East end rent strike brings to light Hamilton housing issues
Photo C/O Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network
Since May 1, a group of 100 tenants from Stoney Creek towers in Hamilton’s east end have been protesting proposed rent increases and uncompleted repairs in their apartment complex.
Stoney Creek towers is a four building, 618-unit complex owned by InterRent Real Estate Investment Trust and managed by CLV group.
The rent strike demonstrates ongoing issues with housing in Hamilton and across Ontario.
RENTING IN HAMILTON
A 2018 report from the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario found that rent is unaffordable for nearly half of all Ontario tenants.
Hamilton has experienced significant rent increases in recent years. The average cost of rent in Hamilton has increased at double the rate of inflation since 2012.
Rent increases come as a result of both rising house prices and decreasing rental vacancy rates, according to a 2017 report from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. As a result of increased demand, apartments are more expensive and harder to find.
“Because of the real estate situation, rent is going up everywhere, people from Toronto and Mississauga are choosing to move here,” said Syed, a tenant at Stoney Creek Towers.
Despite higher rent, living conditions often remain the same. Many low to medium income renters across Hamilton experience substandard living conditions.
According to a study of low to medium renters across Hamilton conducted by Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, 43 per cent of tenants across Hamilton reported a lack of heating in the winter.
Unresponsive landlords are also common across Hamilton. Fifty-nine per cent of tenants surveyed by ACORN reported having problems getting their landlords to conduct repairs.
According to Sarah Wahab, a volunteer with the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network, leaving units in disrepair is an intentional strategy to push current tenants out so that the landlord can increase rent for new tenants.
The Ontario rent increase guideline restricts the amount that rent can be increased on occupied units each year. However, there is no rent control on empty units.
“The landlord will neglect repairs in order to push the tenant out of the unit so that they can raise the rent for the next tenant that comes in,” said Wahab.
Tenants living in Stoney Creek towers say that long-standing repairs in their units are often left uncompleted.
The Stoney Creek Towers website states that, “24-hour professional maintenance staff are just a phone call away”. However Rita*, a resident at Stoney Creek Towers, found the property management to be difficult to access and unresponsive to requests.
When Rita experienced structural problems in her unit, she had to call multiple times over the course of a week before anybody came. After three or four visits over the course of a month, it was finally determined that there was an underlying problem.
Syed says that his apartment building has an ongoing bedbug problem. He also identified issues with plumbing, lighting and mold in the building.
According to Syed, rent for new tenants is often double what current tenants pay.
CLV group makes repairs to units before renting them out to new tenants. However, Syed says that these repairs are minor. Flooring and baseboards are replaced, and the apartment gets a new set of paint. However, the underlying structural issues remain.
The Ontario rent increase guideline protects tenants from sharp rent increases. The guideline limits the amount that a landlord can increase tenants’ rent in a year. In 2018 the maximum rent increase was 1.8 per cent.
In order to increase the rent on occupied units beyond the 1.8 per cent limit, landlords can apply to the Landlord Tenant Board for a rent increase above the guideline.
If a landlord can demonstrate that significant repair, renovation or replacement has been undertaken in the building, they are eligible for an Above Guideline Increase, which allows rent to be increased beyond the yearly limit.
CLV has applied to the Hamilton landlord tenant board to be approved for a rent hike of 9.6 per cent over the next two years.
According to Roseanne MacDonald-Holtman, community relations manager for CLV, investments have been made to improve heating, air exhaust and plumping, among other repairs.
However, tenants at Stoney Creek towers say the repairs have been primarily cosmetic and have not adequately addressed underlying structural issues.
“CLV is doing superficial work that's completely cosmetic, just to attract newer tenants,” said Syed. “Painting the lobby, putting in a fake fireplace that's completely digital, it doesn't even give off heat, it gets you to think are they really thinking about the tenants?”
Furthermore, if approved, the AGI increase would make rent unaffordable for many of the current residents at Stoney Creek towers.
According to Wahab, the Stoney Creek towers buildings are home to a lot of immigrants, poor people and people with disabilities.
“The issue is that this issue in Hamilton, the demographic cannot afford this price rate,” said Syed.
To demand that CLV drops the AGI and does repairs in all the units, tenants in the Stoney Creek towers began a rent strike.
According to Wahab, a rent strike involves withholding rent. Tenants set their rent aside with the understanding that they will pay it back once the landlord agrees to the demands.
By engaging in the rent strike, tenants aim not only to appeal to their landlord and property manager, but also to the general public.
“Everybody should know what is going on in the apartment,” said Rita. “People will not know what is going on until people open their mouths.”
Tenants, supported by HTSN, have been engaging in campaigns and rallies to engage their landlord and property management company over the course of the campaign.
Rent strikes have been a protesting tactic since the early 1800s. One of the largest rent strikes occurred in New York city in 1907, and led to the establishment of rent control.
More recently, tenants in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood engaged in a three month long rent strike to protest a proposed AGI increase and unfilled work orders in their buildings. Their efforts paid off when the landlord withdrew their AGI application in August 2017.
So far in Stoney Creek, neither CLV nor REIT has agreed to meet with the tenants to negotiate. Instead, Wahab says that they are engaging in a “campaign of harassment”.
On Sept. 12, CLV staff posted letters to tenants’ doors stating that loitering was not permitted in the lobby, stairwells, or common areas. Soon afterwards, CLV group erected walls in the lobbies of two Stoney Creek buildings that block access to meeting spaces. According to the HTSN blog, this is meant to prevent tenants from holding meetings in their building lobbies.
According to MacDonald-Holtman on behalf of CLV, the walls were part of a lobby renovation.
“When complete, residents will benefit from upgraded facilities and services,” stated MacDonald-Holtman in an email.
On Oct. 9, rent strikers received eviction notices. According to Wahab, this is a strategy to scare people into not going on rent strike.
Tenants are supported by lawyers from the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and have raised money to cover the cost of potential filing fees. Over the course of the campaign, nobody on rent strike has been evicted.
The Landlord Tenant Board will decide whether or not to approve the AGI in a meeting Nov. 1-2. For the tenants in Stoney Creek Towers, the issues go beyond just money.
Tenants will continue to organize, regardless of the outcome.
“We're a part of this community,” said Syed. “We've been part of this community, and we're trying to protect this community and the people coming into it.”
* Names have been changed