Montreal·Special Report

City won't repair neglected buildings over fear of court challenge

The City of Montreal has the power to renovate neglected buildings if landlords refuse to, but CBC News has learned the City rarely uses that tool, because it's afraid of being taken to court.

Advocates say City of Montreal must act faster to help tenants living in 'inhumane' conditions

The City of Montreal is not using its power to force repairs on unsafe and unhealthy apartment buildings over fear of expensive court challenges. 3:16

The City of Montreal is not using its power to force repairs on unsafe and unhealthy apartment buildings over fear of expensive court challenges. 

City officials have the power to renovate neglected buildings if landlords refuse to co-operate, but CBC News has learned the city has only used that power a handful of times and not once since 2010. 

Montreal’s bylaw on housing hygiene, maintenance and safety states that, as a last resort, the city can renovate a neglected apartment building and bill the landlord for the costs.

“It’s rarely used … It would be much more effective if it was used on a regular basis, if every time after six months, if the repairs hadn’t been done ... the city would come systematically in and do the repairs and bill the landlord subsequently,” says Claire Abraham, who works with a Côte-des-Neiges advocacy group called Project Genesis.

Tenants’ rights advocates say this tool could save vulnerable Montrealers from living in unsafe and unhealthy buildings, neglected by their landlords.

But the City of Montreal is only willing to force renovations in what it calls “extreme” cases.

City brass afraid of losing taxpayer money

“In the times that we’ve used that power to repair and build, that decision is often contested in the courts,” says Russell Copeman, the executive committee member responsible for housing.

It’s terrible when you see young children going to school and you see their body [covered] with bed bug bites- France Simon, Collective of Quebec tenants' rights associations

"We don’t have the means to undertake millions of dollars worth of repairs, in the hope, ultimately that we’ll receive some of that back."

Copeman says they can't afford to lose that kind of money, so officials prefer to use fines or other measures to convince landlords to co-operate.

However, the city has spent nowhere near millions of dollars for work done on behalf of landlords.

City hasn't used special power since 2010

According to data provided by the City of Montreal, officials have carried out work on behalf of a landlord six times since 2007. The last case was in 2010.

Tenants' rights advocates say the city must act faster to address the unhealthy living conditions of many Montrealers. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Those numbers do not include instances where boroughs have used the tool for smaller-scale interventions.

In those six cases, the city spent a total of $169,546.94 on exterminations, a roof inspection, and repairs on electrical, heating and plumbing systems. 

Out of those expenses, the city lost a total of $103,336.44 when it was challenged in court for the cost of work on two separate properties owned by the same management company.

City must address inhumane conditions: Tenants' advocates

Tenants' rights advocates say while the city hesitates to fully enforce its bylaws, vulnerable tenants' are living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.

"It’s terrible when you see young children going to school and you see their body [covered] with bed bug bites," says France Simon, spokeswoman for the collective of Quebec tenants' rights associations.

"It’s really, it’s unhumane. We’re living in a city of rights. It’s against human dignity."