less rent than a neighbour in rent.

Jo inside Brit and Chips restaurant

Jo Roy waits for their partner to come say hello in their workplace for a quick visit. Photo by April Tardif Levesque.

François Bonhomme, the communications director for the Association des propriétaires du Québec (APQ), says landlords have also been squeezed by the pandemic. He says landlords were put in a confusing situation during the moratorium on evictions.

condos for rent

Theodora Wilkinson had to find an apartment for her and her toddler but couldn’t find anything in Montreal. “There are affordable options, but you need to have a car, because it’s all far from public transport,” she says.

Her apartment budget was $800 a month and she ended up moving to Laval.

“The lower the price, the more careful landlords are. This means excessive credit checks and proof of income,” says Wilkinson.

Montreal’s vacancy rate increased to 3.2 per cent in 2020. But according to a report by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, many of those new vacancies were higher-priced units.

Real-Estate agent Nichita Bobic says the pandemic may be one reason for more expensive units being available. He says people who can afford condo-style downtown rentals may now be looking for new homes off-island.

“A lot of people felt confined within small 400-800 square-foot condos and wanted larger spaces, more privacy and, in some cases, just a simple yard to get fresh air,” he says.
Catherine Lussier of Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) says the vacancy rate increase does nothing for low-income tenants.

“The vacancy rate stays [as] low [as 1.7 per cent] for households that have an income lower than $36,000 per year,” she says. “Montreal tenants’ households have a median income of $38,000.”

Lussier said nearly 87,000 households are using more than half of their income for rent. That leaves many tenants seeking apartments unable to find anything affordable and in good condition.

“If the City of Montreal wants to truly keep the metropolis affordable, they have to have ambitious objectives and accelerate the development of social housing,” she says.

Infographics and photo by April Tardif Levesque.

“Some people who could pay decided they wouldn’t, because they couldn’t be evicted,” says Bonhomme. He says it made it difficult for landlords who were prepared to offer flexible repayment on rent arrears or payment plans. Another issue landlords began to face more often was inter-tenant disputes arising from the new teleworking reality.

“We have people now working from home who wouldn’t otherwise be home during the day who complain about noises like the neighbour’s kids,” Bonhomme says.

Jo in his buildings garage

Jo Roy visits their $225 per month parking space in the building’s underground garage. The building had charged back-rent for months used during the summer, for which Roy had never signed a contract and did not know they needed to pay. Photo by April Tardif Levesque.

“There is a misconception that landlords are wealthy owners,” says Bonhomme. “But most individual landlords are regular families trying to pay off a mortgage, and don’t always own the property.”

While banks offered some deferral options on mortgage payments, landlords got no assistance from the government according to Bonhomme.

To explain rising rent costs, Bonhomme points to the costs of repairs, the materials for which got even more expensive during the pandemic. The Montreal vacancy rate, which the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has averaged to 2.7 per cent for 2020, has increased from between 1.4 and 2.2 per cent in 2019, depending on the number of units in the building. Bonhomme echoes the report, saying students and temporary or foreign workers are not in Montreal due to the pandemic, and big buildings in certain boroughs, such as the Sud-Ouest and downtown are seeing less renters.

A portrait of Jo laughing

Jo Roy has a laugh outside their apartment building while explaining how the pandemic has been in an Old Port studio apartment, which costs in excess of $1,300 in rent per month, plus the $225 in parking. Photo by April Tardif Levesque.

“People are also moving back to be with family, or getting roommates because of COVID,” Bonhomme says. He added it could be a question of affordability, location, or just to be with family during the lockdown periods. He adds that many tenants did not move as intended due to the pandemic, and were afraid to visit apartments or move because of restrictions.

Montreal rent increases 2002 vs 2020 infographic

Average rent increases over the years. Media by April Tardif Levesque.

Jo Roy plans to move with their partner to a bigger, less expensive apartment with their partner when the lease is up and looks forward to being free of the existing rental costs.

Main photo by April Tardif Levesque.
Published June 18, 2021.