4. 8. 2024

A Victory for Organized Tenants,
A Victory for Toronto’s Working Class

Marcel Nelson

When a sheriff, several police officers, and a building manager showed up at Carol’s* Toronto apartment to tell her she was being evicted for unpaid arrears that she hadn’t been made aware of, decades of failed housing policy and the increasingly financialized housing market congealed into a single devastating moment. Carol was set to become one more data point in the trend of
increased evictions by corporate landlords such as the one that owns her building – a real estate investment company that holds and manages several other residential properties in Toronto.

Carol hadn’t been given the paperwork necessary to evict her from her apartment. She never even received notice of her eviction hearing from the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), because Canada Post had stopped delivering mail to her building three years earlier due to conditions it deemed unsafe and unsanitary. On Carol’s doorstep and flanked by police, the property manager of Carol’s building told her she wouldn’t be evicted if she went downstairs to the management office and paid the amount he said she owed. Carol agreed. But when she arrived at the office, the property manager told her he wouldn’t accept her payment, she had been evicted “in principle,” and she would not be able to return to her apartment – despite the fact that the law says an eviction for arrears is voided once a tenant pays the arrears.  

It was the kind of moment of impunity that is recognizable to more and more people living in Canada, where a private company attempts to coerce an individual into foregoing their legal entitlements. Operating both within and beyond the law, such bad actors intimidate, harass, tell falsehoods, exercise purposeful incompetence, and call the cops. These tactics often rely on a projection of power – the authority of the landlord’s role – rather than the use of actual legal processes. They function particularly well when the victim is not aware of their legal rights or lacks trust in the institutions meant to enforce the law. Decades of neoliberal reforms that have undermined state capacity, social provision, and industry regulation have emboldened capital to behave in this way.


Fighting new regimes of predatory extraction

What has emerged in Ontario is a political and regulatory environment that facilitates predatory extraction in an increasingly brazen manner. This involves not only dubious land development deals such as the provincial government’s decision to lease Ontario Place to a private spa company for 95 years, sweetened further with a commitment to build a $307 million taxpayer-funded garage. It also includes massive loopholes in rent control policy and the chronic underfunding of the Landlord and Tenant Board. The LTB is a dispute resolution mechanism that, in theory, provides tenants with some sort of formal protection from landlords’ abusive behaviour. In practice, it has overwhelmingly been found to favour landlords. The underfunding of the LTB has led to a backlog of 53,000 unresolved cases.

Capital’s multifaceted exploitation, extraction, and domination to accumulate wealth requires a multifaceted response. Resistance should be organized not only at the point of production, but also at the point of rent extraction. The labour strategist Jane McAlevey’s notion of “whole-worker organizing,” for example, recognizes that workers are often also tenants who may be targeted by predatory landlords, or who may suffer as citizens from the defunding of public services. Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci similarly argued that working-class resistance needs to be organized not only in the workplace but also at the community and neighbourhood level, to build up a panoply of institutions across working-class social life – and that the coordination between these institutions has the potential to become a source of social transformation.

Such institutions of working-class social life can resist predatory capitalist firms by providing legal resources, as well as by building collective power to confront the illegal or semi-legal tactics that bad actors deploy to extract rent or exploit labour. Tenant unions have few legal protections, but insofar as this constraint can encourage creativity among organizers, it can be an advantage. As the tenant organizer and lawyer Seema Shafei explains, while “labour unions have lost much of their radical potential through their legal recognition, tenants’ associations have opened the door to rethinking new ways to organize, pushing the parameters of the law.”


Communities of resistance

The other side of this story is that Carol lives in a community where her neighbours had had enough of ever-increasing rent and deteriorating housing conditions. They had come to the realization that no level of government was coming to help them, and that housing policies geared towards boosting private investment would do very little to relieve them in their struggle for a decent, affordable place to live. They saw that many of the political and corporate players tasked with solving the housing crisis were the same ones immiserating them. Besides, their needs were more immediate than any far-off timeline on which abundant new housing would be built and bring down their rent. So, even before Carol’s troubles, tenants in her building and an adjacent one had approached the York South-Weston Tenant Union (YSWTU) to help them launch a rent strike. In October, those buildings joined a strike that the YSWTU had previously launched in two other buildings in Toronto’s Weston area. 

When the property manager and police showed up at her door, Carol was not partaking in the rent strike, but she was a supporter of the YSWTU and got in touch with the tenant union. Union members arrived quickly and accompanied her throughout her ordeal: advising her, supporting her, and carefully documenting the entire process for eventual review by the LTB. When Carol was told she had been evicted “in principle” and would not be allowed to return to her apartment, the YSWTU occupied the landlord’s office, demanding that Carol be allowed to exercise her legal right to pay the arrears and reclaim her home.

What ensued was a standoff between the YSWTU and up to six police officers at a time over the course of the office occupation. The threat of arrest was constant. A fire truck was sent to the premises; paramedics arrived to treat Carol, who was not allowed at that moment to return to her apartment even to access her medicine. YSWTU members who lived in the building noted that the police had been sent to enforce what was apparently an illegal eviction, arguing that the landlord and building manager should face legal consequences instead. Union members also highlighted the discrepancy between the amount of money the City of Toronto was spending to police the situation and the comparatively paltry arrears Carol owed. 

The occupation of the office began on a Thursday night and was still going strong as of Friday afternoon, when police returned to the premises, leading to another standoff. By this point, the YSWTU had put out the word that it needed reinforcements, and activists from different organizations, including Climate Justice Toronto, arrived on the scene. The police eventually left again. On Saturday, Carol was finally permitted to exercise her legal right to return to her unit to gather personal items after her eviction. Accompanied by a YSWTU activist, she opted not to leave her apartment once a building supervisor gave her access to it. The landlord once again called the police and, in a fit of spite, had Carol’s front door removed. But by now a critical mass of YSWTU activists had arrived at the building, and though another standoff with police officers ensued, Carol was able to stay in her apartment. Activists reinstalled her front door – and the LTB agreed to expedite Carol’s hearing in view of the circumstances.

With Carol back in her apartment, the occupation of the landlord’s office persisted over Saturday night and into Sunday, advancing the demands that Carol’s keys be returned and that she be permitted to remain in her apartment until the LTB had reviewed her case. On Sunday afternoon, the landlord agreed. The YSWTU declared victory and ended its occupation.

To be sure, this victory pertained to a single tenant. Yet it was a hard-fought struggle won through collective power, courage, and organization. If Carol hadn’t contacted the YSWTU, she would likely have suffered the fate of fellow tenants evicted on the same morning law enforcement showed up to her door. But the long hours YSWTU had spent organizing tenants to build collective capacity – and its willingness to act boldly in the moment – led to an important success. 

Many more battles like Carol’s will need to be fought and won if Toronto is to become a liveable city for all. These battles are exhausting and involve legal risks for the activists that pursue them. The York South-Weston Tenant Union has no illusions about this. But grounds for optimism can be found in the resolute solidarity shown towards Carol by her neighbours, and by the activists that heeded the tenant union’s calls for support. Victories are possible.

To respect the tenant’s privacy, their name has been changed in this article. 

Marcel Nelson volunteers with the York South-Weston Tenant Union and teaches politics in the Ontario college sector.