Corporate landlord shows ‘true colours’ by declining mayor's invitation to meet striking tenants

Sep 16, 2023

Corporate landlord shows ‘true colours’ by declining mayor's invitation to meet striking tenants

Even so, tenants remain steadfast in their strike, and an expert weighs in on how the city can pressure the province towards action
Tenants hold a banner outside the Weston King Neighbourhood Centre, where Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow met with them to discuss their ongoing rent strike. Photo by Fernando Arce. (either this or next pic?)

While the tenants of 33 King St. and 22 John St., in Toronto, say it's disappointing and "shameful" that their landlord declined the mayor’s invitation to sit at the negotiating table, they remain undeterred in their ongoing rent strike against their landlord's rent increases.

"We are disappointed that Dream has refused even the mayor's invitation to come and meet with tenants as a collective," Chiara Padovani, an organizer with the York-South Weston Tenant Union (YSW), told reporters outside a town hall Wednesday night, Sept. 13, at Toronto’s Weston King Neighbourhood Centre. 

But "we're not giving up. The tenant union and residents on rent strike are not afraid. …Nobody in this rent strike is going to give up. Nobody in this rent strike is willing to concede. And we are still waiting for Dream Unlimited to come and sit down at the negotiating table with us."

Chow had tried to convene the meeting between the parties in an attempt to find a resolution to their ongoing rent strike. The tenants have been withholding their rent since June, demanding that their landlord repeal its Above Guideline rent Increase (AGI) applications – some of the highest in the city. 

Currently, tenants of 22 John St. – which is built on public land and has no rent control – are facing a 17 per cent rent increase. While 33 King St. is a rent-controlled building, tenants there have received six AGIs from various owners in the last 10 years. That includes two that Dream inherited and pursued after purchasing the building in 2021, which it claims are required for extensive renovations. 

Outside the town hall, Chow told reporters that she had unfortunately not been able to persuade Dream to attend the meeting. Along with the local counsillor – Frances Nunziata, who was also at the town hall – she said they would continue trying to "urge (Dream), as good corporate citizens, to engage with us and connect with the tenants…to facilitate a solution." 

"We don't have power over private companies," she told reporters. "All we can do is persuasion."

Dream’s VP of operations, Hero Mohtadi, did not respond to the Media Co-op's multiple requests for comment ahead of Wednesday's meeting. 

Jurisdiction issues

Landlord/tenant relations, governed by the Residential Tenancies Act, which oversees rent increases and evictions, fall under provincial jurisdiction. 

After being elected in 2018, Ford removed rent control legislation from the Act, meaning landlords could hike the rent by whatever percentage they wanted in buildings built after Nov. 15 of that year. Chow said this was not only "tragic" but the reason why today so many people can't afford their rents and are being evicted across the city.

As an immediate solution, Chow said the City would form a new tenants’ advocacy committee reports to the executive committee, to "push the provincial government to establish real rent control."

"No matter when the building is built, the tenants have a right to have their rent protected and not jacked up by, as in [the case of 22 John St.], 17 per cent," she said.

"I'm hearing desperation, and I'm hearing that they just can't afford the 17 per cent increase [because] … no one's salary has gone up by 17 per cent."

Closing loopholes

Douglas Kwan is the director of advocacy and legal services at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO). He says while the RTA falls into provincial jurisdiction, cities – particularly ones with as much "clout" as Toronto – can pressure the province to close what he calls "loopholes" in the Act that have benefited property owners and landlords since the early 1990s, when they were first introduced to weaken rent control measures.

One simple way to do that, he says, is by amending the legislation – "which can be done in one day" – to clearly define what type of renovations AGIs can be used for. 

"When it comes to AGIs…there are no distinctions between 'extraordinary expenditures' for small landlords or big landlords. They treat both the same way," he says, noting that "extraordinary" means very different things to each - particularly to a big landlord with lots of "investment properties or…operating as a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)."

Currently, the Act allows landlords of rent-controlled buildings (built pre-2018) to apply for AGIs for “eligible capital expenditures incurred.” While that should only mean the renovations have to do "with the structural integrity of a building," Kwan says the reality is that most landlords apply for AGIs for merely "cosmetic" changes such as changing balconies from their railings or painting hallways.

"The way it's currently adjudicated, that analysis isn't there at all," he says. "So, that's a legislative amendment that the municipality could call for."

Proactive inspections 

Kwan says the city must also provide a "more robust" property standard and landlord licensing regime through "proactive investigations" of building issues and a clear, publicly available database of the findings. This way, he says, buildings "wouldn't be allowed to go into such disrepair" and landlords wouldn't have an excuse to apply for AGIs.

"It's only in situations where they are in such dire straits where landlords can then apply for an AGI. But if there was a robust, proactive mechanism where inspections are happening, theoretically, AGIs shouldn't be happening at all."

Currently, the city’s RentSafeTO bylaw enforcement program is the mechanism that holds building owners and operators accountable. Bylaw enforcement officers conduct building evaluations, audits and investigate complaints submitted to 311. The program applies to apartment buildings with three or more storeys and 10 or more units.

But Kwan says a proactive inspection should occur every few years and include individual units, “which is one difference” the RentSafeTO program does not offer. 

Additionally, he says, a "huge missing piece" from that program is that it only provides disclosure to tenants in the form of a score card instead of a detailed report. 

“Something more useful [is needed], such as: ‘Leaky kitchen sink faucet, paint peeling in the 2nd floor hallway, mould found in apartment 512,’” he says. 

“The disclosure doesn’t go into that detail; it creates a global rating system which doesn’t help a tenant who wishes to assert that there is mould in apartment 512, for example.”

Doing so, he says, "would severely curtail attempts by landlords to apply for AGIs, when everyone knows that you haven't been doing your due diligence…to keep your building well maintained."

Lastly, he says, the city should reinstate a version of its former Toronto Defence Fund, which was used to help tenants hire licensed professionals to represent them at their Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) hearings. Having represented tenants through two AGI hearings, Kwan says he knows first-hand that those cases can take years to finish and are expensive. While the city currently provides funds to tenant-focused agencies, he says those agencies often only provide summary advice, which isn't enough for such a time-intensive process.

"When it comes to AGIs, you can't just give summary advice for five or 10 minutes," he says. "A professional needs to look over every line item, every capital expenditure, to make sure it was completed within the 18-month window…It requires the skill of a professional to navigate and be successful."

Standing strong

While it's not clear what immediate steps Chow or the new-to-be tenants' advocacy committee will take to persuade the Ford government to act, tenants certainly have renewed "hope that [they] will be listened to," says Bruno Dobrusin, an organizer with the YSW-Tenant Union.

Symbolically, that's a big moment for organizing tenants across the city. 

"There is a moment right now where there's many tenants struggling around the city, and I think her showing solidarity with tenants on a rent strike sends a message to landlords that we have a mayor that will stand up for tenant rights and is willing to highlight the struggles that are going on the ground," he told the Media Co-op ahead of Wednesday's meeting. "I think on a symbolic level, that's going to be very important." 

For now, the tenants remain steadfast in their attempts to sit down and negotiate with their landlord in good faith – but only as a unit, says Theresa Henry, a tenant from 33 King St. 

“What they want to do is to have us come to them. But we're staying together from the beginning till the end,” she told the Media Co-op outside the town hall, noting that the landlord’s decision to miss the meeting showed their “true colours.” 

"So, until they're ready to come and speak to all of us as a unit, not as individuals, they will see we will stand strong."

Correction: a previous version of this article said the tenants began their strike in May. They began June 1.