J ean-François Raymond wasn’t expecting an eviction notice in the last few days of 2022. He’d lived in his spacious apartment in Montreal’s east-end neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve for twenty-two years. It was home in the truest sense of the word. “It was the place that I raised my kid,” he said. “There are plenty of memories.”

But somewhere along the line, as Raymond and his partner raised their child and lived their lives, the local borough established rules in an effort to limit short-term tourist accommodations like Airbnb. That was back in 2016, when the Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough council was under growing pressure to clamp down on the boom in short-term rental suites. So the elected officials drew up a set of what they hoped would be relatively simple rules that prohibit—at least on paper—apartments being operated as short-term vacation rentals in most areas. However, the council permitted vacation rentals “in areas where there are businesses and buildings with three or more dwellings.”

Unfortunately for Raymond, that included his three-storey building on Ontario Street. The busy thoroughfare is lined with an array of shops, cafes, and restaurants. “A thriving urban village with a friendly, small-town feel,” according to Tourisme Montréal. Raymond was shocked to learn his building was eligible for short-term rentals and that the landlord would evict him for that purpose. “I am very angry because we’re not leaving for his old mother or his child going to school. He’s going to change us for a hotel, an Airbnb, for tourism.”

Raymond was especially worried about his neighbour, a sixty-eight-year-old man who had lived there for more than half a century. It’s hard to blame him for being unfamiliar with the rental market—he’d moved into that apartment with his parents when he was just fourteen and had been there ever since. “After fifty-four years in the same place, it will be difficult to move, especially at my age. It’s demoralizing,” he said. Like Raymond and his partner, the elderly man was given six months’ notice. They had until July 2023 to find a new place. Not an easy task, given that he was paying only $685 for what’s known in Montreal as a 6½ but would be described in many other cities as a three-bedroom apartment.

Raymond’s rent was $910 a month—nearly $400 more than what he paid when he moved in but a great deal less than most new rents in 2023. The price of the average two-bedroom rental apartment advertised in Montreal had ballooned to $1,800, with an average one-bedroom costing $1,470. Sure, rents in Montreal are still significantly lower than those in Toronto and Vancouver, but wages in Montreal are lower too, and rents were rising much faster than wages. Those rises were also more pronounced in certain areas, like Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. Apartments similar in size to those rented by Raymond and his neighbour were listed the previous summer for $2,500 a month for long-term rentals. Short-term rentals could bring in even more money for the landlord.

Despite the law and the profit motive working against him, Raymond wasn’t willing to give up without a fight. He called local reporters to share the story and unfurled a large improvised banner across the front of the building. A stark message was painted in red and black on a white sheet: ÉVICTIONS EN COURS POUR UN FUTUR AIRBNB (Evictions underway for a future Airbnb). A pair of skull-and-crossbones symbols was added for good measure. But the publicity would go only so far. What Raymond really needed was for the law to back him up. He took the landlord to Quebec’s housing tribunal, asking for compensation from the landlord in recognition of all the years he and his elderly neighbour had spent in the building. The owners turned down interview requests, but the eviction notice clearly stated they planned to convert the apartments into short-term tourist rental suites.

Housing advocates urged councillors to change local rules to prevent such evictions. If nothing else, they argued, the borough could restrict conversions to apartments where a tenant has already decided to leave or if the suite is in a new building. But the mayor of Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve said his hands were tied by provincial laws that restricted municipal bans to residential areas. “If it was up to me, I would ban rentals for more than thirty days a year on Airbnb throughout the territory,” Pierre Lessard-Blais lamented. “Someone who rents out their home for a week during their vacation is fine. But when it’s more than thirty days a year, it becomes a business that prevents a family from having access to housing in a residential area.” City politicians had already asked the Quebec government to change the law to ban evictions caused by short-term rental conversions. But when Raymond and his neighbour received their eviction notices, there were no such bans in place.

I t’s not hard to imagine why landlords might want to convert old apartments in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve into Airbnbs or other short-term vacation rentals. The francophone neighbourhood was historically industrial and working class—not the stuff of tourist brochures. But as in the case of a lot of Montreal’s old neighbourhoods, its authentic character appeals to visitors. In the years since Raymond moved into his modest apartment, other working-class neighbourhoods such as Verdun, Mile End, and Saint-Henri have gentrified. Once affordable areas with modest dépanneurs and shops, these neighbourhoods now boast chic cafes, microbreweries, and trendy restaurants.

As new people moved in, prices went up. And as those neighbourhoods gentrified, surrounding areas like Hochelaga-Maisonneuve faced similar pressures. From a tourism perspective, the change in the neighbourhood is a good thing. Tourisme Montréal certainly thinks so: “From recycled factories to beautiful churches to striking institutional buildings, the borough’s architectural landscape tells a tale of transformation and evolution.”

It’s a matter of opinion whether any given neighbourhood is more appealing once it gentrifies. What’s less debatable is that neighbourhoods get more expensive for the people who live there. New rentals in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve are now several times higher than what Raymond and his neighbour can afford. But landlords could make even more money by cashing in on the demand for nightly vacation rentals, especially in the summer, when Ontario Street and Sainte-Catherine Street East host outdoor festivals. The streets are closed to traffic, so patios and sidewalks fill up and visitors pour in. A quick scan of Airbnb shows two-bedroom apartments on Ontario Street going for anywhere from $265 to $460 a night in July. Single rooms are cheaper, at closer to $100. But an apartment like Raymond’s could fetch more than $10,000 a month in the summer, if it was renovated.

Of course, Airbnbs are in demand for a reason. Bruno Berumen, visiting Montreal from Guadalajara, Mexico, put it succinctly: “I’m staying in an Airbnb because I think it’s cheaper than hotels, and also you have the facilities to take your food in the house and cook.” The boom in Airbnb and other short-term rental websites has changed cities and towns around the world, with many Montreal residents among the millions of travellers staying in charming abodes on their overseas trips. For some Montreal renters, like Félix Blanche, there’s an uneasy suspicion that the same platforms that helped them have a great vacation are also making their life back home a lot more difficult. “I’ve been to Europe last year, and it was great over there. But in this neighbourhood, as somebody who’s trying to look for an apartment, who did for a few months, it was pretty rough probably because of Airbnb.”

Airbnb says the “home-sharing” service it provides amounts to a “significant boost to the Quebec economy.” In 2018, it claimed that Airbnb visitors spent $475 million in Montreal—more than in both Toronto and Vancouver. Alex Dagg, Airbnb’s then director of public policy in Canada, said, “Airbnb guests visit stores, coffee shops, and restaurants in the neighbourhoods where they’re staying—which supports local businesses and helps create jobs in the community.” Of course, the same could be said of hotel visitors. But Airbnb points to a survey it commissioned that suggests “75 percent of Airbnb guests are more likely to travel to Montreal again because of Airbnb’s offerings.” It’s difficult to say if that’s true and, if so, whether it’s worth the impact on local rents.

Cities around the world have debated the effects of short-term rentals on the affordability of housing. But in many cases, it’s been difficult to find enough data, from both companies and governments, to make an accurate assessment. That’s started to change in recent years. Professor David Wachsmuth, at McGill University, is the Canada research chair in urban governance and led a study on the impact of short-term rentals in Canada. He concluded that the relatively new revenue source for landlords across Canada has been a major cause of housing financialization, where housing is treated as a commodity, or a vehicle for profit and investment, rather than a social good. He found that most short-term rentals are owned by big companies rather than private individuals and that financial incentives placed significant pressure on housing as more long-term rentals were converted to short-term ones.

Wachsmuth’s study found 31,000 homes were taken out of Canada’s long-term housing market as a direct result of short-term rentals. The impact was higher in neighbourhoods like Hochelaga-Maisonneuve that have good transit, amenities, and easy access to city centres. Across Montreal, Wachsmuth estimates, 6,000 homes were taken out of the rental market to be converted into vacation suites. “Removing this chunk of short-term rental apartments off the market makes it substantially harder to find a rental apartment in Montreal.”

Raymond loved Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. But as he started to look for other rentals, he realized his modest carpenter’s income was no longer enough to afford the neighbourhood he’d called home for decades. “It will be very, very hard to find somewhere on Montreal Island, so we’ll probably move off the Island like everybody else.”

S hort-term rentals are a long-term concern in many cities, but the worry is especially pronounced in Montreal because the city has so many renters. In fact, Montreal has the highest share of renter-occupied housing of any large or mid-sized North American city. According to the 2016 census, more than 63 percent of Montreal’s housing units were rented. The city was known for many years as a renters’ paradise because of low rents and high vacancy rates, thanks to an abundance of low-rise rental housing. But the seeds of change were sown in the 1990s, when the federal government stopped building social housing and legalized real estate investment trusts, a model of pooled real estate ownership developed in the United States. REITs have been a popular choice for Canadian investors, big and small, and have purchased thousands of rental buildings across the country with the purpose of maximizing profits for investors. In many cases, that meant renovating old buildings to charge much higher rents. For many long-time renters, it led to renoviction—an eviction that’s carried out to renovate a rental unit. Rents in Montreal started to rise in the 2010s, even though the construction of new purpose-built rental units remained healthy. The city added 13,500 purpose-built apartments between 2016 and 2020, but new rental buildings are exempt from rent-control laws for five years after construction.

In 2019, just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Montreal’s rents rose 4.2 percent, the largest average increase in twenty years. That’s higher than the annual rate of increase that’s allowed by Quebec law, where rent control is supposed to apply to the rental unit rather than the tenant. But a 2023 study into the financialization of rental housing in Montreal found that didn’t always work: “In practice there is no way to ensure that rents are not raised illegally when a new tenant arrives. There is no registry to consult, the outgoing tenant does not always communicate the previous rent to the future tenant, and not everyone has the courage to speak up against their landlord’s violations.” Cloé St-Hilaire and her co-authors found the high demand for rentals stifled many tenant objections to rent increases “because tenants fear they will lose their homes and be unable to find a replacement.” That’s not surprising given that Montreal’s vacancy rate had dropped to an all-time low of 1.6 percent in 2019. It all adds up to a rough ride for renters.

Meanwhile, the city of Montreal was trying new measures to protect affordable rentals. In 2022, it legislated a sixty-day right of first refusal that allows the city to step in on the sale of any rental property and match the offer on the table. The new law allowed the city to buy seventy-eight rooming houses that housed hundreds of low-income residents. That’s good news for those renters. But across the city, many are still struggling with rising rents and evictions.

Guillaume Dostaler, a tenants’ rights coordinator, sees it every day. He tries to help tenants who’ve been evicted to make way for short-term rental conversions and counsels new immigrants who are too timid to speak out against illegal rent increases. But he doesn’t think things will get better for Montreal renters unless the provincial government creates a comprehensive new registry of all rental units. Without that, he says, apartments will continue to be converted into short-term rentals and landlords will jack up rents illegally between tenants. When asked if he expects the provincial government to do that, Guillaume scoffs. “Not at all,” he says, in French.

Many renters wonder whether their political leaders really understand their plight. When Quebec premier François Legault and his wife put their 8,000-square-foot Victorian mansion in downtown Montreal up for sale in 2021, the listing price was just under $5 million. During the provincial election campaign the following year, Legault disclosed he’d moved into a condominium with a declared value of $3.2 million. During the pandemic, Legault had come under fire from the opposition Québec solidaire party for suggesting Montreal renters could find an apartment for as little as $500 a month. The premier bristled at the suggestion he was out of touch with the working classes, whom he considered his people, saying his comments were misconstrued and that he only meant a student sharing a larger apartment could expect to pay so little. Legault also went on to win the 2022 election with no obligation to create a rental registry.

Even if Quebec does create a registry, there’s reason to wonder if it would really work. After all, the provincial government enacted wide-ranging restrictions on short-term rentals when the Liberals were in power in 2015. Hosts had to register their short-term rental unit with Revenu Québec or face fines. No fines were handed out the first year the law was in effect. None. A few years later, Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government made the rules more stringent; short-term landlords had to buy a registration number and display it on their listings. But critics say these rules have had little effect.

“I think Quebec has the best system in the whole country on paper,” Wachsmuth says, “but it has not put in any effort to make sure that anybody follows those rules.” Hopefully, that will just take more time. The city of Montreal allows boroughs, like Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, to choose areas where short-term rentals are restricted to thirty days a year. And Revenu Québec reported handing out more than 900 fines to short-term rental hosts in 2021. Still, that’s probably a drop in the Airbnb bucket. The independent activist group Inside Airbnb found 12,500 Airbnb listings in Montreal in December 2021 and claimed more than 95 percent of them were unlicensed.

S tories of unlicensed vacation rentals causing problems for neighbours spread across Montreal in both official languages: a frat house atmosphere, with people vomiting out of windows at 3 a.m. and raves that last until 11 a.m., jammed elevators, and wrecked laundry rooms. Of course, bad behaviour has been around a lot longer than Airbnb, and many who have stayed in short-term rentals have followed the rules and done their best to respect the neighbours. But many neighbours complain they don’t like the arrangement and would rather see the surrounding apartments occupied by permanent residents.

A musician in her fifties, Rebecca Bain has seen the benefits that affordable rents and stable housing bring to a community. “Montreal was a haven for artists,” she says wistfully, remembering a time when most of the apartments in her working-class neighbourhood were truly affordable for the vast majority of people. She’s called Saint-Henri home for more than twenty years but has seen it change rapidly of late. She’s watched as the post office and local dépanneurs closed their doors and were replaced with expensive restaurants. She noticed fewer families with young children on the streets. She understands that young professionals and other people moving into the neighbourhood also need a place to live, but she wonders where the people who have lived in Saint-Henri for decades will go when they get evicted. “The elderly people live on a fixed income. There’s literally nowhere else for them to go.”

When the sixplex Bain lived in was sold to a Montreal property company, she and all the other tenants in the building received eviction notices. They were told the building was going to be renovated, despite having been refurbished just a few years earlier. Bain believes the new owners just wanted to make them fancier so they could charge more money. First, they got formal letters, then the phone calls started. A woman who refused to identify herself called Bain repeatedly.

Bain then went to her local tenants’ rights group and learned the same company had bought several buildings in the neighbourhood and had handed eviction notices to more than forty renters. Bain says they all received similarly intimidating phone calls. Eventually, all of the other five residents of her building agreed to leave. But she refused. “I know my rights.” Along with dozens of other tenants, she fought the landlord and was allowed to stay, paying roughly $900 a month for her 4½ (small two-bedroom apartment). She lived through all the renovations of the other units and befriended the workers, hoping they wouldn’t harass her (they didn’t). And when the new tenants moved into her building, they all ended up paying much, much more. “So everyone else in my building now pays twice what I pay, and every time a new tenant comes in, they add another 200 on.”

Without a rent registry, there is little oversight. And renters are often relieved just to find someplace they can afford, even if it does gobble up a large portion of their income. Bain isn’t holding her breath that things will change, and she wonders if too many people are more concerned with their own personal gain than the overall well-being of their communities. “Housing is a right, and I feel somehow it’s become a privilege,” she laments. “It shouldn’t be a luxury to have a decent place to live.”

Excerpted from Our Crumbling Foundation: How We Solve Canada’s Housing Crisis by Gregor Craigie. Copyright © 2024 Gregor Craigie. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Gregor Craigie
Gregor Craigie has been a journalist for more than twenty-five years, at the BBC World Service, CBC Radio, CBS Radio, and Public Radio International. He has hosted On the Island on CBC Radio One in Victoria, BC, since 2007.