Montreal

Landlords are running for office during Montreal's housing crunch. Advocates say that's a problem

With rental prices climbing in Montreal, advocates worry municipal politicians who are also landlords will have a vested interest in not tackling the housing crisis.

Groups say profiting off housing should be considered a political conflict of interest

Housing groups fear that landlords, if elected to municipal politics, won't sufficiently address the city's housing crisis. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

When Lyn Leigh O'Donnell first saw the ad for a three-bedroom, $2,100 apartment in Verdun, she was livid.

O'Donnell, who founded Verdun, Ensemble Contre la Gentrification in response to the borough's housing crisis, says she's steadily seen high rents and speculators push longtime Verdun residents out of the borough.

In 2019, the average rent for an apartment of that size was $1,010, according to a CMHC report.

The $2,100-listing, which boasted a "fully renovated" apartment with a private rooftop terrasse with a view of downtown, was made by a man named Antoine Richard. 

At the time, O'Donnell said she had "no idea" who he was. 

It was only later that she learned Richard was running with Ensemble Montréal to be borough mayor of Verdun.

"It's really offensive," O'Donnell said. "It's the only word that I can come up with to describe my gut feeling about it."

CBC News identified several candidates running in the municipal election who own rental properties, including multiplexes which double as their primary residences. 

The list includes borough and city councillors, as well as mayoral candidates, from both Ensemble Montréal and Projet Montréal.

With rental prices climbing in Montreal, advocates worry municipal politicians who double as landlords will have a vested interest in not tackling the housing crisis.

Housing advocates fear landlord influence

For O'Donnell, having someone who owns and benefits from high rental prices in municipal politics is "absolutely a conflict of interest."

"When you have a person in power who, first of all, has self-interest in the mix, but also friends, colleagues [in that field], it's really sketchy," she said.

It's a sentiment shared by other housing advocates in the city. 

Lyn O'Donnell started Verdun, Ensemble Contre la Gentrification in response to the growing number of evictions she saw in her neighbourhood. (Submitted by Lyn Leigh O'Donnell)

"People who own housing themselves, who stand to benefit from rising rents, are going to be very unlikely to put forward real measures to actually rein this in," said Amy Darwish, the co-ordinator of a community group in the neighbourhood of Park Ex, the Comité d'action de Parc-Extension.

"[Landlords in politics] is definitely part of the problem, and we can see it reflected in the kind of priorities that end up being struck."

Darwish points to the fact, that during the pandemic, her group tried to get a moratorium on evictions extended in the borough, without success. 

In Verdun, O'Donnell says a bylaw that banned merging apartments in some buildings was "watered down" to not include duplex and triplexes, leading some tenants to be evicted from their homes.

"It demonstrates the extent to which landlords and developers have the ear of the city," Darwish said. "It's frustrating and disappointing, but also not surprising."

City declarations not made public

According to the city of Montreal's code of conduct for elected officials, a member of council cannot put themself "in a real, potential or apparent situation of conflict" between their interests and those of their office.

Being a landlord or owning a revenue property is not specifically named as a potential conflict in the rules. 

However, in accordance with provincial law, elected officials must annually file a written statement of direct or indirect economic interests. That includes properties they own in the greater Montreal area.

Once elected, Montreal officials need to submit their declarations within 60 days — but there is no declaration required for candidates who are running.

At both the provincial and federal levels, the declarations for elected officials are publicly available. The city of Montreal's are not.

And that's part of the problem, according to Jason Prince, an urban planner and part-time faculty member at Concordia University's School of Community and Public Affairs.

Whether or not a candidate owns a revenue property or acts as a landlord "would certainly pose questions for electors," he said.

"Transparency is a piece of the puzzle. It's not the only piece, but it's part of the solution," he said.

Antoine Richard, left, poses with Ensemble Montréal leader Denis Coderre. (Ensemble Montreal)

A 'complicated question,' says expert

Ensemble Montréal did not respond to multiple requests for comment and did not make Antoine Richard available for an interview.

In a statement, Projet Montréal said it welcomes "good landlords" who are committed to their responsibilities and want to keep families in the city.

"For us, it is important not to restrict access to quality candidates, who share our values ​​and who have the will to protect and sustain the affordability of Montreal's rental stock," the statement read. 

Projet Montréal also referred to the declarations, saying the city has mechanisms for preventing conflicts of interests. 

Is being a landlord inherently a conflict of interest for a municipal politician? In Prince's view, yes. But he stresses that barring landlords from running likely wouldn't survive a court challenge.

Prince points out, as well, that conflicts of interest can be found in many areas beyond housing. 

For example, he says, the former chair of the executive committee, Pierre Desrochers, worked in the fossil fuel industry prior to entering municipal politics and was "making decisions about public transport."

"This kind of information must be available to electors," Prince said. 

"It's here [at the municipal level] where many of the important decisions are going to get made in the next five to 10 years, regarding climate change, regarding the housing crisis, regarding the destruction of our green space."

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