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By Ruby Irene Pratka

Local Journalism Initiative

As July 1 approaches, a growing number of renters across the province are scrambling to find last-minute housing – a task that is particularly difficult this year, when inoccupancy rates in many cities have hit historic lows.

In Cowansville, where the vacancy rate for rental units is a minuscule 1.4 per cent, the city is setting aside $5,000 as an emergency fund to help renters who are struggling to find permanent housing pay costs associated with temporary housing and storage. While a number of larger cities, including Sherbrooke, have offered similar emergency assistance to renters for years, Cowansville has never needed to do so – until now.

“This is the first time we’ve needed to make this money available,” said Mayor Sylvie Beauregard, emphasizing that the money is not managed directly by the city, but given to the Comité du logement or the Office municipal d’habitation de Brome-Missisquoi and disbursed through them to eligible renters. The city is also hoping to receive additional funds from the Ministère des affaires municipales et de l’habitation to further help renters. Beauregard said as many as 30 Cowansville families may have to move into emergency housing on July 1.

Beauregard said the housing shortage could be attributed to several factors. One is the growth of “renovictions” – until recently a largely urban phenomenon – where a landlord evicts a tenant in order to make major repairs to a dwelling and then raises the rent sharply. Since repairs can’t be carried out until a tenant has left, landlords resort to various means to get tenants out, and tenants then struggle to find another apartment or house they can afford. “People have been taking lump sums of cash to leave [their apartments] and then finding there was nothing else available,” said Beauregard. She also cited high construction costs and population growth as factors putting a squeeze on the local housing market.

Mario Mercier is the spokesperson for the Association des locataires de Sherbrooke, which fields calls from concerned renters throughout the Estrie region. “There’s a shortage of housing in absolute terms, but there’s also a shortage of affordable and adequate housing,” he said. “We have a rising population and rapidly rising rents. If you stay in your house, your rent increase [from year to year] is usually not that high, but if you go somewhere else, it will go way up. It’s in your interest to stay where you are, unless there’s a danger to your health.” As a result, Mercier observed, there are fewer rental units than ever on the market for those who have to move.

Beauregard said she has been working with the Office d’habitation du Québec to build 24 units of affordable housing in the city, dependent on funding and interest from outside landlords. “We’re working on a few [other] solutions, such as allowing people to build additional houses on their properties…but that doesn’t solve the July 1 problem,” she said.

Mercier and Sylvie Bonin of the Association coopérative d’économie familiale (ACEF) de l’Estrie agree that “solving the July 1 problem” can only happen with long-term action. As the housing crisis spreads across the province, Mercier supports putting in place a provincewide emergency fund for renters, to make sure comparable services are available in cities and in smaller towns.

Bonin emphasized what she sees as the necessity to build more social housing and enforce existing tenants’ rights regulations. “We need more social housing, but for that, we need land and entrepreneurs,” said Bonin. “We also need penalties that are dissuasive enough to discourage landlords [who evict renters under false pretenses].” Bonin worries that for every low-income renter who braves the current market, more are staying in toxic homes – or toxic relationships – because they’re afraid to end up without a roof over their heads. “The alarm bells have been sounding for years,” she said.

Beauregard and a representative of MNA Isabelle Charest’s office advise renters who need help to contact the Office municipal d’habitation Brome-Missisquoi.

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