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Montreal: holdout tenant halts developer’s push to force her out

Wille Okon 0 Jun 3

A single holdout tenant in a Montreal apartment block has halted a multimillion-dollar development project, in a standoff which has focused fresh attention on the lack of affordable housing in major Canadian cities.

Real estate developer Mondev has been trying for years to persuade Carla White to move from her small, C$400-a-month apartment so it can demolish a row of mostly abandoned buildings and build 176 condominium units.

Her one-room unit in the decrepit building lacks a working stove and can only narrowly fit a desk, a bed and some leafy green plants. But for White, who previously experienced homelessness and current does not have a job, the bachelor apartment has been home for a decade – not least because under Quebec regulations, her rent has remained frozen to ensure it remains affordable.

“She’s not trying to save the building. She knows it needs to be renovated. She just wants somewhere safe and affordable to live,” White’s lawyer Manuel Johnson told the Guardian, adding that she wants a similar apartment on a long-term affordable lease – or enough compensation from the developer to ensure she won’t lose shelter in the coming years.

In a meeting in early May, the city’s demolition committee approved plans to tear down a number of buildings, including White’s apartment complex. But the committee also said the developer needed to find a solution for White.

Other tenants have accepted offers from Mondev, and partners Michael and David Owen told the Canadian Press this week they had made numerous offers to White over the last three years – all of which she has declined.

Michael Owen said the company had been unable to reach an agreement with White, and that there is “no path” forward, alleging she is demanding a “penthouse apartment worth thousands a month” on an indefinite lease – a claim her lawyer disputes.

White has expressed concern that if she accepted Mondev’s offer of a unit in a different building, rent could be raised in the coming years. But Owen said the apartment they offered is in a building old enough that annual increases are limited under the same provincial regulations.

David Owen told the demolition committee earlier in May that the company had offered White C$20,000, a figure Johnson confirmed.

“It seems, to a certain extent, that she is using this opportunity to either better her lifestyle or hold us for ransom almost, because the things that she’s requesting are way beyond the norm,” said Owen, adding “she thinks that she has a lottery ticket and not a lease, and that’s what the problem is.”

But Johnson says any amount offered by the developer would only cover a year or two of rent.

“Even if we took the $20,000 they offered, it would just go into the pocket of another landlord, who has most likely evicted low-income tenants and raised rents as part of the wave of ‘renovations’ sweeping across Canada and Montreal,” said Johnson. “Whatever reasonable settlement Ms White needs for housing stability in no way will endanger the financial viability of their project. They don’t have any cashflow problems, they’re going to be making millions of dollars on this development.”

Like other cities, Montreal suffers from a dearth of affordable social housing, where residents wait an average of five years for a subsidized apartment. While the city can require new development to include affordable units, the Mondev project does not have that requirement.

White’s fight, as a lone renter standing up to one of Montreal’s largest developers, has also captured the frustration of residents who see a city in which affordable housing is quickly disappearing, often to make way for costlier development projects.

“They majority of residents here are renters and there are still a lot of low-income people and working-class people in Montreal,” said Johnson. “We’re developing the city but we’re leaving many of these residents behind when we’re building these projects.”

Carla White on the roof of her apartment block.

Carla White on the roof of her apartment block. Photograph: Canadian Press/Shutterstock

Mondev says it will now put the issue with the province’s housing tribunal to determine the appropriate compensation for White at a hearing in June. While the tribunal can suggest a figure, the final decision on whether to allow a demolition and construction permit rests on the city, and not the rental board.

“The amount that Ms White would need to have housing stability is not going to hold up their project for two seconds. And it’s going to cost the developer a lot less to buy out Ms White than to allocate a number of those 176 units over to affordable social housing,” said Johnson. “This is a question of the greater good. Development that should benefit all residents of Montreal and not just a handful of wealthy investors.”