Special Report: Risky Rentals
Published Friday, February 17, 2012 7:21AM EST
MONTREAL - Malik Ali has finally settled into a new place. It's not fancy, but at least it's clean – and given what he says he's lived through, he doesn't take that for granted.
Ali, his wife and four children used to live in Park Extension, at 8151 Stuart Ave.
"The old place was like hell," he told CTV Montreal's Maya Johnson.
There was mould in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in bedrooms – even on the furniture, he says.
But despite his disgust and his complaints, Ali says the landlord ignored him.
"When the mould started, I tried to explain to him. I said, ‘look sir…' and he said, ‘you brought it here, not me.'"
In Montreal, affordable housing can be hard to find, and thousands of low-income families pay a price for living in a cheap apartment.
Many live in filthy units, left unchecked by their landlords.
In 2007, the city launched a three-year action plan to crack down on them.
And yet problems persist.
Building declared unsanitary
The building where Ali lived is owned by Claudio Di Giambattista, one of Montreal's most notorious landlords.
Mary Deros, a Park Ex city councillor, says he's difficult to deal with.
"He's not one that cooperates," she says. "He's a difficult man to communicate with and he takes things very emotionally, to a point where at times he's abusive verbally."
Police were on standby last November, when all the tenants living in the Stuart avenue building packed up and left.
They were ordered out, after city inspectors and the public health department declared the building dangerous.
"When we talk about an unsanitary dwelling, we mean that the physical environment is affecting the health of the people or is a threat to the health of the people," says Dr. Louis Jacques of Montreal's Public Health Department.
What angers some housing advocates is that this isn't the first run in with Di Giambattista.
Landlord has long history
In fact, CTV Montreal found material dating back nearly 15 years.
Claude Dagneau, a housing advocate, has been after Di Giambattista for two decades. "Di Giambattista equals terrible situations for his tenants," says Dagneau, head of the Côte-des-Neiges tenants' rights group OEIL.
Dagneau remembers when the city took over one of Di Giambattista's buildings, on Durocher, in 2003, where empty units in the basement were left to rot.
"They were so rotten that the wood floors – hardwood floors in the basement – I could go put my finger and my finger would pass through the wood, just pushing," he recalls.
"It was as though I was putting my finger in sand, just to make you understand the degree to which it was rotten."
The city stepped in, renovated the building and sent Di Giambattista the bill. He turned around and took the city to court.
It took the city four years and a big legal bill to recover the money.
Di Giambattista's battles with the city have ended up repeatedly in the courts, including roughly 500 appearances before the rental board.
Despite repeated requests, Di Giambattista refused to be interviewed for this story.
Tenants don't know their rights
The tenants living in these buildings tend to fit the same profile: low-income recent immigrants, struggling to make ends meet. They often don't know their rights and they're just grateful to have a cheap apartment.
Most tenants living in Di Giambattista's buildings don't want to speak out publicly. Ali says he thinks he knows why.
"He threatened my children, me, and my wife," he says.
Some of his tenants have tried withholding rent in protest.
But Di Giambattista knows the law, and turns that against them.
"If a tenant keeps the rent money to try and force the landlord to do some repairs, he may end up having a file at the Régie du Logement against him," says Jean-Pierre Le Blanc of the Régie.
"He will lose his apartment and he will lose the case."
City takes ‘hypocritical position'
Meanwhile, the building on Stuart Avenue, where tenants were evicted, remains empty.
"We have changed the locks on all the apartments," Le Blanc says.
"Mr. Di Giambattista does not have the right to rent out the apartments."
But Di Giambattista appears defiant. He has repeatedly removed the city's eviction notices and replaced them with "for rent" signs.
Housing advocates would like to see the city renovate the building and send him the bill.
"It's a hypocritical position where the city refuses to apply its own by law regarding the condition of houses," says Dagneau.
"The city holds the power, if they want to do something, they can."
But this time, the city says no, saying it's too costly and takes too long.
"The city is not in the business of renovating other property owners' properties," Deros, the city councillor, says.
In other words, there's nothing to stop Di Giambattista from fixing the place up a bit...and starting all over again.
Tenants seeking information from the city on how to deal with housing problems can call 3-1-1
Housing advocates for Park Ex and Côte-des-Neiges-NDG:
- Park Extension Action Committee – (514) 278-6028
- OEIL ( L'Organisation d'éducation et d'information logement de Côte-des-Neiges) – (514) 738-0101