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HOUSING CRISIS

Pissed off Renters in Vancouver and Toronto Are Finally Fighting Back

It’s no coincidence that a tenant union and rent strike are making headlines in the same week. But getting mad has its rewards and risks.

by Sarah Berman
May 3 2017, 6:39pm

Photo by Rignam Wangkhang

Canadians don't seem to get pissed off very easily. There are exceptions (some of them will @ me) but based on the collective shrug we gave a downtown explosion two nights ago, and, say, our inability to produce human-crushing riots on Black Friday, I'd venture to say we keep our shit together more than average.* Maybe to a fault.

This sweeping generalization seems to apply especially to our rental market. Yes, renters will absolutely commiserate about rising unaffordability semi-privately. We're great at delivering war stories about cohabiting with our exes months longer than necessary. But we haven't historically been as comfortable calling out politicians or wielding pitchforks. As a political force that makes up about half of Vancouver and Toronto's population, we seem to have trouble remembering the names of our elected officials, let alone get angry at them.

That may be finally starting to change in two of Canada's biggest cities, according to organizers of separate rent actions. No doubt spurred by May Day and a looming election in British Columbia, this week has seen rising anger and some "extra-legal" efforts to fight back. In Vancouver, the formation of a city-wide tenant union is helping renters avoid explotive fixed-term leases and pushing for greater rent controls. And in one neighbourhood of Toronto, renters are pissed enough to withhold rent until one of Canada's largest property firms addresses concerns over rent hikes and repairs.

If you ask Cole Webber of Parkdale Community Legal Services, it's not a surprise that Parkdale residents are mad about displacement and shitty conditions, and willing to break some rules to be heard. "The legal framework set up to manage landlord-tenant relations is entirely stacked against tenants," he told VICE.

What's surprising, according to organizers, is that renters haven't been taking more "collective action" in this increasingly brutal, exploitative housing climate. "We're living in the worst housing crisis this country has ever known," Lama Mugabo, co-founder of Vancouver's new tenant union, told VICE. "I think politicians are finally watching and listening because we're coming."

In Parkdale, a group of more than 200 renters say building manager MetCap has refused to accept over 100 repair request forms, and has applied to the tenant board to increase rent beyond provincial guidelines—a move they say is pricing out long-term residents. More MetCap tenants have joined since the strike began May 1, and so far, there's been some indications the landlord is listening.

MetCap president Brent Merrill has maintained all rent increases cover building upgrades and have been approved by the landlord and tenant board, which also hears complaints. "Its impartial tribunal hears evidence from both sides, and makes impartial decision," Merrill said. "What better system could you have?" He told VICE the company has its own programs in place to deal with pests and repairs.

But Merrill's company has also been reluctant to start the eviction process on the striking renters, who represent more than $250,000 in income for MetCap. Defying organizers' expectation, the company did not issue warning letters yesterday. "We would never send a warning letter," Merrill told VICE. "If they don't pay their rent, standard procedure is a friendly reminder after five days."

That's a noticeable change from tenants' previous experience, said Webber. "MetCap's agenda is to push out the long term tenants from the buildings so they can jack rent on vacant units," he told VICE. "They're usually quite quick to issue landlord and tenant board-approved forms for eviction for late rent." The minimum is 24 hours past due.

Webber says this points to an obvious power in numbers. "It would be unprecedented to evict hundreds from one neighbourhood at one time," he said.

It almost makes you wonder: why hasn't this kind of thing happened more in recent memory? Margot Young of UBC's Allard School of Law told VICE Canadian cities and particularly Vancouver have been too focused on home ownership to the detriment of renters. "We've become obsessed with the price of a house in Dunbar, but that's not speaking in a meaningful way to a large portion of the population," she told VICE.

For Young, the Parkdale action is already showing the power of collective action. She says it's only because 200 tenants refused to pay that media spotlight shined on the issue, and property managers appear to have softened. But withholding rent also comes with the obvious risk of losing your home—a risk nobody can afford to take lightly.

When asked if we've reached a turning point in both awareness and desperation, Young hesitates, but agrees consciousness among renters has grown. "People talk about this as a perfect storm," Young told VICE. The high cost of real estate is only one part of it—there's also the unavailability of rentals, and the inadequacy of what is available. According to Mugabo, all levels of government have failed to bring in enough new subsidized housing to keep up with the pressure.

With only a few hundred participating in Toronto and Vancouver, the renter's revenge movement has yet to find mass appeal. But that may rest on whether groups like the Parkdale strikers find success. "It remains to be seen," Webber said. "I've yet to see a friendly reminder to pay rent from MetCap."

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.

* Does not apply to Vancouver when it loses Game 7s.

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