Individually, tenants have almost no negotiating power. But that could change when they get together with their next-door neighbours.
When Mohamad Khalil Aldroubi heard that his landlord would be increasing the rent by up to 5.5 per cent starting last May, he started knocking on his neighbours’ doors.
Aldroubi’s family has lived at an apartment complex at 71 Thorncliffe Park Dr., Toronto, since 2015. He has five kids. Like him, other tenants at other apartment complexes at 71, 75, and 79 Thorncliffe Park were already struggling to manage previous rate hikes.
Ontario’s rent control guidelines set by the Landlord Tenant Board (LTB) cap yearly rent rate increases in line with inflation, which is 2.5 per cent year-over-year for 2023 and 2024 respectively. But landlords can apply to the LTB for Above Guideline Increases (AGIs) for reasons such as construction and maintenance expenses.
Aldroubi and his neighbours say this AGI is unjustifiable.
“We met in the lobby multiple times. We started very little, a shy group. Then we built trust between each other,” Aldroubi said.
They knocked on doors in the buildings. If the person who answered did not speak the same language as the organizer, the group would come back with someone who did.
On May 1, 2023, Aldroubi and around 100 other tenants withheld their rent payments to their landlords, Starlight Investments and Public Sector Pension (PSP) Investments. More than two months later, the Thorncliffe Park Tenants group is still withholding their rent, and more tenants in the three buildings are joining the rent strike.
Rent strikes in the GTA
The move is extremely risky, especially for Aldroubi’s neighbours who are elderly, have young families, or have physical disabilities. It would be extremely difficult if they had to move out, Aldroubi noted.
“Instead of handling the problems, they sent us [eviction] notices,” Aldroubi said. Eviction hearings have already been scheduled for some of his neighbours. The group has a housing lawyer, and no decisions have been finalized yet.
“We feel the pressure. But the pressure and the hard times give us power to continue. When I go door knocking, I feel like I am speaking to my family members,” Aldroubi said.
Like the Thorncliffe Park Tenants, members of the York South-Weston (YSW) Tenant Union started withholding rent payments to their landlord, Dream Unlimited, to protest dramatic and Above-Guideline rent increases that tenants say they are unable to afford.
Two hundred tenants at 33 King withheld their rent on June 1, and were joined by 100 tenants from the building next door in July.
Then YSW Tenants held a march on July 16, and were joined by leaders from neighbourhood organizations, the Toronto Labour Council, and labour unions the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), Unifor, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario.
The group first formed between 2018 and 2019, and encompasses 13 buildings in the York South Weston neighbourhood.
“[we were] starting to hear from each other, knowing that we were going through the same problems. We decided we should form something, both to protect each other, but also to learn from each other, so that we don’t feel like we’re reinventing the wheel every time,” explained Bruno Dobrusin, a founding member of the Union.
Building tenant power through community
“Tenancy law is quite individualized. It’s all set up to be an individual contract relationship between you and your landlord,” said Neil Vokey, a member volunteer of the Vancouver Tenants Union’s (VTU) steering committee. “But more often than not, what you’re experiencing with your landlord is a pattern of behavior that other tenants experienced as well.”
Vokey and other organizers launched the VTU in 2017 with the goal of lobbying the municipal and provincial governments to instate policies that balanced tenants’ power against landlords more equitably. But over time, they saw their efforts fall flat.
“At the end of the day, power was in the hands of staffers…if they thought it was going to hurt development or landlords, they would water it down or put up hurdles,” said Vokey.
Now, the VTA has changed course. “We still want all those changes that we fought for. [But] we’ve shifted our focus in the near term to building tenant power – building by building, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood,” said Vokey.
Following this approach means changing the culture, Vokey described. Unlike home owners, the city sees renters as temporary and destined to move away to find more stability, especially when they have lower income.
“We’re trying to build politics around the idea of staying put. Building Community, building consciousness around it, and building power to make our existing conditions on the ground better,” Vokey said.
The union of the future?
Unlike labour unions, landlords are not legally required to recognize tenant associations, or go through their leadership to negotiate rent increases and other changes that affect living conditions. Likewise, tenant associations cannot require renters in the building to formally join the association or pay dues.
Legal protections for tenant associations vary from province to province. In Ontario, tenancy laws declare that tenants associations are legal, and that landlords cannot make attempts to directly interfere with their organizing activities. BC, however, does not have any such protections in their laws.
And protections in the law do not necessarily translate into reality, explains Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations (FMTA), an organization in Ontario. He pointed out that the Residential Housing Enforcement Unit only has three officers for the whole province of Ontario. This means that tenants must bring charges against their landlords using their own resources, a process that is often too burdensome for them to carry out.
But perhaps tenant associations will gain labour-union-like protections in the future. In Sweden, landlords are required to negotiate rental rates and increases with the Swedish Union of Tenants (SUT) – a nation-wide organization. The SUT determines a maximum rental rate based on the quality of the property, and the market in the surrounding area.
Dent said that Canada is probably a long way away from a policy like Sweden’s. Some people have made “prototypical developments,” Dent explained, but that the country is held back by two factors: a lack of a funding body, and significant regional differences across provinces and municipalities.
“It’s definitely something that we would like to see,” said Dent. “[There is] a flurry of activity on the ground. And its chaotic activity. There’s definitely a political will amongst the public. There’s definitely an organizing capacity. Just no one’s been able to really tie it all together.”