Quebec housing shortage exacerbating discrimination against large families, minority groups

A recent report by a Montreal-based tenants' rights group says apartment hunters in Quebec are experiencing an increase in housing discrimination, making it all the more difficult to find a home during this housing shortage.

Inequity has increased in Quebec this year due to low availability of housing units and rent hikes

Josée Desmeules says she spent five months apartment hunting in Trois-Rivières, Que., being repeatedly denied because she has four children, before she found a home in Nicolet, 25 kilometres away. (Submitted by Josée Desmeules)

For five months, Josée Desmeules was looking for an apartment in Trois-Rivières, Que., to live with her four children when she decided it would be simpler to just move to a different town.

"I spoke to three owners on the phone who told me that because I had too many kids, they would not accept to rent me the apartment," said Desmeules.

A tenants' rights group based in Montreal, the Regroupement des comités logement et associations de locataires du Québec (RCLALQ), said that kind of conversation has been unfolding for months across Quebec. 

"Once the landlord finds out they have kids, they are turned away," said Olivia Dumas, who works for the group.

More and more, Quebec tenants are reporting being denied housing because of their race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, the number of children they have, their sexual orientation, age, religion and social condition, according to a report the RCLALQ released this months.

"Tenants are facing housing discrimination at every step of the rental process," said Dumas, beginning with the ads themselves that sometimes exclude certain groups.

The RCLALQ says it found ads where property owners would accept "only Asian or white skin" tenants. Other ads explicitly excluded children. 

Desmeules said the whole experience was demanding because she was going through a separation. "It was a stressful time to ask 'Will I be able to find housing that is clean and of good quality for my kids?'," she said. 

Desmeules eventually found an apartment for her family in Nicolet, 25 kilometres southwest of Trois-Rivières across the Laviolette bridge, where they will be moving at the end of the month.

"I found an owner who had children and it wasn't a problem for him, so I was really lucky," said Desmeules. But the whole experience left her feeling vulnerable.

"I always thought of my family as my wealth and not something that would prevent us from having a good quality of life."

'Systemic' problem

According to the RCLALQ, when housing units are scarce and and rents go up, people living on low income, who are already facing barriers, are the ones having the most trouble finding housing.

"This means that landlords have more opportunities to be selective to pick tenants, so they choose people with references, good credit checks, damage deposits and all these things that are quite prohibitive to some tenants," said Dumas.

"The people who are really bearing the brunt of the housing crisis are people who are already facing discrimination in their life. We see this problem as systemic, but it is a direct result from the housing crisis that we are seeing all over Quebec."

Andrew Brisson spent his teenage and early adult years helping his mother, who had a physical disability, search for housing in Quebec City.

Andrew Brisson spent his teenage and early adult years helping his mother, who had a physical disability, find housing for her needs. (Submitted by Andrew Brisson)

"Building owners told us openly they did not want people with disabilities in their building, or that enough people with disabilities already lived there," said Brisson. 

"She was also a single parent and had two dependent teenagers, so for the landlord it was enough to already deny her," he said. 

This led Brisson's mother to settle for housing that was poorly maintained in a basement with stairs, instead of a ground floor or a building serviced by an elevator.

It took another two years before they finally found housing in a cooperative designed for a clientele with physical limitations. 

"The housing was not perfectly adapted to her situation, but it was by far the best housing she had during her lifetime taking into account her constraints," said Brisson.

Although his mother passed away in 2016, Brisson continues to voice his concerns over housing discrimination.

"I feel that the situation has gotten worse and many people do not have access to housing because of their differences — and I feel the government of Quebec has some responsibility in this," said Brisson.

The RCLALQ would like to see the Quebec administrative housing tribunal — formally known as the Régie du logement — have greater powers to hold landlords accountable and to help tenants get compensation in situations of discrimination.

Another tenants' rights group, the Front d'action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), said housing committees in different regions of Quebec have also observed "too many cases of discrimination."

"Even though discrimination is illegal, tenants do not necessarily use their recourses, either because they are not aware of them or because they may look time consuming," said Véronique Laflamme, organizer and spokesperson of FRAPRU.

Laflamme said people facing housing discrimination can contact the Quebec human rights commission. 

"Tenants can request a rapid intervention that could help them. All in all, Quebec must do more to avoid discrimination and crack down on discriminatory ads and practices," said Laflamme.