Editorial, Opinion

It was the landlord, with the lead pipe, in the moldy basement

Finding housing in Montreal can be a harrowing experience for students who are not properly informed about their tenant rights. For this reason, many students find themselves in illegal renting agreements, a scenario that can lead to serious problems such as costly repairs which should have been covered by their landlord. Both the city of Montreal and McGill must offer resources for student tenants to inform and advocate for themselves.

On Oct. 23, the City of Montreal provided an excellent example of the ways such problems could manifest. Mayor Valérie Plante announced that the city will begin the process of forcing roughly 24,000 property owners, including landlords, to replace their lead water pipes. In the past, Montreal allowed homeowners to replace lead pipes at their own discretion. However, in light of an expanded awareness regarding the dangers of lead poisoning and revised standards about what constitutes safe levels of lead particulates, the city will now finance the replacement of lead pipes for homeowners, and allow them to pay back the cost over a 15-year period. The city’s decision to take the issue of lead poisoning into its own hands should be commended, and Plante has correctly framed this process as an issue of public health. 

On the city’s website, an interactive map that displays the entirety of Montreal is available; however, the website is exclusively in French, which limits accessibility to anglophone communities. If people search by address, they can click on their residence or apartment building to see the probability that its pipes are lead-based. While this map marks McGill residences as unlikely to contain lead, this is not a guarantee. McGill has the responsibility to inform the student body about their rights and obligations as tenants in Montreal, as well as assuring students that the water they consume on campus, and in residences, is uncontaminated. In addition, Montreal’s municipality has a responsibility to make sure everyone in the city has the same level of accessibility to information regarding public health issues.

This type of scenario, one which involves ambiguity about whose responsibility it is to make costly repairs, poses an issue for student tenants. Tenant rights in Quebec are robust but students must also be  informed and understand those rights. One resource McGill students have is McGill’s student housing website that breaks down both tenant and landlord rights and obligations.

The power dynamic between a landlord and tenant can make it extremely difficult for residents to advocate for themselves, even if they are informed about their housing rights. Racialized tenants are particularly vulnerable, since racial and social discrimination is a prevalent issue in Montreal. Further, international students who may speak English or French as a second language face additional challenges when it comes to navigating illegal or unjust behaviour from landlords. 

Students should also know how to make use of alternative resources in navigating housing situations. One such resource is the Legal Information Clinic at McGill, which helps break down robust legal jargon for students. Additionally, websites like shouldyourent.com and groups like Chez Queer Montreal can help students and marginalized individuals find safe living spaces and landlords. 

For students who do find themselves in unlivable circumstances, whether it be due to the environment or their relationship with their landlord, it is crucial that McGill is able to offer them support and resources. Having temporary housing available is a crucial step that the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) should take, especially in the case of international students who may have no other options if they are forced out of a living situation. SSMU should proceed with its Affordable Housing Committee, a project in collaboration with The Unité de travail pour l’implantation de logement étudiant (UTILE). Collaborating with UTILE would be an effective way to provide accessible housing for students in need. 

The lead pipe replacement issue is an example of the ways in which rental relationships in Montreal can be challenging. It is imperative that the city offers the necessary resources, information, and support to its residents so that they may safely and comfortably advocate for themselves. Finally, McGill also has a moral obligation and professional responsibility to continue supporting student tenants. 

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