Sijia Yi knows about bad landlords. She had to deal with two of them when she lived in a Verdun triplex just over a year ago.
The first neglected his duties.
“Every time I wanted something fixed, his excuse was that his wife was pregnant and in labour,” Yi said. “She was in labour for eight months.”
The next one, who bought the building several months after she moved in, passed by the apartment one afternoon and offered Yi free rent in exchange for what some might call “companionship.”
Luckily for Yi, her lease was up and she was already planning to move across town. Many other Montreal renters aren’t nearly so lucky. They are stuck with landlords who do not perform vital repairs, refuse to deal with pest infestations and charge illegal fees.
Last March, four undergraduate McGill University students launched a website that they hope will change the way Montrealers search for apartments: Munzer.ca. Think of it as RateMyProfessors.com—but for landlords.
“It was a pretty natural progression for us, starting the website,” said Alex Fraenkel, a third-year economics student and one of Munzer’s founders. “My landlord after first year never fixed anything and at points was very unprofessional. She had a rent dispute with a roommate of mine and kept saying he owed more than he really did.”
Fraenkel’s friend, Sam Knight, was having problems communicating with his own landlord, who spoke mostly Chinese.
“I felt like a lot of things are rated,” like movies, books or even professors, he said. “Why not landlords?”
Munzer, available in English and French, is open to all Montrealers. Tenants can rate their landlords according to a variety of criteria, like their responsiveness to concerns, their availability and whether they ask for anything more than the first month’s rent upon signing a lease. The site also provides information on tenants’ legal rights with frequently asked questions, like: “What should a tenant do if a landlord won’t fix something in the apartment?”
(The answer: Send the landlord a deadline by registered mail. If he fails to respond, file a complaint with the Regie du logement du Quebec.)
So far, Munzer contains entries for more than 100 landlords around Montreal. Many of them were gathered by surveying students at McGill’s downtown campus. Although Fraenkel and Knight hope to gradually expand the site’s audience, it remains most heavily used by students.
“They’re a natural target group,” Knight said. “University students can be fairly ignorant of their rights and intimidated by landlords,” especially when they are renting for the first time.
In fact, added Fraenkel, “for many students, the lease agreement is the first legally binding document they’ll ever sign.”
Student housing groups are taking notice.
“We were very excited to hear about Munzer.ca,” said Jonathan Elston, the co-ordinator of the Concordia Student Union’s Off-Campus Housing and Job Bank. “I think that it’s a very good concept. The site seems pretty comprehensive.”
He was so impressed by Munzer that every CSU apartment listing now includes a link to the landlord-rating site.
Part of Elston’s job is to provide advice and support for students who run into trouble with their landlords. The biggest problems, he said, arise when landlords charge illegal fees and fail to perform repairs. International students have a particularly tough time renting apartments because they do not have a Canadian credit history; sometimes they are refused simply for being foreign.
“I’ve heard a lot of horror stories,” Elston said.
Landlords who don’t perform emergency repairs, forcing tenants onto the street; illegal evictions; tenants who cannot get the landlord to sign an actual lease.
“We’ve had students who cry in the office. But there’s only so much we can do.”
May Chiu has seen her fair share of housing problems, too. She works for Project Genesis, a housing outreach group based on Victoria Avenue in Cote des Neiges.
“A lot of my job is education, especially since we work in a very multicultural community with a lot of new immigrants who don’t know what their rights are,” she said.
Every year, explained Chiu, the annual rent increase brings with it a flood of complaints.
“Once you start talking about rent increases, people start telling us about problems. There are lots of complaints about repairs, cockroaches and vermin,” she said.
Once, she encountered a local man with two daughters.
“I said, ‘You have such beautiful children,’ and he said, ‘Oh, but they’re always getting sick. We have mice, cockroaches.’ Someone with means would have moved out a long time ago.”
“It’s not a coincidence that you don’t find these kinds of buildings in Westmount or T.M.R.,” Chiu added. “They usually coincide with neighbourhoods with lots of new immigrants, like Cote des Neiges.”
Chiu is skeptical of Munzer’s usefulness among the renters she works with.
“I think it’s a great, great tool for students. One of the prime targets for rent increases is students, especially international students. But they have a choice in where they want to rent. I don’t know if rating landlords would be such a useful idea when there’s not much choice in finding housing.”
Martin Messier, the president of the Quebec Landlords’ Association, is wary of Munzer for an entirely different reason.
“My first reaction was, will I be able to do the same to the tenants? Would I be able to go on to the site and tell my side of the story?”
He is worried that the information available on Munzer will be inaccurate and damaging to the reputation of certain landlords.
Knight admits that, in the past, false information has been posted on the website – one user attributed an apartment building to the wrong landlord. But, after the landlord alerted Munzer, the entry was quickly removed. For the most part, he said, landlords have nothing to worry about.
“If the landlords are well-behaved, they should welcome the site. It’s free advertising,” he said.
Soon, he and Munzer’s other founders hope to incorporate apartment listings into the site, allowing good landlords to capitalize on their positive ratings.
Even Messier acknowledges that Munzer has potential benefits for landlords.
“We’re going to be able to be in touch with a certain number of tenants when they leave the premises. We can verify if he was happy. Getting customer feedback is always good.”
Feedback is something Sijia Yi wished she could have had about her old landlord. But even then, she said, sometimes compromise is inevitable. Her new landlord is nothing if not eccentric but she is willing to put up with his quirks.
“I think (Munzer) would have come into use if it was a ridiculously bad rating. But some people just fall in love with an apartment.”
How Munzer.ca got its name
Munzer takes its name from Thomas Munzer, a radical preacher who led a peasants’ rebellion in 16th-century Germany. Born in 1490, he became a priest. Shortly after he was ordained, however, Munzer’s beliefs evolved into a sort of divine proto-communism, and, in 1524, he led 8,000 landless peasants in a revolt against landowners and the local nobility. The broader Peasants’ War, as it became known, involved more than 300,000 peasant rebels across modern-day Germany, Switzerland and Australia. The uprising ultimately failed and Munzer was executed in 1525.
“The worst building I’ve ever lived in,” wrote one Munzer user about Cogir, a company that owns several downtown apartment buildings, “broke every possible law, never repaired anything, had to leave for over a month when the laundry room became infested with bed bugs. Never came to fumigate. Then had roaches coming in.
Water was turned off without warning for almost three entire days. My wood floors and other renovations remained unfinished for over four months. Water leaked in every time it rained or the snow melted.”
Some users were more satisfied with their landlords.
“Georg is a great landlord who responds to any concerns or repairs by the next weekend after you call,” wrote one tenant about Georg Voerding, who owns a building on Prince Arthur St.
“The building is well kept, safe and well lit with a great location next to campus.”
This article was originally published in the Montreal Gazette on June 23, 2007.