It is not embarrassing to be a renter, but often the conditions are manipulated to make it so. To be a grown adult who has no control over their own heat. To have the water or lights turned off without warning. To endure mice and cockroaches. All of these indignities don’t have to come with the cost of renting, but they too often do. The business of being a landlord should be about providing excellent housing long-term. No tenant moves into a new place hoping to be uprooted from it within a year, but every landlord would love this arrangement—kick out tenants every year, slap on a coat of paint, and jack up the rent in between. Maximum profits, zero investment—this has become the new reality.
Protections for tenants have been stripped to the bone during Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s tenure. And what happens in Ontario is only a precursor for actions that will sweep the country. The slumlords of old seem quaint compared to the financialized landlords of today. The rental game has gone big box, humanity has been taken out of housing, and all that remains is protest.
Allow me to present the current rental climate, the nightmare that is tenancy in Toronto. Meet the activists who want you to know your rights and will teach you how to fight back against the tyranny of greed that has overtaken the business of where we live.
Last spring, as the pandemic took hold, Emina Kosjenka’s landlord turned off the water in her building for the third time in as many months without warning. Vanessa Collins began a rent strike in solidarity with her neighbours who’d lost their jobs, then she lost hers and withholding rent became necessary for survival. Ashleigh Doherty kept seeing, at the end of every month, piles of furniture on the street outside her building and she wondered about the reasons behind it. All of these tenants reached their tipping point and began to organize. They all live in Parkdale, Toronto, Ontario—the unofficial battleground for the latest war on the working class. Tenants make up 90 per cent of the population in South Parkdale, and just under one-third of Canadians are renters.
“Bedbug issues, cockroach issues, mice, heating, flooding…” Collins is listing the variety of problems she and her neighbours regularly face. “The heat wasn’t on properly for a very long time this winter. For some folks, it was barely on at all.”
She’s been fighting for years. “It just felt like screaming into the void. Like the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Our voices have gone unheard for so long.” She notes that Kosjenka lives nearby. “We’re all in different buildings but it’s all the same situation.”
Remember slumlords? “They would just take people’s rent and not do any repairs,” says Doherty, explaining that slumlords aren’t the problem anymore. There’s a new villain in town. “Financialized landlords; they’re not even a corporate landlord, they are [investors] that make their profits off turnover in the units. They are never just satisfied in taking a person’s rent, it’s always about how they can push that person out and replace them with a tenant who’s paying even more.”
Kosjenka, Collins and Doherty advocate for tenant’s rights through Parkdale Organize.
“When we talk about tenant’s rights, we are talking about two different things: what you are allowed under law, and tenant justice,” explains Kosjenka. “For example, under the law, your landlord has the right to evict you for unpaid rent, even during a pandemic. But we at Parkdale Organize recognize that that’s not just, or right.” Especially when one considers that the same people who make the laws about rent are also the ones stripping away the rights of tenants. “It’s up to us to do the work to keep ourselves housed and make sure our landlords are not taking advantage of us,” she says.
Doherty works as a grammar school teacher for ESL students by day. “I teach a lot of kids who don’t have hot water at home, or have holes in the ceiling, or their parents are behind on rent.
“We’re taught not to talk about these things,” she says. “We’re taught to be ashamed if we have cockroaches, to be ashamed if we’re facing eviction. But that’s just a tool to keep us weak and isolated.”
Organizing has become a necessity for Doherty; she’s a renter, but it’s also born of a passion for the community she lives in. “My whole life is wrapped up in this neighbourhood. It’s such an amazing community.” She joined Parkdale Organize seven years ago.
“It started out as a very modest thing. We were just trying to keep people in their homes and get some repairs done. We couldn’t have predicted what this was going to become. The only solution we have at this point is to organize with our neighbours and fight back.”
The latest eviction threats loom thanks to changes made by the Ontario government that created a predatory environment for financialized landlords. The Financial Post reported in 2017 that one of the largest privately-held apartment landlords in Canada, was looking “…for multi-family assets in the U.S. south, a region largely free of rent control.” Rent controls in Ontario had pushed them to look elsewhere. In 2018, Ontario Premier Doug Ford eradicated rent control on any new units. This was touted as a way to encourage investment and new rental properties. What it did instead was to incentivize financialized landlords to become even more extortionate than they’d been before.
As the Toronto Star reported in 2019, “Industry experts warned that the policy is likely to lead to more tenants being evicted as they face exorbitant rent increases.” The story was about double-digit rent increases as a direct result of Ford’s handiwork.
How can a bunch of working-class people fight something so massive?
“Our organizing never depends on appealing to the humanity in the situation. We make it easier for them to just do the repairs and keep tenants happy because they know there will be consequences if they don’t.” Doherty explains that something like a rent strike can be effective: “It’s a constant wrench in the gears, [the properties] start to become toxic assets at a certain point.”
The work of activists continues to prompt financialized landlords to change. Because of the actions Doherty and her fellow tenants have taken, they’ve seen a decrease in evictions. Tenants who are behind on rent for a year in a pair of buildings managed by two of these financialized landlords have not received eviction notices. In other neighbourhoods, where organizing is less prevalent, an eviction blitz has been taking place.
“If you compare what’s happening in Toronto vs the US, the level of consolidation of the housing market is globally significant. The number of rental units that are owned by a smaller and smaller number of these financialized landlords is intense. They are just buying up more rental properties every year. Even throughout Covid, some of these large landlords were trying to cry poor while still experiencing record profits,” says Doherty.
“They feel that profits are their basic rights, they do not care about housing as a right for folks,” says Collins. “It isn’t fair that we should lose everything we have while landlords are able to get their entire income.”
A mass eviction is planned for June 16. Collins is one of the tenants who’ll be going to court to fight it. She’d be there anyway to support her fellow tenants, but this one is personal. The eviction she’s fighting will be her own.
And to be clear, the word “court” is a misnomer: if one gets an eviction notice in Toronto right now, the place one goes to fight is a Zoom meeting run by Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board. What goes on here is best summed up by a Twitter thread posted by @yazminegray, in which she shares Zoom footage of adjudicators coercing a child into accepting a rent repayment plan on behalf of her family, demanding $11k in 11 days from a tenant who had broken her back and couldn’t move, let alone work, and in what might just be their finest moment, ruling on a tenant who is not present at his hearing because he has died. The adjudicator is so oblivious to the situation, so entrenched in his daily grind of routine evictions, that he ignores protests that the tenant is deceased and proceeds to levy a fine against the said tenant for non-payment of arrears.
If Doug Ford has his way, @yazminegray and others like her, who record these shocking eviction hearings and share them, could be subject to a $25k fine. As reported in VICE, this is “just the latest in the Ford government’s prioritizing of landlord and business interests over tenant safety and housing. Despite announcing an eviction moratorium, Ford offered no financial support directly to struggling tenants. Once the moratorium was lifted, a record number of evictions were scheduled. According to the Advocacy Centre For Tenants Ontario, the board held more than 7,000 hearings in November alone, 96 percent of which were filings by landlords against tenants. Last year the province passed Bill 184, which in some cases would even allow landlords to evict tenants without a hearing.”
“Start organizing now,” advises Cole Webber, a legal worker at Parkdale Community Legal Services. “Don’t wait until you get an eviction notice. Tenants who receive eviction notices who are already part of a tenant organization in their building or neighbourhood stand a much better chance of being able to respond to it effectively. It comes down to there being strength in numbers, and tenants being able to take actions which raise the financial, political and social costs of landlords pursuing evictions.”
Organizing is a process of tenants collectively making decisions and carrying out actions that they decided on as a group: “Rent strikes and protests targeting the offices and homes of the owners of their buildings. Publicity both in terms of media, but also in getting information out to people about what the landlord is doing; where the landlord might be sensitive to it.” explains Webber. Distributing flyers in their neighbourhood, perhaps. Letting the landlord’s neighbours know about the mould and bedbugs their tenants live with. These types of visits, to individual homes, have proven effective, and not just for shaming landlords. They help tenants as well.
“It’s really empowering for tenants to see,” says Kosjenka, “Because we know the conditions we live in, where our landlords are not addressing our needs and our rights. To see how they live—look at all the staff, look at the cars—and to realize how they got all their money. It’s us giving away a good chunk of our money every month, and that’s how they’re able to afford this lifestyle. It lifts the veil and increases awareness of class consciousness for tenants. That’s powerful.”
Webber points to the 2017 rent strike. “The landlord was seeking above guideline rent increases in five buildings. At its high point, there were three hundred tenants withholding rent. It lasted a number of months, but they were able to force the landlords to take those increases off the table.”
A recent news story out of B.C. gives more cause for hope. New Westminster city council enacted a bylaw that cracked down on renovictions and was so effective that cases went from over three hundred families being evicted from their homes pre-bylaw to zero once the bylaw came into effect.
Says Doherty, they know that executives are paying attention, pointing to the fact that the CEO and president of one of them attended the first hearing that took place after a Parkdale Organize protest march in April. “This literal billionaire was present at a run-of-the-mill eviction hearing. The largest landlord in the country is personally attending an eviction hearing for a single tenant; that tells you their eyes are on us.”
And they should be, many more actions are planned for the next couple of months. She won’t say what though. “I’ll leave it to the tenants in the buildings to announce. I just want to say that it will always come down to the collective action taken by tenants that will win the day. We are making it clear…that we won’t allow evictions in this neighbourhood. They are not going to be dealing with the tenants of one building, but with the entire organized force of Parkdale.”
As Collins prepares for her hearing this month, she has a message for landlords. “This is unacceptable. We will not let our neighbours go unhoused, especially during a pandemic. And for landlords that think they can get away with it unnoticed, we see you. We see your tactics and we will not let it happen.”
UPDATE: As we were going to press, Webber tweeted “Bill 276, which includes $25,000 fines for disseminating eviction hearing recordings, received royal assent in the Ontario parliament yesterday, and is now law.”
Do you need help? Information? Advice on standing up for your rights as tenants across the country? Please read the story links above, and reach out to the organizations listed below.
- Parkdale Organize – http://parkdaleorganize.ca/
- Keep Your Rent – Hamilton https://www.instagram.com/KeepRentHamOnt/?hl=en
- Renters Action Movement – Alberta https://twitter.com/ram_alberta?lang=en
- Rent Strike Vancouver – https://rentstrikevan.ca/
- ACORN Canada: https://acorncanada.org/
- TENANT RIGHTS CANADA, BY PROVINCE/TERRITORY https://tenantrights.ca/
- Who’s who of Toronto evictions www.landlordsoftoronto.com/