Tenant Organizers Are Fighting Back Against Corporate Landlords... and Winning

Evictions usually happen behind closed doors and individually. That is slowly changing.
A resident of a building walks past parked police cars after officers arrived to enforce the eviction of a tenant, in Toronto on Friday, April 2, 2021​
A resident of a Toronto building walks past parked police cars after officers arrived to enforce the eviction of a tenant in April. Photo by the Canadian Press

On Easter weekend, at least a dozen cruisers from Toronto Police Service swarmed an apartment building complex in northwest Toronto to enforce the eviction of a single father from his unit. We know about this because organized neighbours and concerned renters stopped the police from evicting him. 

Faisal Hassan, the NDP Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for the single father’s riding, was on the scene to support the tenant defence.

“It was a horrible thing,” said Hassan of the police-led eviction. Hassan eventually helped negotiate for the tenant to stay in his unit and secure a new lease, but it was only possible because organized tenants made sure their neighbour wasn’t evicted in the first place. 


“The community members and everybody came to consensus and said, ‘We don’t need to remove the father. Call it off; allow him to stay.’”

Even a few years ago, this sort of victory might have seemed incomprehensible. Tenant struggles against evictions still occur largely in isolation and behind closed doors thanks to enforced power imbalances between property owners and working renters, but a surge in tenant organizing in communities across Canada is unsettling that imbalance and building checks against landlords, police, and other financial interests. The surge has been facilitated at least in part by an unrelenting housing crisis and the simultaneous lack of government support for tenants during COVID-19.

While providing immediate material protections for working tenants, this tenants’ movement—which consists of renters organizing themselves into building-, neighbourhood-, and city-wide groups and unions—is also challenging the untenable and hostile living conditions experienced by poor and marginalized communities in Canada. Tenants explain that through organizing, they’re protecting one another while developing a shared understanding that our current housing system serves capital, not Canadians.

The term “tenant organizing” has cropped up with increasing popularity over the past 14 months, but since tactics and analyses vary, what exactly does it constitute? 


“Tenants who live in one apartment building reach out to their neighbours, establish methods of communication, hold meetings, make decisions, and then carry out actions in their interests.” Cole Webber, a community legal worker with Parkdale Community Legal Services, said. 

In the working-class (but rapidly gentrifying) Toronto neighbourhood Parkdale, where Webber has worked for the past 10 years, the rise in organizing has responded to the consolidation of rental housing into the hands of fewer and fewer corporate landlords, which reflects a broader integration of real estate into Canada’s economy. Webber said since some traditional sectors’ profit growth has been sluggish since the 2008 financial crisis, investors are turning to real estate to make money, resulting in entities like real estate investment trusts (REITS) gobbling up housing for working populations. This produces an inevitable collision of interests: investors want to increase profits, and tenants want to have an affordable place to live. The primary barrier to these increased profits, explained Webber, is ongoing tenancies since rent cannot be raised substantially unless the unit is vacant. This incentivizes eviction.

“It’s always been a shitty deal,” said Webber. “It’s just how it’s shitty is more intense now and puts even more pressure on people’s lives.”


Vince Tao, who is on the steering committee of Vancouver Tenants’ Union, started organizing in 2017 against gentrification and displacement in the city’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside. He said the pandemic has brought to the forefront the contradictions between redevelopment and displacement, stagnating wages, and rising rents. The VTU’s campaigns, including blockades against evictions in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood and elsewhere, are rooted in what Tao described as a “furious return to basics, which is really getting to know your neighbour.”

Tao said this is in part a response to the slow-moving futility of institutional advocacy. “Doing tenant work at the level of policy, making motions, engaging with municipal and provincial politics, I think we’re very quickly reaching a dead end,” said Tao. “We can’t trust these channels of struggle because the terrain is so tipped in our enemies’ favour. What we’re looking at here in the tenants’ union is in-person, building-by-building tenant organizing.”

Tao’s strategy and analysis looks beyond the landlord-tenant relationship to urban planning as a whole. “We often talk about David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre’s right to the city, but we’re always fighting on minimum demands like, ‘Can we have a roof over our heads, please? Can I not get evicted immediately?’” said Tao. “We have to remember that the original premise of the right to the city is not just a right to not get your ass kicked by a landlord but a right to actually make a city in one’s own image. When was the last time that you felt that you had any power over how this city is made?”


Alicia Ludwig began organizing her building in Scarborough, Ontario, after the managers, Golden Equity Properties, attempted to impose a $400 fee for air conditioning. Ludwig and her neighbours formed the Trudelle Street Tenants Association to communicate with Golden Equity and advocate for one another on issues like maintenance, pest control, and rent increases. She said the association includes refugees, immigrants, teachers, cashiers, retired individuals, families, and singles.

“Landlords want to make us out like we’re troublemakers, they want to act like we’re being extra,” said Ludwig. “We’re not asking for marble hallways. We just want a safe, healthy place to live.”

Ludwig said while she’s “run the gamut” of political affiliations in Canada, her organizing isn’t on behalf of a political party despite landlords portraying tenant organizers as leftist activists. Emina Gamulin, a tenant and organizer in Parkdale, said her building emphasizes “day-to-day” fixes rather than an explicit ideological framework.

“When you’re organizing in a building, most of your neighbours are not going to be super left-wing people,” said Gamulin. “In the process of organizing and coming together as neighbours, you see how much the system is stacked against people. Through that awareness, you also understand how that system tries to make it so that we need to deal with concerns on our own rather than deal with them together. These things can sharpen for people.”


Given Canada’s economic dependence on real estate, including via pension plans invested in REITs, Gamulin said our system is “tied to the displacement of tenants and working class people.”

In Ottawa, Carleton University PhD student and tenant organizer Josh Hawley helped form Herongate Tenant Coalition to organize against real estate company Timbercreek’s proposed demovictions. Hawley grew up in a housing co-op in Ottawa, where his parents always feared eviction and harassment, so “housing issues have always been top of mind,” he said. After learning from the early 2017 Parkdale rent strike that blocked a rent increase by property management firm MetCap Living, Hawley and a few others began organizing tenants in Herongate.

Even though there’s now a human rights case filed against Timbercreek and the city of Ottawa, Hawley said their strategy never included legal action. “We knew that that’s where they want to draw you,” he said. “They want to draw you into the legal realm because they can suffocate and exhaust you.”


Though HTC was unsuccessful in halting demovictions in the neighbourhood, they raised enough awareness that when a property management company issued eviction notices to tenants in a downtown Ottawa boarding house, the tenants reached out to HTC organizers for help. After a months-long campaign during which the landlords employed different tactics to remove remaining tenants, including offering payouts and executing demolitions in neighbouring units, the tenants won: Smart Living conceded and the tenants will stay, moving into renovated units once they’re completed by the end of this month.

“It’s only a victory because tenants stayed,” said Hawley. “If people don’t stay, there’s nothing to fight for. To get people to stay requires a lot of discussions, a lot of confidence building, commitment to communication.” Hawley said their next steps could include producing a pamphlet or booklet to share strategies and raise awareness.

These victories push back against the idea that organized people don’t have the power to enact change themselves. “Tenants aren’t asking anymore, ‘where do we go for help, who do we turn to?’” said Hawley. “They’re turning to one another and saying, ‘Look, we can win this.’

“It’s up to tenants to actually force landlords into doing what’s right cause as we all know, what’s right and what’s legal aren’t always the same thing.”

Tao said organized tenants can modify contemporary housing relations, which have been orchestrated by an “elite strata of planners.” 

“How do we get back into a place of power where we can build the city that we need to win?” said Tao. “To be able to intervene in this moment and get back to basic militancy and understanding of community as the heart of anti-gentrification, anti-displacement struggles is absolutely necessary.”

The wave of tenant organizing demonstrates working people are capable of developing their own power, but it also shows a commitment to systems change. Webber noted the coalition-building between tenant organizations and other struggles “points to the fact that we’re talking about a fundamental problem with the social and economic system that we’re living under.”

“If you look at the organizing that’s happening as a whole,” said Webber, “it really points to a different kind of society altogether.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story said a Vancouver Tenants’ Union blockade was in Vancouver’s Chinatown. In fact, it was in Mount Pleasant."