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Evictions have returned, but Toronto tenants are fighting back to keep their homes

Creative community organizing is necessary in the pandemic, facing a new wave of evictions, decided at Kafka-esque video tribunals

by Abby Neufeld

Toronto tenants deliver letter of demands to a landlord, November 2020. Photo: Keep Your Rent Toronto
Toronto tenants deliver letter of demands to a landlord, November 2020. Photo: Keep Your Rent Toronto

On November 30th, the Ontario Landlord-Tenant Board scheduled more than 30 eviction hearings to be held over video call, using Microsoft Teams. At 9:00am, a tenant with severe mental health issues begged adjudicators to allow him to remain in the unit he had called home for more than a decade. At 2:00pm, a tenant who had just lost a family member and was living with an immunocompromised husband did the same. 

On any business day, from now up until Christmas Eve, anyone from the public can witness their neighbours being evicted over video conferences. 

And they have been — Toronto community members and local organizers have been showing up in droves to these meetings, ensuring that tenants are present, understand the situation, and have the support needed to fight evictions. Some hearings have seen more than 70 witnesses show up, with groups like PeoplesDefenceTO often live tweeting.

Toronto, the most unaffordable city in the country already had skyhigh rental prices and limited housing options before the pandemic. The situation has only gotten worse, hitting the working class hardest.

Early in the pandemic, Toronto Mayor John Tory placed a moratorium on evictions, claiming that no Torontonian would lose their homes while COVID-19 gripped the city.

And for a few months, no one did.

But the problem with eviction moratoriums, Keep Your Rent Toronto’s Bryan Doherty tells the Media Co-op, is that they just “kick the problem down the road and compound. The actual problem is that people cannot afford to pay rent, and the moratorium only means that you won't be evicted” while it’s in effect. Often, people are just asked to pay their missed rent payments later on down the line, he says.

The evictions return, tenants organize

When Toronto’s eviction moratorium lifted in July, many landlords came down on tenants, demanding thousands of dollars in debt from unpaid rent throughout the first wave of the pandemic.

The Ontario Landlord - Tenant Board (LTB) then began doing eviction hearings once again, this time over video conferences. In some instances, tenants were unable to access the internet and show up for their meetings, and the LTB went on to order evictions without them present.

“These hearings are deeply saddening. We are witnessing people with no options, up against a wall, agreeing to paying back huge amounts of debt on extremely short timelines,” tweeted Keep Your Rent Toronto.

Tenants were suddenly in dire circumstances. “People do everything that they possibly can — they even put themselves in jeopardy or danger — in order to make rent,” says Doherty.

And so, Toronto tenants began to do just that. They put themselves on the front lines of a global pandemic, both physically and mentally, to protect themselves and their neighbours from being thrown on the streets.

But they weren’t able to organize in ways previously possible. Instead, they had to adapt their tactics to fit the mould created by the pandemic. Rather than knocking on doors, which could potentially drive up COVID-19 transmission, activists and tenants began postering in the dead of night in order to properly distance themselves from others. In the early days of the pandemic, this was the main form of communication with each other.

Mixing new school and old school tools

Digital barriers proved difficult when trying to reach tenants who weren’t technologically savvy, didn’t have internet access, or didn’t speak English, says Samuel Nithiananthan, a member of People’s Defence Toronto.

“Zoom was a bit harder to use at that point. I think most people didn't even know what Zoom was in March,” he says.

Instead, organizers found WhatsApp a more efficient organization tool to rely on, as many immigrant community members use the app to contact families back home.

Nithiananthan spoke on the difficulty of building trust while keeping distances. 

“There is always a difficulty in building relationships over technology. Especially for tenants who hadn't met their neighbors, or were meeting new neighbors under extreme circumstances — that level of trust that comes from face to face conversation just wasn't there.”

But that didn’t stop tenants.

“There was no hiding from COVID-19 [for these tenants], because COVID was ravaging their communities,” says Nithiananthan. 

A few weeks into the first wave, after weeks of middle of the night postering and virtual communities meetings, trust began to build and meetings became a viable option, albeit socially distanced. The use of megaphones allowed community members to hear organizers and tenants while keeping a safe 2m apart. Tenants began to spend their own money, buying PPE to ensure safe community meetings. With all of these steps taken, more and more neighbours began to feel comfortable joining the frontlines of the fight against evictions.

In July, tenants alongside housing activists felt their messages weren’t being heard by municipal officials. So, they staged a press conference outside Mayor John Tory’s condo, where they clearly laid out the legal steps Tory could take to stop COVID-19 evictions within the city. Still, Tory maintained there was nothing he could do. 

Later that month, feeling that their hands were forced, tenants interrupted John Tory conducting a ribbon cutting ceremony at Queens Quay East on live television.

Physically blocking evictions

As the summer turned to fall, the situation didn’t improve. After a neighbour had fallen behind on rent and faced eviction, one group of tenants living in Toronto’s Goodwood Park residences formed a human shield. When Toronto Police Services arrived on scene, prepared to evict tenants on behalf of landlords, they were physically unable to conduct the removal. Tenants were ultimately successful in turning away the 14 police officers that arrived on scene.

The tenants from Goodwood Park were determined to ensure the police wouldn’t come back unexpectedly, so they patrolled the apartment of the woman facing eviction for six weeks. From 8:00am to 5:00pm everyday, someone sat in the park next to her house, physically keeping her safe from houselessness. In the end, the tenants lost the battle when TPS pulled the woman from her home at 2:30am, says Nithiananthan. She was provided support from her community in finding a housing situation.

Tenants have taken their grievances to the provincial level, as well. In August, tenants were able to halt eviction enforcements by surrounding the provincial court house where the sheriff in charge of evictions deploys daily.

Over and over again, tenants have put themselves on the line to protect their communities, so why isn’t anyone listening?

Not waiting for help

“No one, no one, has come close to being as correct about what it was that was happening and why it was happening than working class tenants. No one. Not any CBC article, not any housing minister, not housing critics, no one,” expressed Doherty.

“And yet, at every point we're kind of painted as cranks. But the fact is we're actually part of 750,000 working class tenant households in the city that are well aware of what is going on. We know no one else is actually watching out for us. Not the feds, not the city, certainly not landlords, and very rarely even public services that we're supposed to have access to.”

As the province and the city continue to pass the buck back and forth, working class people know what they need, have not been afraid to say it, and will continue doing the work to build a better community for them, their neighbourhoods, and their loved ones. When faced with organizing in a global pandemic, they are rising to the challenge and finding innovative ways to help each other. 

Nithiananthan maintains that any success found will be through the grassroots work of tenants and encourages tenants across the country to cultivate the same work in their communities.

“We know that, if there's going to be any level of victory, it's going to come from the streets,” he says. 

If Nithiananthan could give one piece of advice to anyone struggling to pay their rent, it would be to “get organized,” he says. 

“Once you start to organize, you will find people who are going through the same thing. And that’s the first step.”

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