Faced with eviction, tenants in Centre-Sud throw a protest party
New owner says he plans to expand units into family-sized dwellings, offered tenants money, help to move
From the street, 2421-2439 De Maisonneuve Boulevard East is nothing remarkable: a sprawling three-storey building with a no-frills brick front that comes right to the edge of the sidewalk.
But go through the old stable entrance in the west end of the building, and you'll find an oasis of sorts, in a neighbourhood without much in the way of parks or other green space — a shared backyard.
Potted plants and a raised garden bed of herbs and sweet peas compete for space with sheets of plywood and bicycles on the balconies.
Peer through the back windows of the second-floor apartments, and you'll see what else makes this place in one of Montreal's poorest neighbourhoods a little special: each four-and-a-half has a staircase up to another floor, giving those apartments the feel of a small cottage.
Outside, one Saturday in late June, there are preparations underway for an eviction party.
The issue at hand is whether the black clouds forming overhead will turn to rain. Suddenly the clouds burst, and the party is moved to a women's centre across the street.
"We're gathering, I guess, to feel like we have a form of resistance," says Alice Bernard, who splits the $800 monthly rent for one of the second-floor apartments with a friend.
The eviction party is to say goodbye to their neighbours who've agreed to pull up stakes — and to create awareness about the impact gentrification is having on their Centre-Sud neighbourhood.
Building bought by group of investors
The building had been on the market years, and in May, tenants found out it had been sold, and the new owner, Henry Zavriyev, planned to undertake major renovations.
Zavriyev offered tenants as much as $5,000 to leave and promised he'd help find them an affordable place to move to.
Bernard and her roommate, and the people living in two other units have so far refused his offer and say they won't go without a fight.
"I really, really love this neighbourhood," says Yasmine Belam, another tenant who has said no to leaving.
Belam, who has worked and lived in Centre-Sud for years, says they wanted to find a way to have fun amid "a really, really stressful situation."
Family units or Airbnbs?
Zavriyev, who is still in his 20s, says he purchased this building on De Maisonneuve Boulevard with the help of investors, and he proposes to knock out the rear walls and expand it into the big backyard, to create bigger units that are suitable for families.
He says the building is "sagging in the middle" and needs significant structural work, whether he gets the go-ahead for his rebuild idea or not.
He says he wants to keep the apartments as rental units, explaining he couldn't convert them to condos even if he wanted to because of a bylaw that prevents developers from doing so if they've been occupied by tenants within the previous decade.
Several of the building's tenants and soon-to-be-former tenants are under the impression the building is to be converted into short-term rental units and posted on Airbnb.
Zavriyev happens to run a business called Padly, a service that manages other people's Airbnb listings — dealing with renters and organizing the cleanup.
But he insists he has no intention of turning this building into a block of short-term rental units, pointing to a Ville-Marie borough rule that restricts such rentals to Sainte-Catherine Street between Saint-Mathieu and Amherst streets.
Belam points out that, despite the borough's short-term housing bylaw, there are several apartments in the neighbourhood known to be listed on Airbnb, including one right next to the women's centre.
"The women tell me, 'We're always dealing with their trash,' because they just put it out whenever they're leaving," she said.
From Centre-Sud to Tétreaultville
"All year we've been fighting against gentrification," says Julie Leblanc, one of the women who works at the centre, as she fixes herself a hot dog.
"It's crazy that it's come and settled right in front of us … in a neighbourhood where we cannot afford to lose rental units."
New condo developments have brought an influx of people with higher incomes, too, Leblanc says, driving up the average income in the neighbourhood, which has cost some elementary schools in the areas their subsidized breakfast and lunch programs.
Martine Clément was born and raised in Centre-Sud, and her parents still live nearby. She said she was given no choice but to leave because she has two little dogs that aren't listed on her lease.
"I've been here for four years, and my old landlord never said anything," says Clément.
She accepted Zavriyev's offer of $5,000, but with only a month to find an affordable apartment big enough for herself, her partner, her daughters and one of their boyfriends, the only place she could find was in Tétreaultville, a half-hour drive away in the city's east end.
'Garden of the evicted'
Another tenant, Alain Gaudet, also accepted the $5,000.
"Whoa, five Gs, man," says Gaudet. "It's a lot of money in one shot."
But as he banded together with his neighbours to figure out what to do, he's ended up regretting his decision.
"I don't want to move anymore, man. They're all my friends now."
Gaudet, a carpenter, is the one who built the teepee-like structure in the backyard. It's made of scrap wood and a cardboard box. A bicycle tire hangs off the top, and there's a bright red heart on the door. There used to be a sign on it, too, that read "Garden of the evicted," but Zavriyev took it down.
Zavriyev says he respects the tenants' right to protest.
"My reaction was that it was kind of cool," he told CBC News, although in an email to the tenants who have so far refused to leave, his tone is more defensive: "To you … a landlord is a bad person that's it, that's all. Nothing I can do about that."
Gaudet lucked out in his search for a new apartment. He found one in the neighbourhood that will also let him move in with his two dogs. But he says the hunt wasn't easy.
"I was going to visit places, and there's like 20 people waiting in line."
Zavriyev says he tried to ease tenants' stress as much as possible, offering more compensation money than his backers were comfortable with, in order to find "a way that makes sense for everyone and where everyone is satisfied."
"I recognize that this is your home, and that this is not the ideal situation," he said. "But how do I put this? I think everything that was done was done correctly."
'I make a garden and then we're evicted'
As their neighbours move out, one by one, Bernard and Belam are torn about what to do. Because of the extensive repairs Zavriyev is planning, the eviction notice they got this spring, six months before the end of their lease, is entirely legal.
Belam says they'll continue to fight gentrification on all fronts in the Ville-Marie borough, but "we feel like we're just leaving the problem to another time if we don't start to look for apartments now."
Zavriyev has also doubled his offer to $10,000 if they leave by September, says Bernard.
"It's harsh because the last thing I want to do is take the money," she says. "It's always tempting but I just feel like mad at him, mad at the system for buying people out."
"But, you know, it's not about landlords. It's about the lack of protection for citizens, the lack of social housing and protection of neighbourhoods and how we want to live our lives in cities."
Bernard has moved often. She's planted gardens like the herb bed in the backyard on De Maisonneuve wherever she has lived, but she's never stayed long enough to see them become well-established. She'd hoped this time it would be different.
"I make a garden and then we're evicted," Bernard says, cursing in French.
Then she laughed and ate a chip with some homemade pesto.