How informed participation helps tenants fight for their rights: A look at FMTA’s Tenant School
Published on 19/06/2019
Informed participation is key to meaningful engagement in civic processes. When people know their rights and the systems within which they’re engaging, they’re better able to advocate for their rights and organize for social change. In the area of tenant rights, the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA) has been working to promote informed participation and tenant engagement through its Tenant School. We asked Joeita Gupta, the Tenant School’s administrator, to share some insights about the program.
The consequences of Toronto’s housing crisis have been well documented, but there’s also another story to be told. And that story speaks to how tenants are organizing for their rights — mobilizing, holding decision-makers accountable, and fighting for housing as a human right.
For the last 45 years, this mobilization has been the focus of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA), Canada’s oldest and largest tenant federation advocating for tenants’ rights. And one of the most important aspects of our work in promoting and protecting tenant rights has been informing tenants about their rights and empowering them to advocate for themselves and their communities. We do this through the Tenant School.
The Tenant School, as the name suggests, is a two-day training designed for individual tenants and tenant leaders who are involved with organizing for tenants’ rights. It’s also an opportunity to form tenant networks, nurture leadership, and engage ordinary people with the larger issue of affordable housing. In a nutshell, the underlying principle for the Tenant School is that informed participation is the foundation for sustained and effective civic engagement and community organizing, which in turn preserves tenants’ rights.
There is an adage: if you give someone a fish, they eat for a day; if you teach someone to fish, they eat every day. While we can assist tenants with legal information and with individual inquiries through programs such as our Tenant Hotline and the Outreach and Organizing Team (which goes into buildings to assist tenants facing Above Guideline Rent Increases), there’s a missing piece — building capacity among tenants to organize themselves and advocate for systemic change. The Tenant School, together with our efforts to assist with Tenant Association organizing and volunteer recruitment, is helping to address that gap.
It’s not unusual to hear from tenants that they feel organizing is futile. That there’s no point in complaining, since no one is listening. Or, that no one in their building wants to challenge the landlord because they are afraid of getting evicted. The Tenant School gives participants a chance to switch the channel.
We have long held the view that tenants are experts in their own lives. Moreover, as soon as marginalized communities start to think differently about supposed individual problems, recasting them as systemic issues, it opens up additional avenues to address those issues through collective action, while shifting the balance of power.
In its over four decades advocating for tenants’ rights, FMTA has offered the Tenant School at various times and to different audiences, ranging from tenants to settlement workers, in Toronto and across the province of Ontario.
In its most recent iteration, the school has become a robust two-day training which brings together dozens of committed tenants from all corners of the city of Toronto and from various walks of life.
Tenants participating in the Tenant School learn about the Residential Tenancies Act in Ontario, human rights in housing, and how to get repairs done, by leveraging both the provincial landlord and tenant board and the municipal licensing program, Rent SafeTO.
Tenants also participate in workshops on community organizing and campaigns, and how to work with government to shape decision-making. The school combines presentations delivered by a range of legal aid lawyers and community organizers with a number of hands-on activities, ranging from a mock mediation exercise to designing your own campaign.
The Tenant School is not, by design, a training which requires attendance without participation. One of the first things tenants are asked to do is to identify an issue or challenge in their building, in order to centre their lived experience throughout the remainder of the program. Engaged participants are those who believe that they have a horse in the race. Tenants who are going through the program are asked to think about their individual issue, find ways to form relationships with other participants, and find ways to see themselves in the curriculum.
In this way, the Tenant School opens up a conversation about shared problems and allows space for strategizing. It’s not unusual to have participants start email lists, exchange phone numbers, and stay in touch with each other. Tenants do not become experts in the nitty-gritty of the law, which has never been the intention, but they come away with a greater sense of their own power drawn from shared lived experience. The value of this informal learning cannot be over-stated.
By equipping tenants with knowledge about how government works, who makes decisions within government, or how a bill becomes law, tenants who aspire to work toward social change get a road map for how to achieve it by engaging decision-makers at the appropriate time and stage of the process.
Even if the school does not “get into the weeds,” participants obtain a working knowledge of the law to understand their rights and responsibilities, but also explore ways in which the law can be improved to better protect tenants. To that end, tenants gain concrete skills on launching tenant associations and building a grassroots campaign from the ground up.
In fact, graduates from the program have gone on to speak to the media about issues ranging from conditions at Toronto Community Housing to the need for greater information and transparency for tenants under the Fire Code. Participants have made deputations, met with city councillors, worked with community allies, organized tenant associations, and volunteered with the FMTA to continue their organizing work.
Another striking feature of the Tenant School has been the persistent demand for the program, which hasn’t dissipated despite the school being offered more frequently. There is routinely a waitlist. People want not only to learn about their rights but also to share that knowledge with their neighbours by training executive members for their tenant associations, directing tenants to relevant services, and encouraging others to stand up for their rights.
Perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of the Tenant School is that it affords participants a chance to work with people from all walks of life. Successful social change movements bring together and draw on the strengths of people from various backgrounds. Our schools are regularly attended by professionals, paralegals, artists, activists, students, and retirees, among others. There are people who have never been involved in any type of organizing as well as tenants who have been advocating for decades.
There are also people who represent the diversity of the city: parents, newcomers, racialized people, large numbers of women, members of the 2SLGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and Indigenous people have all been trained at the school. We have tried to make the school a welcoming space for everyone. We attempt to provide childcare as requested, and provide note-taking services and other accommodations.
But we aren’t trying to check off boxes. We really want to encourage participants to start thinking about the diversity of the city we live in and how that diversity of lived experience can translate into sustainable movements and meaningful social change for tenants. While it is possible to find information about the law online, it is much more difficult to find time and space to work on building bridges and collaborative approaches to organizing which ensure that no one is left behind or left out.
On a personal note, I am a woman, a member of a visible minority, an immigrant and a person with a disability. While it’s not something I ever make explicit, I do hope that participants who have a chance to see someone with a visible disability and an immigrant in a leadership position, coordinating a two-day training, take some time to reflect on the stereotypes and misperceptions that continue to persist.
I hope they come away considering the possibility that people with disabilities aren’t dependent; that immigrants aren’t too afraid to get involved; that women can shoulder responsibility and take leadership. I remain optimistic that as graduates go beyond the school, attempting to organize their neighbours and other tenants, they remember that no one’s contribution can be discounted because of who they are and what preconceptions we might have about their abilities and contributions.
There is a saying made famous within the disability rights movement which says “nothing about us without us,” and I really hope, beyond the obvious learning objectives, that Tenant School participants draw on their personal experience as the starting point for their subsequent organizing and also leverage the lived experience of others.
Please check the FMTA’s website www.torontotenants.org for details for the next Tenant School. If you have any questions about your rights as a tenant in Toronto, please call the Tenant Hotline at 416-921-9494.
To view all pieces in our ongoing series on rights-based participation, please visit our series page.