Amid a housing crisis, should Montrealers be allowed to convert duplexes into single-family homes?

Some families say they need to renovate to stay in the city, but others say allowing renovations will put vulnerable tenants at risk of eviction.

Some say they need to renovate to stay in Montreal, but others say it will put vulnerable tenants at risk

Hugo Levasseur in front of his duplex with his family. If he isn't able to convert it into a single-family home, he says he will probably have to move off the island of Montreal. (Submitted by Hugo Levasseur)

When Hugo Levasseur bought a duplex in Villeray three years ago, he figured that as his family grew, he would be able to renovate the building into a single-family home.

But he says new rules aimed at predatory landlords and large developers mean he can't transform his 800-square-foot apartment into a 1,600-square-foot family home, and that the regulations will drive more people to the suburbs.

Villeray—Saint-Michel—Parc-Extension is among several Montreal boroughs that are moving to ban property owners from transforming duplexes, triplexes and larger buildings into a single-family homes, due to a growing housing crisis in Montreal.

With vacancy rates at a 15-year low, the borough has halted issuing renovation permits as it moves forward with the regulation change.

"It's kind of like trying to fill a large sinkhole with a few pebbles, and the pebbles happen to be families like ours," said Levasseur on CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

"We're not taking five blocks and turning it into a single-family home of 3,000 square feet," he said. 

Levasseur says he recognizes that the housing crisis is a severe problem, but measures like these are not an effective way to tackle the crisis.

If he is unable to convert his apartment to suit his growing family, Levasseur says he likely will have no choice but to consider moving off the island, because it will be hard to find a home that meets his family's needs, at a price that is affordable.

But housing advocates say that families are already being forced out by landlords looking to renovate their homes, and then rent them out again for higher rents: a practice they say the new regulations would help curb. 

"Which families do we want to keep in Montreal? Is it only the ones who have the means to acquire property and to carry out a major renovation, or is it also the longer-term tenants who are low income and who face being pushed out of their neighbourhoods altogether?" asked Amy Darwish, a community organizer with Comité d'Action de Parc-Extension. 

The same regulations preventing Levasseur from transforming his duplex, she said, gives those tenants a fighting chance to remain in their homes. 

Evictions are on the rise, said Darwish, and many landlords are not occupants of the properties they wish to renovate. She said those who are most affected end up being those who live with lower incomes, or are immigrants.

"Should people be forced onto the streets in the midst of a global pandemic because somebody wants a larger home?" she said.

Amy Darwish, a tenants' advocate with the Comité d'action de Parc-Extension, says people are being pushed out of Parc-Extension where affordable apartments are increasingly scarce. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The debate also comes in the context of widening wealth gaps between owners and renters, according to a study released Tuesday by not-for-profit research group Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économiques (IRIS).

Speculative practices over the past 20 years in the housing market drove up property values, says the report, reducing access to housing. It concludes government intervention, such as revising how property tax is calculated, is needed to protect affordable housing.

Vacancy rates are unlikely to rise unless fewer people move to the city, according to the Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation (CMHC). 

Levasseur says he's open to working with others to find a solution.

"The best way to solve the crisis is to sit together and collaborate to find constructive solutions that will satisfy all parties involved," he said.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Alison Northcott