Tenant and landlord groups disagree on rent control’s success

As increasingly colder nights send Montrealers home to warm apartments, a dispute between two rental groups calls into question the very principles of rent control that keep the city’s dwellings affordable.

According to the Regroupement des comités logement et associations de locataires du Québec (RCLALQ) – an organization that protects Quebec’s renters – about 450,000 renter households in the province spend over 30 per cent of their income on shelter costs, which is the limit for what the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) defines as affordable.

These claims are rejected, however, by the Corporation des propriétaires immobiliers du Québec (CORPIQ), a group that protects landlords.

Hans Brouillette, a media representative for CORPIQ, explained the average income of tenants across Quebec has by and large far outpaced the amount that tenants spend on rent.

“The cities of Montreal, Quebec, Gatineau, and Sherbrooke are all places where tenants earn much more money than the 30 per cent point,” Brouillette said. “Tenants pay much less [in Quebec] than anywhere else in the country.”

While statistics from the 2006 census show that 35.6 per cent of Quebec renter households spend more than the 30 per cent threshold – the second-lowest in Canada and only 0.1 percentage points above last-place Manitoba – the census data also backs up RCLALQ, listing 448,840 renter households in Quebec spending over that limit.

Another point of contention is whether rent increases are fair. The Régie du logement, the Quebec Rental Board, recommends an average percentage by which a landlord can raise a tenant’s rent yearly, based on what kind of heating system is used. Under the 2008 guidelines, landlords are allowed to increase rent by 0.5 per cent to 1.3 per cent, with adjustments made for property tax increases and major renovations.

CORPIQ stated that rent increases from 2007 to 2008 have been in accordance with the guidelines set out by the Régie. RCLALQ, however, found that in 2007 the average rent increases in Montreal stood at four per cent, well above the Régie guidelines. This has been seen as a failure on the part of the current provincial government and of the controls set in place by the Régie, as landlords can propose any increase; tenants must know that they can dispute the increase, and if they don’t it is affected automatically.

Brouillette again refused to accept RCLALQ’s numbers, however, explaining that the guidelines created by the Régie do not fully take into account the building-specific costs paid by landlords, including taxes and renovations. Furthermore, he asserted that the numbers drawn up by RCLALQ came from the group’s own survey, which CORPIQ does not find to be reliable.

“All the numbers we have come from the CMHC or from Statistics Canada,” Brouillette said. “According to the CMHC, the average rent increase in 2007 was 2.7 per cent…. We don’t have the numbers for 2008 yet.”

He asserted that when actual landlords’ expenditures are taken into account, rises in rent are at the level that they should be.

The debate between the two organizations may be moot, however, since the Régie du logement claims not to be influenced by the statistics presented by either group. According to Jean-Pierre LeBlanc, a Régie representative, the organization independently uses Statistics Canada and the CMHC to calculate recommended yearly rental increases, as stated in Quebec law.

“[The organizations] may give suggestions and often they have meetings with the rental board where they will ask for what they want,” LeBlanc explained, “but it’s not the Régie who changes the law, it’s the government. The Régie is there to see that the law is respected by everyone.”

He added that both tenants and landlords have the right to approach the Régie with complaints about apartment leases, since the Régie acts as an independent tribunal that makes final decisions about the legality of rent increases. Furthermore, Brouillette was quick to point out that all tenants in Montreal have the right to refuse rental increases by their landlords without being evicted. Tenants must fill out a complaint to the Régie and wait on a decision.

“[RCLALQ] say[s] that the rent increase is higher than what the Régie recommends, but if it is higher, why don’t tenants just refuse the rent increase asked by their owner?” he said. “Of course they will win if the rent increase is above what it should be.”

Yet many tenants – particularly students new to Montreal – are unaware of their rights to refuse a rental increase; furthermore, it can take a long time for the rental board to hear a case. As such, many tenants simply accept rental increases, even if they are much higher than recommended.

Despite these contested issues, however, LeBlanc seemed certain that the Régie and its current system of issuing rent control recommendations are here to stay.

“The rent control that is presently legally issued by the Régie, I think it would continue,” he said. “For the near future, it’s sure that the Régie is still there.”

RCLALQ could not be reached for comment.