Rent Strikes Work: An Interview With Toronto’s Parkdale Organize

by William Neumeister

24 August 2017

Parkdale Organize

Back in May, William Neumeister talked to a member of Parkdale Organize, a group of tenants in Parkdale, Toronto who have been organising to fight rent hikes and demand repairs to their accommodation. As part of this struggle, several hundred tenants have been on rent strike since early May. Now, after months of organising and resistance, their demands have been met. 

In light of their recent victory, Neumeister spoke with the group again to reflect on their success and find out what’s next.

WN: For the benefit of readers who haven’t encountered this story before, could you give a quick overview of the issues that led to the rent strike, and the organising that preceded it?

Parkdale is a working class and immigrant neighbourhood in the south west of Toronto. The neighbourhood is characterized by its high density of rental housing. A full 90% of neighbourhood residents are renters, most in mid-rise apartment buildings built in the 50’s and 60’s.

Three years ago the Parkdale Organize neighbourhood group formed out of successful struggles by renters in four buildings against the landlord Akelius. Since then the group has continued to organize with their neighbours to fight displacement, worked with caregivers to set up a free learning space for school kids, and supported neighbours who formed a union and struck against a major local employer.

The Parkdale rent strike was organized by renters in MetCap buildings in response to that landlord’s drive to displace them from their homes. Organizing began in February and the rent strike began May 1. At its peak, in June 300 renters in 12 apartment buildings in were withholding more than $1 million in rent to demand the landlord withdraw its applications for rent increases above the guideline and do the repairs.

WN: What does the situation look like now at the end of the strike? What concessions has the landlord granted? Has the strike achieved everything it set out to do, or are there still any issues unresolved?

The rent strike forced the landlord to substantially reduce the rent increases at the buildings. The landlord has also committed to implementing a rent relief program for tenants in financial hardship and to address ongoing maintenance and repair issues.

The scale and strength of the organizing undertaken by hundreds of working class residents has exceeded everyone’s expectations, including their own. The rent strike has raised the confidence and expectations of working class people in Parkdale and captured people’s attention across the city and beyond.

WN: Where next? What do you think the next steps look like from here?

In Parkdale, the level of organization achieved by the rent strikers means the question of “what next?” will be decided upon by a growing number of increasingly committed and militant, working class residents. Working class people in Parkdale have a shared interest in lower rents, better schools, and more and better services. Whichever direction working class struggles take in Parkdale in the months to come, those struggles will be broader, richer, and bolder as a result of the rent strike.

WN: Were there any particularly significant turning points during the strike? Any moments when you felt really confident about winning, or moments where it felt like things were on the verge of going really badly?

The rent strikers’ militancy grew throughout the course of the strike. On April 30, a large demonstration took to the streets in Parkdale to announce the May 1 rent strike. On May 1, two hundred tenants in six buildings went on rent strike. Organizing then expanded to six more buildings. On June 1, the rent strikers’ numbers grew to more than three hundred. On June 7, more than 100 rent strikers shut down the Tribunal and stopped the approval of the landlord’s rent increase application. Soon after this the landlord and its investors came to the table to negotiate with the rent strikers.

WN: Would you say that this has been a purely local story, or have other housing/community-based groups elsewhere helped at all, either through direct cooperation or more indirect inspiration and sharing of useful experiences? Do you think there’s any potential for tenants to organise on a broader scale?

The Parkdale rent strike was a neighbourhood struggle, based in the apartment buildings, against the displacement of working class tenants from their homes by real estate capital. Its success demonstrates what can be accomplished when working class people organize their neighbourhoods. We encourage working class people everywhere to begin organizing their own neighbourhoods, based in their local conditions, around the struggles that are central to their lives.

WN: Finally, what relevance does this have to tenants elsewhere? What are the most useful lessons that other people looking to get organized can take from this experience?

Neighbourhood-based organizing needs to be based in local conditions. That said, there are a few principles which apply in any situation. Build working class organizations independent of any politician, social service agency, or non-profit organization. Organize across all false divisions within the working class whether based on race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, language, level of poverty, or disability. Oppose all those who seek to further divide us. Finally, don’t play by their rules. Refuse to be trapped in the dead ends of legal and political systems which do not serve our interests.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.