City handouts to landlords for renos amount to paying them to raise rents, says tenants' advocate

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante’s plan to give property owners up to $500,000 to make their apartment buildings more liveable is coming under tough scrutiny, criticized by tenants' rights advocates as a gift to landlords that will allow them to raise rents.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante says certain landlords will be awarded up to $500K to renovate their properties

Maxime Roy-Allard, a spokesperson for Quebec's coalition of housing committees, says Montreal should be forcing landlords to renovate aged buildings, not paying them. (CBC)

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante's plan to give property owners up to $500,000 to make their apartment buildings more liveable is coming under tough scrutiny, criticized by tenants' rights advocates as a gift to landlords that will allow them to raise rents.

"Why use public money and put it into landlords' pockets?" asked Maxime Roy-Allard, a spokesperson for Quebec's coalition of housing committees.

He said Montreal should instead be forcing landlords to fix their rental units.

"They have all the powers to do that," he said.

Plante announced her latest plan to combat the city's growing housing crisis Monday, telling reporters Montreal will invest $3.7 million annually in a program to help landlords renovate low-cost apartment buildings, making them more inhabitable and eco-friendly.

"We are trying to do as much as we can here at the city level to make sure that Montreal stays an affordable city," Plante said.

"We do continue to ask the two other levels of government to take their responsibility and support us financially."

Owners of rental properties fewer than five storeys in height and containing more than six units are eligible for the grants, as long as at least one-third of the building's units are renting for below the borough average.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Coun. Robert Beaudry say tenants' rights remain central to this new subsidy program. (Radio-Canada)

Renovation grants will cover a portion of construction costs. Grants could amount to as much as $14,000 per unit, up to a maximum of $500,000 per building. The program is expected to renovate up to 700 units a year.

Plante said landlords must be prepared to make their buildings more eco-friendly if they want to qualify for a grant. For example, she said, oil furnaces must be replaced with energy-efficient systems.

Invest in social housing instead: Roy-Allard

Roy-Allard said the city would be better off using that money to build more social housing units that "we definitely need on the short term."

"There's really a housing crisis," he reiterated. "We need more housing units."

Montreal's rental housing vacancy rate has dropped to a 15-year low of 1.5 per cent. Tenants' rights advocates worry that creates the ideal circumstances for investors to buy up lower-rent buildings, invest heavily in renovations and push the existing tenants out through unaffordable rent hikes.

When a Montreal landlord receives a subsidy from the city under the newly announced program, tenants will be informed of the amount of that subsidy and how much the landlord invested in the property. The tenant will also be informed of possible avenues of recourse should they wish to contest any rental increase, the city says.

Montreal says it can't cap rent increases, as that's up to Quebec's rental board, the Régie du logement. In Quebec, landlords are free to increase the rent at every lease renewal, and it's up to tenants to contest the increase.

Roy-Allard said the city needs to do more than keep tenants informed of their right to contest an increase. He said the city needs to make sure the landlords are increasing the rents based on the guidelines set out by the Régie.

"Not many tenants actually confront the landlords. Not many rents are being fixed by the rental board," he said. "It's less than half a per cent every year."

Tenants at the heart of program: Beaudry

Coun. Robert Beaudry, the city's executive committee member in charge of housing, says tenants' rights remain central to this new subsidy program.

"The city also helps owners to preserve the quality of their building while maintaining the accessibility and affordability of their homes," he said in a statement.

"This new program responds to serious needs in our territory in order to maintain a mixed, healthy and safe rental stock."

Plante said her administration is doing everything within its power to reach its goal of developing 12,000 social and affordable units by the end of 2021.

Program doesn't go far enough: CORPIQ

The subsidy is applauded by Quebec's largest association of landlords, CORPIQ, which has about 25,000 members.

However, the $3.7 million a year won't go very far when it comes to improving the overall situation in Montreal, according to the association's director of public affairs, Hans Brouillette.

"Only a few buildings will be eligible, and the program itself, with the money invested, will not cover so many buildings," he said.

"I think it's a good place to start, but we also need to see what the city will do for the smaller buildings, especially those which are not occupied by the owner"

Those rundown buildings with low-rent apartments have only a few tenants, Brouillette explained. Properties like that don't make enough profit to allow landlords to invest in renovations.

CORPIQ's Hans Brouillette says, when it comes to the city's plan to subsidize landlords, Montreal never consulted his association which is the largest landlord association in the province. (CBC)

'Renovictions' must end: Québec Solidaire

Meanwhile, Québec Solidaire is calling on the Legault government to pass an emergency moratorium on "renovictions" by capping rental hikes in all cities where the vacancy rate is three per cent or less.

"When we talk about the housing crisis, we are not just talking about low-income tenants,"  the party's spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois tweeted Monday. 

"We are talking about hundreds of middle-class families who are finding it increasingly difficult to find a decent place to live."

With files from La Presse Canadienne, Radio-Canada and CBC's Simon Nakonechny


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