Recently, the mayors of 14 municipalities across Quebec called for the establishment of a rent register. This call for a coordinated housing rights strategy across the province was supported by different groups and experts, including the Collectif de recherche et d’action sur l’habitat (CRACH), and the public interest group, Vivre en Ville. Beyond assisting in the creation of housing policies, this call presents the opportunity to discover the full social and economic potential of public digital strategies.
This comes at a time when technology like AI is accelerating the creation of and access to public data. It is part of an economic development strategy that has been pursued for more than ten years by various levels of government seeking to stimulate the digital economy. For example, the Government of Quebec implemented legislative guidelines facilitating access to healthcare data for the private sector. However, the current reluctance to create a source of reliable and accessible information for tenants in the province has resulted in the need to assess the different interests of those involved in developing open data strategies.
Understanding the Information Imbalance Between Rental Property Owners and Tenants
Rental property owners have access to a growing set of data, tools and services that provide them with significant advantages. One advantage is the ability to more accurately evaluate the value of their properties and maximize their investments. Short-term rental platforms like Airbnb are a good example of this. These platforms regularly inform the property owners about the periodic fluctuation of rental prices which allows them to quickly adjust rates according to market trends.
Another advantage is that as part of their relationship with tenants, landlords are permitted to request a pre-rental investigation prior to approving a tenant’s application (eg: reviewing credit score and criminal history). This information protects landlords and is widely legitimized even though pre-rental investigations have been proven to be discriminatory.
As for tenants, gaining access to information that helps them to assert their right to safe and secure housing is more complicated. While rent increases are regulated, landlords are not required to share rental prices from previous leases. For instance, to contest a rent increase in the province of Quebec, tenants must rely on the calculations produced by landlords, unless they make an official request to the provincial Administrative Housing Tribunal. Making certain information (ie: whether or not the home has ever gone for long periods without water or electricity or if the owner has often appeared before the Administrative Housing Tribunal) public and easily accessible can protect tenants by giving them insight into the history of the landlord and their property.
The Benefits of Rent Registries:
In other cities, rent registries have already demonstrated their effectiveness as a rent control measure by ensuring both housing affordability and building maintenance.
Benefits for Urban Development:
From an urban development perspective, the implementation of a rent registry could also serve to counteract the increase in socio-economic inequalities brought on by policies favouring the existing privatized digital economy. For example, the new AI and technology ecosystem in Montreal's Marconi-Alexandra sector (including computer labs, artificial intelligence start-ups and large digital companies such as Microsoft), is having a significant impact on the availability of affordable housing in adjacent neighbourhoods like Parc-Extension and La Petite-Patrie. For local authorities, gentrification and the rise in real estate values are seen as signs of success. There is a lack of information limiting a balanced understanding of the reality experienced by people who are excluded from the ambitions of private housing development.
Benefits for Tenants, Housing Rights Groups and Regulators:
A widely adopted rental registry could serve tenants, housing rights groups and regulators by informing them of price fluctuations in areas affected by gentrification and short-term rentals (Airbnb). It would also make it possible to know and anticipate the variations in housing supply to better inform countermeasures. For example, algorithms could automatically detect unusual price variations and allow for targeted responses.
Furthermore, a tool that is committed to transparency could also reverse the power imbalance between landlords and tenants by forcing landlords to justify their actions rather than requiring tenants to defend their rights. Given the current pan-Canadian housing crisis, governments across the country are faced with an opportunity to better utilize digital strategies to help tenants exercise their right to housing
At a time when the social and economic benefits of artificial intelligence are raising more and more doubts and the absence of a strategy in this direction is becoming more evident, governments must implement original digital initiatives through which public data could be used for a better allocation of resources.
NOTE: A French-language version of this article was previously published through the Institut de recherche et d'informations socioéconomiques (IRIS).