Tobias Gurl thinks his five-year-old collie, Winston, is a pretty ideal roommate: she's quiet, well-trained and indispensable to her owner's well-being.
Gurl, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is awaiting an autism screening, says Winston is a service dog who has been trained to help him during panic attacks through trained behaviours. Those could be a well-timed nudge, climbing on top of him like a weighted blanket or circling around him to create space when he gets nervous in crowds.
But Gurl, 32, and his roommate CJ James, who also has a service dog, are facing a common problem in Montreal: the inability to find an affordable apartment that accepts animals.
"We have sunk hours and entire afternoons taking public transit around the city to just try and find a place that will take us, and the most likely prospects just turn us down," Gurl said.
While landlords cannot legally bar service dogs, Gurl and James say they've been turned down at least twice by landlords who have clearly stated the dogs as a reason. And, while other landlords have been less overt, they suspect the dogs were the reason they were rejected for at least five other rentals.
"One was on the verge of offering us the place, and then they heard about the dogs, and it was a no," Gurl said.
He said his hopes have been raised somewhat by the introduction of a bill in the Quebec legislature that would invalidate no-pet clauses. The bill, tabled by the opposition party Quebec solidaire, would also ban such clauses in future leases.
It's a measure that advocates such as the Montreal SPCA have long called for. Sophie Gaillard, the organization's director of animal advocacy, says no-pet clauses result in a sad parade of surrendered animals this time of year ahead of Quebec's July 1 moving day, when new leases traditionally begin.
"Every day at the SPCA we're witness to heartbreaking scenes in which people who really love their animals, are responsible, take great care of them, want to keep them, but are forced to surrender them because they just can't find housing," Gaillard said in a phone interview.
#Quebec advocates take aim at no-pet clauses in leases amid housing crisis. #HousingCrisis #NoPetClause #HousingCrisis
The problem, she said, is that there's a fundamental imbalance. Although 52 per cent of Quebec households own a cat or dog, according to a 2021 Leger poll, the SPCA says far fewer landlords are willing to accept them.
That assessment is echoed in a survey carried out by a major landlords' group in 2019, which found that more than 66 per cent of owners refused to allow pets.
However, the group's president, Martin Messier, says forcing owners to accept animals would be the wrong approach, noting that many landlords fear damage and mess from animals left alone too long, or complaints from other tenants about noise or allergies.
"I want to insist on the fact that it's never the animal that is the problem," he said in a phone interview. "It's always the owner of the animal, the master, who doesn't take care of it."
Rather than being forced to accept animals, he suggested, landlords should be given incentives. He said allowing them to collect a damage deposit from pet owners — which is currently prohibited — would help, as would reducing backlogs at the province's housing tribunal so problematic tenants can be dealt with more quickly.
Messier said the same survey by his group, the Association des Propriétaires du Québec, suggested that the introduction of a damage deposit would reduce the number of owners who refuse animals to 50 per cent.
But for Gaillard and others, damage deposits are unnecessary and would disproportionately hurt low-income families with animals who are already struggling to find housing.
She notes that no-pet clauses have been considered invalid in Ontario, France, Germany and Australia, with no major problems resulting, and says landlords already have tools to address problem tenants and recoup the costs of damage.
Philippe Desmarais, a community organizer with housing advocacy group POPIR, says widespread no-pet clauses add "a level of complexity that isn't necessary" for tenants who need to find one of the city's dwindling stock of affordable units.
As Quebec's moving day approaches, he said his group is trying to help people find homes amid low vacancy rates and rising rents.
He notes a case that is set to come before Quebec's administrative housing tribunal in which a landlord is trying to evict a tenant in part for having a pet in violation of their lease terms, even though the animal has caused no damage or complaints. The SPCA is seeking to intervene in the case in support of the tenant.
Gurl and James said their current rent is set to go up this fall after a discount they initially received expires. On their student budgets, they're doing everything they can to find a new place, including writing resumés for their two dogs. (Winston the collie's "Education and Work" section cites her numerous obedience certificates and "volunteer work" as a therapy dog with the McGill Wellness Hub).
Gurl also has an Instagram account for Winston on which he advocates for the bill prohibiting no-pet clauses, and he and James have each filed a complaint with Quebec's Human Rights Tribunal against a landlord who refused to rent to them.
They say that if they can't find a new place, they'll have to stay in their current apartment, paying rent they can't really afford for the sake of their animals.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2023.