Tenant organizing played crucial role in stopping renoviction
Tenants who fight together, win together.
That's what tenants from 1570 Lawrence Ave. West in Toronto want other tenants around the city to know, after the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) recently dismissed their landlord's application to evict them in order to complete renovations.
"The bond got stronger within the community in the whole building…Why? Because nobody likes the idea of taking people out of their homes in this kind of economy," says Sandeep Saran, one of the tenant-organizers who's lived in the building for over 15 years.
"So, we all came together (to the LTB) to support each other. …There's nothing like organizing, because (when) we share our hardships together, we become friends. …This is the main thing that helped us."
Kyle Warwick, a lawyer with Downsview Community Legal Services, represented the nearly 30 tenants in the nine apartments who were collectively fighting the N13 Eviction Notices over extensive renovations from landlord Lankin Investments, formerly known as Pulis Investments. He says this is the first time since beginning his career in 2018 that he's represented tenants with "this degree of organization."
"We've been able to provide a service to the tenants because they've been clear in what they want, but at the end of the day…the tenants have been driving the ship," he says, adding that while it's "hard to say…it's reasonably possible" that their influence on the final outcome was "determinative."
So, what does a winning, organized community struggle at the LTB look like?
Anatomy of a victory at the LTB
On the legal end, Warwick says, the fact that the tenants had compiled documents from the landlord – including multiple threatening notices to vacate – that would later serve as compelling pieces of evidence showing the landlord's own contradictions was "immensely helpful."
"In cases where there's not this degree of organization, it can be very hard to marshal evidence to rebut what the landlord is saying," he explains. "That was a difference in this case, where the tenants were very coordinated and able to be on the same page.”
Their testimony also played a factor during the three-day virtual hearing, he says, as "they came across and were seen to be forthright," while on the other hand some of the landlord's witnesses did not.
But, Saran says, the struggle was so much more than evidence and testimonies. He considers most of his neighbours — many of whom are low-income people and newcomers, as well as seniors and people with disabilities who have been living there for decades — to be family. Winning at the LTB wasn’t just about the hearing itself, but about being able to retain their community as they had come to know it, he says.
"We can say it's a winning battle for us, but I see it more as we are able to retain our own homes."
That's why they moved as a unit both inside and outside of the LTB, he says. From cooking for and celebrating holidays with each other, to staging actions in front of the landlord's homes and headquarters, to showing up for each other at the LTB during individual testimonies, the tenants and their allies made it a point to fight together.
"We were all together, so our adjudicator can see all the tenants from all nine apartments and how they worked together," Saran says, adding that while not every tenant could show up at every hearing, there were always one or two from each apartment that were there in solidarity.
Warwick says that's “crucial,” because landlords will often try to "whittle the tenants down to one or two" through buyouts and other means, rather than to take them on as an organized unit both before and during the LTB hearings.
Common pressure tactics
While the divide and conquer strategy did not work "because the tenants really were a community in a very sort of tangible way," Warwick says, it wasn't for lack of trying.
For over a year, the landlord has used various tactics to pressure tenants to leave their apartments, including trying to extract illegal fees from tenants for air conditioner use and threatening them with unit inspections to ensure they weren't using the air when it was prohibited.
A recent report from RenovictionsTO found that these tactics – part of the practice of "renoviction," where landlords use legal and extra-legal tactics to push people out of their homes by claiming they will renovate the unit – are becoming commonplace.
But while provincial and municipal governments acknowledge it is a problem, they have done "nothing to change the basic conditions which make renoviction (sic) possible and profitable."
"In Ontario, a landlord may legally evict a tenant to extensively renovate their rental unit (because) the Residential Tenancies Act… provides a legal framework for renoviction,” the 30-page report states.
Warwick says the RTA places the evidentiary onus on tenants rather than on landlords seeking evictions. "So, if the tenants can't rebut the presumption that the landlord needs the unit for the purpose that they have stated, then the landlord will get it," he explains.
Even this favourable decision is limited in its scope, Warwick says, because the LTB "has intentionally and deliberately made its decision on the specific factual determination that the landlord…can work around the tenants in their units, (but) did not want to engage with the larger practices" of renoviction.
The RenovictionTO report mentioned above suggests tenants organize early on, even before the landlord begins the formal eviction process by handing out notices, and that they “not abide by the legal eviction process once it is underway."
Cole Webber, who co-authored the report, is a community legal worker with Parkdale Community Legal Services and an organizer with RenovictionsTO, who helped the tenants throughout their struggle. He says as long as economic conditions continue worsening for low-income people, combined with higher rents and corporate landlords' record profits, organizing and joining tenant unions will continue to be crucial for tenants to succeed.
"These conditions, combined with the fact that tenants actually intervened outside of the building and formed an organization and developed a plan to fight the evictions – that political commitment that they made to each other – allowed them to be successful," he says.
Speaking generally, Warwick suggests "it's not necessary (for tenants) to accept that the landlord has the final say on everything," particularly when their profits ultimately depend on rents – "and that does give a form of leverage to tenants, if they can organize and mobilize."
As for the tenants at 1570 Lawrence Ave. W, Webber says "neighbours (need) to continue to have each others' backs" because "the struggle is likely to continue" with the landlord seeking other pretexts to evict them.
Saran says that won’t be an issue.
"It's not like we're grabbing a train and we're talking, and once we reach our stop we say bye and never meet each other," he says.
"We are in the same building. We are living together. We are a community. As long as we are living here and we have phone numbers, we will continue talking to each other.”