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Lone tenant in a $400-a-month apartment could hold up major Montreal condo project

MONTREAL — As Carla White looks out the window of her yellow-and-pink, plant-filled apartment in the heart of downtown Montreal, she wonders where she's going to live next.
Carla White walks outside her apartment in Montreal on Thursday, May 25, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

MONTREAL — As Carla White looks out the window of her yellow-and-pink, plant-filled apartment in the heart of downtown Montreal, she wonders where she's going to live next.

"I look out there and say, where am I going now?" she says, gesturing at the highrises that tower above the building where she lives.

The apartment is small and cluttered, it doesn't have a working stove and her bed and small desk take up most of the floor space. But it's home and, at $400 a month, the price is right.

White, who declined to give her age, says she was homeless after multiple previous evictions before she found a home she could afford a decade ago. The small bachelor apartment has given her a measure of stability. But like so many low-income tenants in Montreal, she finds that stability threatened by gentrification and development.

She is the only remaining tenant in her building, which is slated to be demolished to make room for a 176-unit condo project. But in order to move forward, the developer must reach an agreement with White — and she says she won't leave until she's provided with a home that offers the long-term stability she needs to ensure she won't end up back on the streets.

In a meeting at the beginning of May, the city's demolition committee voted to approve the demolition of the building at the corner of St-Hubert and Ste-Catherine streets, which includes the former site of a well-known Italian restaurant, Da Giovanni. However, the approval has conditions attached, including that the developer demonstrate that the file has been settled with the holdout tenant, according to the committee meeting minutes.

The developer, Mondev, did not respond to a request for comment. But at the May 1 committee meeting, senior partner David Owen said the company has been trying to negotiate with White for "three or four years" without success.

He said that the company has offered White a different apartment, which she refused. They then offered her $20,000, which she also refused, he said. "She indicated to our lawyers that she wanted a penthouse and an amount of more than $50,000," he told the committee.

White and her lawyer, Manuel Johnson, say she's not asking for anything unreasonable, given the city's skyrocketing rents and the disappearance of affordable housing. Johnson believes her story is a "classic class conflict," that pits the desire of wealthy developers to make a profit against the needs of the wider population.

"The right to make profits in real estate development exists but is not unlimited," Johnson said. "It should not take precedence over the fundamental right to housing, which is a fundamental human need."

He said White wants an apartment with an affordable rent guaranteed for at least five years, or the equivalent in cash. They acknowledged the developer did offer White one apartment, but she says she didn't feel safe in the proposed building and wasn't convinced the rent wouldn't rise.

White, for her part, says $20,000 won't last her long when apartment rents in Montreal have shot up, and most of the ones she sees range between $1,400 and $1,700 a month.

"How far will $20,000 go (at) $1,600 a month?" she said. "I will be evicted within a year. I will be out on the roads."

She says a place with access to an outdoor garden would suit her taste, but she's willing to consider different areas of the city. 

Robert Beaudry, a city councillor and chairman of the demolition committee, says the requirement that the developer reach an agreement with displaced tenants is not new, and that the rights of tenants are already enshrined in bylaws and regulations. However, he said the administration wanted to highlight the requirement in this case, because it is concerned about affordable housing.

"In the current state of things, it's very hard to find new housing, so we wanted to re-emphasize the fact that according to the regulation, they have to show that everything has been done to respect the rights of the tenant," he said in a phone interview.

While Beaudry believes there is "goodwill" from the developer to negotiate, it's unclear what will happen if an agreement can't be reached.

The two parties are set to appear in June before Quebec's administrative housing tribunal, which adjudicates disputes between landlords and tenants. Johnson, however, doesn't believe that body will have the authority to impose a deal, especially because he and his client are satisfied with the city's ruling. 

He believes that if an agreement isn't reached, it will be up to a Quebec Superior Court judge to clarify, which could be a much longer process.

Johnson said Monday he has learned that two people have filed appeals of the demolition committee decision, but did not yet know their identity. He said the appeal would be heard at a borough council meeting in June.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2023.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press