Montreal skyline from top of Mount Royal on a fall afternoon
Montreal’s vacancy rate fellow almost a full percentage point in 2018 to 1.9 percent, well below what’s generally considered a healthy rate for a city’s rental market of 3 percent. Caryn Rousseau/AP

Compared to Toronto and Vancouver, Montreal’s real estate market looks enviable—but its rents are shaped by factors other cities can’t replicate.

In 2017, the average cost to rent an apartment in Toronto was $1,300 CAD a month. In Vancouver, it was $1,297. But in greater Montreal that number was $766.

It’s a startling difference for a city that requires little quality-of-life compromise to live in. Montreal has an enviable vibrancy and cultural richness and one of the highest rates of restaurants-per-capita in North America. It is smaller than Toronto but larger than Vancouver, the two hottest real estate markets in Canada.

For a point of context, the internet heaped derision earlier this year on a $750,000 CAD listing for a central Toronto fixer-upper that, as the Huffington Post accurately put it, “looks like it came out of a horror movie.” The Toronto Real Estate Board reported rents for a one-bedroom rose 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, as vacancy rates fell below one percent.

In contrast, Montreal’s real estate market looks like an enviable model. But it’s also shaped by a combination of factors difficult for other cities to replicate.

Founded in 1642, it’s an early North American city with a dense urban fabric in many neighborhoods and a housing stock that skews older. The classic Montreal triplex, which typically rents for less than modern homes, is a low-rise without elevators and other expensive amenities to maintain.

Language is a soft barrier, further limiting housing pressure in the only Canadian province in which French is the official language. It is possible, but awkward, to get by speaking only English in Montreal. That helps limit the number of Canadians moving from other provinces to take advantage of its relatively affordable housing and makes it less appealing than a city like Toronto to many immigrants who speak at least some English. (On the other hand, it has attracted 70,000 immigrants from France, sometimes blamed for creating upward pressure in desirable neighborhoods).

Maxime Roy Allard, spokesman for The Coalition of Housing Committees of Québec (Regroupement des Comités Logement), says not to underestimate the role of decades of strong activism in slowing rent increases as well. “There are stronger and more rooted social movements in Quebec that are better-organized than in the rest of Canada,” he told CityLab.

But perhaps most significantly, Montrealers have less purchasing power. The average household income in Toronto is $78,373 CAD, putting it squarely between Sacramento and Los Angeles. In greater Montreal, that number was $61,790, more in line with the Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Tampa regions.

Allard and other housing advocates also argue affordability is overstated in a city with lower incomes and a high concentration of low-income households.

“There are 86,990 households that pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing,” said Céline Magontier, an organizer with a social advocacy organization called FRAPRU. She also noted that neighborhoods in the center of the city and even the ring around them have become dramatically less affordable in the last decade.

Montreal’s vacancy rate fellow almost a full percentage point in 2018 to 1.9 percent, well below what’s generally considered a healthy rate for a city’s rental market of 3 percent. Vacancy rates are even lower for two- and three-bedroom apartments, noted Magontier. “In particular,” she said, “Montreal is facing a problem of a shortage of housing large enough for families.”

The city has become noticeably preoccupied with the gentrification of areas such as Mile End, Parc-Extension, and Saint-Henri which have become substantially less affordable in recent years. In the space of two weeks this fall, there were no fewer three panels on the topic of artists and their role in the gentrification of urban neighborhoods.

Rents in gentrifying areas rise much more quickly than the city average, with the largest increases occurring between tenants, forcing people who may have wanted to move to a different apartment within their own neighborhoods to go elsewhere.

In 2016, Luis-Gaylor Nobre helped launch an initiative to try and bring greater transparency to that process. The website he and his partners created, monloyer.quebec is a crowd-sourced effort that asks people to submit the rents they have paid along with the address and year.  

Nobre, who is from France, faced the problem when he moved to Montreal 10 years ago of trying to figure out what apartments should cost in a new city full of unfamiliar neighborhoods. Later, living in a neighborhood in the midst of gentrification increased his interest in the issue of gentrification.

“Suddenly the [one bedroom] that you could rent for $650 [CAD] is $900, almost $1,000,” Nobre said. “This [increase] is hidden because basically I think it's one borough at a time and some of that data is not easy to get.”  

For now, monloyer.quebec has only a few thousand entries, too few to analyze for emerging trends. The provincial association of property owners (PORPIQ) has criticized the site as presenting unverified and unreliable data. However, the site’s co-organizers plan to increase their outreach efforts to collect more information in the coming months.

The city of Montreal unveiled a plan this spring of subsidies and tax rebates for home-buyers, with up to $15,000 (CAD) available to families.

Nobre hopes the city will also pursue more efforts to support renters. “Montreal is not in a terrible state but I think we really need now to think what we want for the future,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Maxime Roy Allard’s job title.

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