Late one cold evening in February 2021, Adriana Bortas-Pauelesco received a knock at her door. A firefighter stood outside.
Bortas-Pauelesco and the other tenants in the five-storey apartment building nestled against Mount Royal in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges district were told they had to leave their homes that night.
Building inspectors had discovered firewalls were removed during renovations and concluded the building was not safe.
“We were scared, of course. I started to panic,” she recalled.
Bortas-Pauelesco, now 79, had only a few hours at the height of one of the worst pandemic waves to pack up her most important belongings. She spent the next four months in hotels.
A diabetic, Bortas-Pauelesco said she struggled to regulate her blood sugar, until she moved into a room with a kitchenette.
Now back in her small apartment while renovation work continues in many of the units around hers, Bortas-Pauelesco has no plans to leave again despite what she says she endured over the past two years.
On Monday, she was among the 21 tenants listed in a lawsuit filed in Quebec Superior Court against the property owners, Brandon Shiller and Jeremy Kornbluth, seeking a total of $1.7 million in compensation and damages.
“We are looking to make this case something emblematic, something that can create a precedent, something that can create a deterrent effect — not just on the landlords concerned, but also at large,” said the tenants’ lawyer, Daniel Crespo Villarreal.
The allegations in the lawsuit have not been proven in court.
“We will take time to consult with our legal advisors before deciding to comment or not,” said Kornbluth in an emailed statement after the suit was filed.
Owners targeted properties in ‘need of love’
Shiller and Kornbluth purchased the 46-unit building at 3440 Ridgewood Ave. in June 2019 and undertook a major renovation a year later, in September 2020, according to court documents.
In a statement, Kornbluth, speaking on behalf of their company Hillpark Capital, said that it historically “targeted properties that were in good locations but in need of love.”
“Often vendors neglected capital expenditures and did very little work in the building for many years,” he said.
In the case of the Ridgewood building, Kornbluth said they waited until a larger number of units were vacant, but the scale of the project “resulted in some unfortunate circumstances for the remaining tenants that had inconveniences while the work was going on.”
He said Hillpark Capital “acted diligently in addressing any measures that inspectors requested” and “made larger size hotel suites available with kitchenettes for the duration of the emergency evacuation.”
The rise of ‘renovictions’
Across Montreal, “renovictions” — a catch-all word used to describe the practice of kicking out tenants, making renovations and then jacking up rents for those who move in — have become increasingly common in recent years.
Documented cases of repossession, eviction or renoviction went up 46 per cent last year — from 597 in 2020 to 874 in 2021, according to the Coalition of Housing Committees and Tenants Associations of Quebec.
Overall, Montreal’s rental market, long the envy of renters in other big Canadian cities, has tightened. There are limits on rental increases for existing tenants, but advocates say many long-term, low-income renters are getting pushed out of their homes, with nowhere to go.
“People have terrible housing conditions, but they can’t afford to move because it’s too expensive,” said Saray Ortiz Torres, a community organizer with Project Genesis, a housing rights and anti-poverty group.
“People are being told to leave their apartment because of renovations or for whatever reason.”
Shiller and Kornbluth, Bortas-Pauelesco’s landlords, have become prominent figures in Montreal’s increasingly fraught rental market.
In all, they own more than 1,000 rental units across the city, according to Kornbluth.
Rental tribunal documents show they have a history of doing construction work that puts tenants under duress.
In 2019, tenants in a Plateau-Mont-Royal apartment received a reduction in rent and $2,000 for moral and punitive damages.
The tenant accused the owners of ignoring a bedbug infestation and cutting off services without warning.
In the ruling, the administrative judge ordered Shiller and Kornbluth to “cease all harassment tactics with a view to obtaining the departure of tenants, including harassment through negligence and inaction.”
The same year, Shiller and Kornbluth were ordered to pay $1,700 in rent and $700 in damages following another dispute with a tenant over a renovation.
Hillpark Capital also acquired a number of historic buildings in Montreal’s historic Chinatown, including the oldest one in the district — a noodle and fortune cookie factory.
The purchases raised concerns among heritage advocates. Kornbluth said in his statement his company would “protect the historical and special nature of the place and would preserve and enhance the heritage value.”
Shiller and Kornbluth are also the owners of Manoir Lafontaine, a 90-unit building across from La Fontaine Park which has become a focal point in the debate over affordable housing.
Under the company name 3485 Papineau Investments Ltd., the pair purchased the building in 2019.
Last spring, the company gave tenants eviction notices, telling them they had to leave for a period of at least seven months while major repairs were done.
In this case, Kornbulth said the company “learned from our experience at Ridgewood” and that “doing major repairs to a residential building while tenants occupy is not the ideal course of action.”
For that reason, he said, they sought an injunction to “grant a temporary evacuation for the very few remaining units so that we could complete the work without creating disturbance to them and have them return once work was completed.”
In fact, the remaining tenants fought the eviction, and last month, the rental tribunal ruled in their favour.
‘They can’t evict me’
During a recent visit to the building on Ridgewood Avenue, unassembled scaffolding was scattered across the front lawn, and piles of rebar were stacked on a piece of plywood protecting the main entrance. The crumbling front balconies had been removed but not yet replaced, and the front lobby was dusty and lined with unfinished drywall.
Benjamin Homaii, who lives on the same floor as Bortas-Pauelesco, said he fielded a call from a property manager representing the new owners months after they had bought the building, offering him money to leave.
He received a second call in April 2020, as the province descended into the first COVID-19 lockdown, offering him more money. (He recorded the conversation and shared it with CBC News.)
Homaii, who shares his two-bedroom apartment with a roommate, declined the offer but worried that he would be forced out and unable to find a new place.
“I really thought that if I leave my place, I would be on the street,” he said.
Homaii decided if he wanted to stay, he would need to learn his rights. He’s also helped others in the building, many of whom are elderly or have health conditions, navigate the system.
He kept records of documents and filed access-to-information requests for workplace safety reports, including one that provides evidence of asbestos contamination in the building.
In his statement, Kornbluth said the asbestos removal was handled within the guidelines and under constant supervision of authorities.
“We did not take any shortcuts with health and safety of the occupants,” he said.
Maxine Malamud is one of the last of the longtime tenants still living in one wing of the first floor. Her home is surrounded by apartments under renovation, with exposed insulation in the unfinished walls, and wires dangling from the ceiling.
She said the past two years, much of the time spent at home due to the pandemic, were miserable given the incessant noise.
“I just don’t think that another person should ever be allowed to do to us what they did. You know, we pay rent here,” said Malamud, who earns her living as a dog walker.
“They can’t evict me. I pay my rent every single month on time from the moment I started living here. I’m quiet. I don’t bother anybody.”
Many of the longtime tenants at Ridgewood pay $1,000 or less for a one- or two-bedroom apartment — a rarity these days — but the revamped units appear to be going for far more. The price for an available two-bedroom unit is listed at $1,925 a month.
Does city’s plan go far enough?
Earlier this year, Montreal announced plans to set up a landlord registry, whereby any building owner with more than eight units will be required to submit information to the city about rental prices, the number of vacancies and proof of inspection.
Mayor Valérie Plante said at the time the city wants to “tighten the screws” on owners of substandard rental buildings and fight renovictions and “abusive” rent increases.
The certification will be rolled out for the largest buildings first. Those with 100 units or more will have to comply by June 1, 2023, and owners of smaller buildings will be required to follow suit, depending on the number of units in their building, with the final deadline set for 2027.
“The vast majority of building owners take care of their buildings,” said Plante. “Unfortunately, there is a minority of owners who force us to take these strong measures.”
Many Canadian cities are struggling with a shortage of available housing, and some have taken other steps to give more power to tenants.
In 2019, the fast-growing city of New Westminster, B.C., just east of Vancouver, amended its business regulations and a licensing bylaw to restrict renovictions.
Where evictions are necessary, property owners need to provide tenants with temporary accommodation, and rent increases are prohibited after the renovations are done. Rental property owners who fail to comply can have their business licence revoked.
Last fall, Prince Edward Island passed a two-year moratorium on renovictions. There is an exception if landlords need to perform necessary or urgent repairs, but they have to obtain a building permit, to ensure the apartment needs to be empty in order for renovations to be done.
McGill architecture Prof. Avi Friedman, director of the university’s affordable homes research group, said in Montreal, many of the necessary regulations to protect tenants from renovictions are already on the books. They just need to be enforced, and that means more inspectors.
Friedman said the city’s aging rental stock does need to be renewed, but renovations must be done in a way that prevents tenants from being kicked out of their homes.
“There needs to be a middle ground between developers and the city, where money will be offered to the tenant — not to the developer … until the unit is renovated and the person can come back,” he said.
WATCH: What are my rights as a renter in Quebec?
Several Montreal boroughs have introduced bylaws to block evictions tied to the enlargement or subdivision of a property. (That includes Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, although its bylaw was not adopted until after renovations were already underway at the Ridgewood building.)
Benoit Dorais, vice-chair of the city’s executive committee, said Montreal has asked the province to go even further by modifying the Quebec Civil Code. As it stands now, if a property owner evicts a tenant to do renovations, the onus is on the tenant to fight it at the rental tribunal and prove the changes are not necessary, said Dorais.
If the Civil Code is modified, the property owner would have to persuade the tribunal that the work is required and ensure the rights of the tenants are respected.
Even though she lives in a building surrounded by construction debris and plaster dust, Bortas-Pauelesco said she has no plans to leave. She has refused every offer of compensation to move.
The building has been her home for 32 years. Bortas-Pauelesco loves the neighbourhood: the apartment is a short walk to Mount Royal, and all the amenities she needs are nearby.
“It wasn’t a question of money for me,” she said.