MONTREAL -- Apartment vacancy rates are up in Montreal, and while rent usually drops during periods of lower demand, housing advocates say landlords are betting on a surge of prospective tenants as Quebecers head back to the office and the classroom.

In 2019, Montreal recorded its lowest vacancy rates in recent history at just 1.5 per cent, meaning there were few apartments available for those looking for a new home. At the time, advocates said the city had entered a housing crisis.

This year, vacancy rates in the Montreal area have gone up to 2.7 per cent, in large part because of an influx of empty apartments in the city’s central areas, according to a report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

"It may be related to the effects of the pandemic, the decrease in immigration, a decrease in tourism, a decrease in the number of students," said Youssef Benzouine, an organizer at FRAPRU, a housing advocacy group in Montreal.

With more empty apartments on the island, rental rates are supposed to go down, advocates say.

Instead, they’re going up.

The average rental price increased 4.2 per cent in Montreal last year – the biggest jump since the early 2000s, when the vacancy rate hovered at just 1 per cent.

"It’s way above people’s paygrade," said Benzouine, who told CTV News the going rate for a vacant apartment downtown is over $1,600 and scrapes $3,000 for a five-and-a-half.

So, what's going on?

Experts say the pandemic is to blame for pushing tenants out of the city, as renters opted for space over accessibility to the office or school.

In their absence, the vacancy rate rose downtown, while it remained stable in the suburbs at an uncomfortable 1.2 per cent.

But instead of cutting prices to bring people back to the city, Quebec’s growing vaccination rates are slowly bringing the bustling metropolis back to life.

As the province eyes reopening, an influx of workers and students are expected to flood in once again, and when they do, advocates say several landlords are offering a new incentive that won’t cut the rental rate.

Benzouine said that instead of lowering the rent, many landlords are opting to offer a month or two for free.

While that might make life easier for a short-term renter, "It just gives us a situation where the rents are very high," he said.

"People are just not able to find affordable housing here anymore."

A lack of affordable housing could pose problems for the hordes of students expected to return to class in the coming semester, many of whom are likely already looking for their own places to live.

"Students’ budgets are more limited right now," said Cecilia Marangon, an assistant at Concordia’s student housing and job bank, HOJO.

"A lot of jobs traditionally done by students, such as in restaurants, bars, pubs have had to close," she said.

"We are seeing the economic consequences on everyone."

HOJO says it expects as many as 5,000 new students to move into the city over the summer. There may be more in the fall, with international students expecting to be able to re-enter the country after August 6.

"There are a lot of students, and non-students also, who are looking for housing," said HOJO assistant Cecilia Marangon, "and they're not finding many affordable options."