Organizing, educating, and advocating for tenants’ rights
Published on 26/10/2017
Hardly a day goes by without a news item in the Toronto media about tenants’ issues. We hear and read about tenants fighting against unreasonable rent increases, looking for decent living conditions, or organizing to have illegal air conditioning charges removed.
In the push for better rights, tenants’ associations across the city have become important resources for support, advocacy, and education. We reached out to Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations, to talk about FMTA’s work, how tenants’ associations support tenants, and some of their recent challenges and successes.
Could you tell us a bit about the work that the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA) does and how it involves tenants across the City of Toronto?
The FMTA provides a host of direct services to about 60,000 tenants in hundreds of buildings in Toronto and beyond. We run a tenant hotline, help tenants with rent increases, and help tenants’ associations and tenant leaders organize and run a Tenant School in the city and around the province. We mainly educate tenants about their rights and options, but they also educate us! The FMTA advocates for better tenant rights by taking feedback from tenants and trying to highlight their stories with government and the press.
What is a tenants’ association? And what are the steps to create one?
Tenants’ Associations (TAs) are groups of tenants that come together to make life better in a community or building. Most TAs in Toronto are building based, but they can be organized by region (Parkdale Tenants’ Association) or even ethnicity (Somali Tenants’ Association, Hispanic Tenants’ Association). In addition to being able to work on issues like building maintenance, education, and communications, TAs also create social infrastructure in a building or community that endures over time. Social infrastructure is simply a dedicated “unit” of people that neighbours can turn to for questions, advice, and support to take action to make their community better. Like regular infrastructure (transit, schools, or hospitals), it is an important element of a vibrant community life.
Why is it necessary for tenants to become actively involved to ensure better living conditions?
Sadly, the landlord and tenant relationship is a relationship of power — landlords have assets, lawyers, lobby groups, and often, access to millions or even billions of dollars. Being a landlord is often a job and a business. Tenants don’t often have access to these things, and their apartment isn’t a job, but a home. Because of this power imbalance, tenants can be subject to abuse, violation of laws and living standards, illegal charges, and evictions. As with almost any kind of power imbalance, the best way to deal with the situation is to come together as tenants and work on issues collectively.
How have tenants been involved in creating better living conditions for people in Toronto? What are some of the challenges they face in doing this? Have they been able to overcome any of them?
One of the most important things that tenants’ associations do is education. They educate fellow tenants about their rights, they educate landlords on how tenants will assert these rights, and they educate the government and press about the reality of being a tenant in today’s market. It’s difficult work. Tenant leaders don’t often have a lot of time, money, or support. They have to deal with tenant apathy and infighting. Landlords constantly sink to new lows when it comes to trying to stop tenants from organizing — threatening eviction, refusing maintenance, and resorting to other illegal activities. However, even in the face of all of this, tenants in Toronto and Ontario have been remarkably resilient and successful.
For example, recently a tenants’ association in North York took their landlord to court over removing services. After facing down threats of eviction and a lack of maintenance, they rallied their neighbours to bring in the City to issue maintenance orders while adding names to the court case. The landlord paid thousands of dollars to the tenants for the loss of services via a legal settlement.
Another association saw tenants being charged $15,000 in illegal air conditioning fees. The tenants went to the press and the landlord backed down.
What kind of successes have tenants achieved because they’ve become better organized?
Tenants have been at the forefront of a number of key changes in 2017. Constant complaints, deputations, and media stories from tenants about bad maintenance led to a new regulatory system (RentSafeTO) passed by Toronto City Council. Horror stories from tenants’ associations of 1,000-dollar rent increases, illegal evictions, and phony contracts led to new provincial laws. Tenants’ associations have often been at the head of these initiatives, while also tackling issues in their buildings like the removal of services, illegal air conditioning charges, and lack of community services. The number of stories and victories is really quite remarkable.
What is the Tenant School? What are you trying to accomplish and who is participating?
The Tenant School is a project founded by the Inter-Clinic Public Housing Working Group — a group with a decades-long history of supporting tenants in Ontario. After many iterations, the Toronto Tenant School currently provides in-depth education and training on tenants’ rights for tenants’ associations and other tenant leaders in Toronto. Repairs, evictions, community engagement, and other rights are all covered. We’re trying to beef up the most important weapon that TAs have — education — while also trying to connect these tenant leaders with the civic process. There are a host of current opportunities for tenants at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels, and we’re happy to help get them connected to policy makers.
How else are you supporting tenants?
Any way we can! We’ve got a great website with a lot of information on rights in many different languages, an active base of volunteers working on dozens of different projects, and a fantastic staff who can help in a variety of ways. Any tenant looking for information on what they can do either in their building or in the city should give us a call!