A single tenant in a Montreal apartment block has halted a multimillion-dollar development project in a standoff that has focused fresh attention on the lack of affordable housing in major Canadian cities.

Property developer Mondev has been trying for years to persuade Carla White to move from her small C$400-a-month (£238) apartment so it can demolish a row of mostly abandoned buildings and build 176 luxury apartments.

Her one-room unit in the decrepit building lacks a working stove and can only narrowly fit in a desk, bed and some houseplants. But for White, who was previously homeless and does not currently have a job, the bachelor apartment has been home for a decade – not least because, under Quebec regulations, her rent has been frozen to ensure it remains affordable.

“She’s not trying to save the building. She knows it needs to be renovated. She just wants somewhere safe and affordable to live,” White’s lawyer Manuel Johnson told the Observer, adding that she wanted a similar apartment on a long-term affordable lease – or enough compensation from the developer to ensure she would not lose shelter in the coming years.

In a meeting in early May, the city’s demolition committee approved plans to tear down a number of buildings, including White’s complex. But the committee also said the developer needed to find a solution for White.

Other tenants have accepted offers from Mondev, and senior partners Michael and David Owen told journalists last week that they had made numerous offers to White over the last three years – all declined.

Michael Owen said they had been unable to reach an agreement with White and there was “no path” forward, alleging she was demanding a “penthouse apartment worth thousands a month” on an indefinite lease – a claim her lawyer disputes.

David Owen told the demolition committee earlier in May that the company had offered White C$20,000 (£12,000), a figure Johnson confirmed. “It seems, to a certain extent, that she is using this opportunity to either better her lifestyle or hold us for ransom almost, because the things that she’s requesting are way beyond the norm,” said David Owen, adding “she thinks that she has a lottery ticket and not a lease, and that’s what the problem is”.

But Johnson said any amount offered by the developer would only cover a year or two of rent.

“Even if we took the $20,000 they offered, it would just go into the pocket of another landlord, who has most likely evicted low-income tenants and raised rents as part of the wave of ‘renovations’ sweeping across Canada,” said Johnson.

“Whatever reasonable settlement Ms White needs for housing stability in no way will endanger the financial viability of their project. They don’t have any cash-flow problems, they’re going to be making millions of dollars on this development.”

Like other cities, Montreal suffers from a dearth of affordable social housing, where residents wait an average of five years for a subsidised apartment. While the city can require new developments to include affordable units, the Mondev project does not have that requirement.

White’s fight, as a lone renter standing up to one of Montreal’s largest developers, has also captured the attention of frustrated residents who see a city in which affordable housing is quickly disappearing, often to make way for costlier development projects.

“The majority of residents here are renters and there are still a lot of low-income and working-class people in Montreal,” said Johnson. “We’re developing the city but we’re leaving many of these residents behind when we’re building these projects.

“This is a question of the greater good. Development that should benefit all residents of Montreal and not just a handful of wealthy investors.”

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