Over the past few years, we have been reading about renovictions and how they reduce affordable housing which is in short supply in Montreal. In fact, preventing renovations of existing housing only ensures that “affordable” housing becomes more and more rundown. After all, what can a landlord do with an older building that is no longer desirable to most potential tenants? A major renovation (called renovictions by the media) is one option. A total demolition and replacement by a new higher building, if zoning will allow it, is another option. Otherwise, while minimal standards in the building code must be respected, nothing more is required of a landlord. Eventually as the building ages ever more, people move out and landlords make even less money and do even less for their tenants. In other words, stopping renovictions only leads to fewer people living in decent “affordable” housing.

We have seen this in Hampstead along Cote St. Luc Road. One building had to be demolished because it was no longer structurally safe. It has been a vacant lot for almost a decade now. No one will build unless the zoning is changed to allow a much taller building. Another became empty as all the tenants moved out and remained like that for years. At one point a squatter with a machete was found living there and the building had to be boarded up. Finally, the current owner is renovating minimally in the hope of getting some tenants. The situation will not improve and only get worse unless zoning is changed to allow significantly taller buildings.

The real solution to the affordable housing shortage is to encourage developers to build many more rental units. A greater supply will keep prices reasonable. In fact, Montreal’s Urban Plan calls for greater density (more units per square metre), especially along transit routes and near metro stations. This will bring more people into the central city, reduce urban sprawl, reduce the number of people in cars going to work and lead to less greenhouse gases and cleaner air.

Hampstead Renoviction apartment building on Cote Saint-Luc Rd.

So why isn’t more affordable housing being built?

Governments want social housing to take more homeless people off the streets but no developer will build this housing unless someone (government or charities) pay for it and not enough money is being earmarked for social housing. Affordable housing is often defined as rents 30% below market. Again, no developer will build such housing unless they can make a profit, so governments must provide subsidies or other incentives to make it worthwhile. Such incentives could be a zoning change for buildings with say 20% affordable units to go much higher or to include commercial space. Montreal and other cities do this but not often enough. So, more and more people are moving off the island, making the situation even worse.

Most politicians aren’t interested in what is best for their constituents but only in what will get votes. There are far more tenants than landlords so many politicians play to that audience which is why we have rent control and other restrictions on landlords. Hampstead just passed a totally unnecessary by-law saying that owners wanting to evict tenants to renovate a building must prove that they followed all the provincial rules. This is nothing more than virtue signalling. Even without this by-law, an owner who does not follow the rules risks having his building demolished at his cost. This happened in Westmount when the Supreme Court effectively ruled in Westmount’s favor. Still this useless by-law plays well with the tenants who were responsible for the majority of the current Hampstead council being elected.

Even the tenants lose

It is understandable that tenants don’t want to move so they will fight renovictions and demolitions. However, sooner or later their buildings will deteriorate to the point that they will leave or get evicted because it becomes unsafe. This happened in Hampstead when the tenants of the twin buildings fought a zoning change and demolition project. They won the referendum and subsequently helped elect a Mayor and council who promised no development. So now three years later how did that work out? If they had accepted the very generous offer of the owners, they would have gotten much more money than the Rental Board requires, almost two years to leave, moving expenses and more. Instead, they got nothing and most of the tenants have left the buildings. This was hardly a victory for them.

Looking at the global picture, stopping zoning changes and demolitions which would allow higher buildings and more density, means fewer rental units are built. The tenants say that the rents of the new units will be too high. This is true, unless there are incentives for developers to build affordable units as discussed above. However, even if the new buildings have no “affordable” units, some upwardly mobile tenants of other buildings will move into the new units and thus free up “affordable” units in older buildings. More rental units in any price range will lead to more vacancies in all price categories and downward pressure on rents. It is basic economics.

Why do the media cover the battles of tenants so favorably?

Just as many politicians do what will get them elected rather than what is in the best interest of their constituents, most reporters prefer simple stories that cheer on the little guy. David vs Goliath stories – the good, poor tenant against the greedy, rich developer. It is a simple story to write. Readers like it. Everyone feels good. However, as I hope I have explained above, in this case we all lose when the little guy “wins,” even the little guy. It would be nice if reporters did more digging and understood the big picture. However, most reporters never let the facts get in the way of a good story and that is a shame.

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Picture of Dr. Bill Steinberg

Dr. Bill Steinberg

Dr. Steinberg has a BSc from McGill University, a PhD in Psychology from Northwestern University, and was a professor at Concordia University. He was Mayor of the Town of Hampstead for 16 years and led the demerger battle. He was was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal and is currently President of the Cochlear Implant Recipients Association.

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