No to Gentrification, Yes to Rent Strikes: An Interview With Toronto’s Parkdale Organize
by William Neumeister
27 June 2017
Recent events have made it tragically clear how dangerous it can be when tenants’ concerns about their homes are ignored. In this context, it’s inspiring to take a look at Parkdale, an area in Toronto, Canada where tenants have been organising to demand repairs and fight rent increases. As part of this struggle, several hundred tenants have been on rent strike since the start of May.
William Neumeister talked to a member of Parkdale Organize to learn more about their progress for Novara Media.
WN: Could you give a quick introduction to the group? How did you form, and what were your main activities before the rent strike?
Parkdale Organize is a group of working class renters in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto. In 2013 a large real estate firm called Akelius bought up four mid-rise apartment buildings in the neighbourhood. Parkdale Organize formed out of the successful struggles waged by committees of tenants at those buildings against rent hikes, harassment, and disrepair.
Veterans of the fights against Akelius soon joined with neighbours in other buildings to win a number of battles against their landlords, a major local employer, and to provide a learning space for school kids and their parents. The past three years of concerted neighbourhood organizing, coupled with a housing market in which rents have soared, have culminated in the ongoing rent strike in the MetCap buildings in Parkdale.
WN: What’s happened in the rent strike so far? How did it start? What are the main issues, and how did tenants organise for it?
In February, residents of a MetCap building in Parkdale organized a rent strike leading up to the Tribunal hearing that would have approved a large rent increase. By turning out at the Tribunal in numbers they were able to have the hearing postponed. They then linked up with Parkdale Organize to reach out to neighbours living in the other MetCap buildings.
March saw the formation of committees of residents at five more MetCap buildings in Parkdale. The committees held meetings in their building lobbies and reached out to their neighbours door to door. Neighbourhood meetings between buildings were held in the basement of the local library. An occupation of the atrium at MetCap’s head office ended in a spontaneous mass meeting where the decision to go out on a neighbourhood-wide rent strike was taken.
In April residents hung banners from their windows and balconies declaring “May 1 Rent Strike”, then successfully resisted the landlord’s reprisals. On April 30 rent strikers marched through the streets of Parkdale to announce their strike. On May 1 two hundred tenants in six buildings began a rent strike to demand the immediate withdrawal of MetCap’s applications for rent increases above the Ontario rent guideline (totalling nearly 15% over three years) and completion of all necessary repairs.
Since May 1 rent strikers have won improvements in building conditions. They have protested MetCap’s corporate investors, crashed the Ontario landlord association’s annual meeting, occupied the MetCap operations offices, protested at the personal estate of a MetCap co-owner, and occupied and shut down proceedings at the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board to stop the approval of a rent increase. On June 1 more than 100 more tenants joined the rent strike, expanding the strike to six more MetCap buildings in Parkdale.
WN: Can you tell us a bit about Parkdale? Do you think there’s anything specific to the area, or to MetCap buildings, that made the rent strike possible, or do you think the most important conditions are ones that are common to tenants everywhere?
Parkdale is one of the last remaining working class neighbourhoods near downtown Toronto. The neighbourhood is characterized by its high density of rental housing; a full 90% of residents are renters, the majority in privately-owned mid-rise apartment buildings. Parkdale is the Toronto neighbourhood where residents spend the highest proportion of their incomes on housing, at nearly 50% on average. It is a heavily racialized neighbourhood and home to many new immigrants including the largest population of Tibetan refugees outside of India and Nepal.
Gentrification and displacement of working class residents is not new to Parkdale. Hundreds of people and families have already been pushed out of their homes by predatory landlords hiking rents, neglecting repairs, and harassing and abusing residents. Parkdale is under massive pressure from the housing market and state and legal systems which facilitate the process of displacement. In Ontario there is no rent control on vacant units. This creates a financial incentive for landlords to push out long term tenants in order to hike rents. The Tribunal rubber stamps landlords’ applications for rent increases above the guideline.
The ongoing rent strike is the organized response of hundreds of neighbourhood residents in defence of their homes and neighbourhood. The high density of rental housing makes the apartment buildings the appropriate bases of a neighbourhood-wide working class organization. Neighbourhood organizing by tenants over the past three years has convinced dozens of Parkdale residents for the need to build such an organization and a victory for the rent strikers will activate hundreds more.
WN: Is there any advice you would give to other tenants elsewhere about how to start getting organised?
Neighbourhood or territorial-based organizing must be based in local conditions. In Parkdale landlords are pushing residents out of their buildings in a densely populated neighbourhood where the majority of rental housing is privately owned and in the increasingly concentrated control of a few large companies. MetCap is the largest single landlord in Parkdale with 19 buildings and more than 1200 rental units.
In this context the basis for organizing is at the building level. Residents form organizations at their buildings which carry out the strategies they decide. From there residents link up between buildings to increase their numbers and co-ordinate their actions. In a multi-national, multi-racial, and multi-lingual urban district such as Parkdale residents must deliberately organize across these lines and come to common strategies based on shared interests.
WN: Is there anything that people outside Parkdale can do to help the rent strike succeed?
The Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo) is MetCap’s main investor and co-owns 14 buildings in Parkdale, AIMCo manages unionized government workers pensions in the province of Alberta. Write to AIMCo in support of the rent strikers using the web form here.
Donate to the Parkdale rent strike Defence Fund to ensure rent strikers are covered against punitive fees they will likely be charged by the Tribunal for withholding rent.