BTL Glasbeek leaderboard

Building grassroots tenant power in Toronto’s Oakwood-Vaughan

As multinational corporations continue to buy up more and more of Toronto’s rental housing stock, tenants are fighting back

Economic CrisisHousingSocial Movements

Organizers from the Oakwood-Vaughan Tenant Union protest at Toronto City Hall. Photo by Samantha Ponting.

Oakwood-Vaughan, otherwise known as Oakwood Village, is a vibrant and diverse neighbourhood located in midtown Toronto. Bordered by Little Jamaica to the north and the Italian enclave clustered around St. Clair West and Dufferin, its population now includes immigrants from all over the world, with almost half speaking Portuguese, Spanish, Tagalog, Greek, Cantonese, or some dialect of Italian as their mother tongue.

Given this unique mix, along with the city’s storied underinvestment in immigrant—particularly Black—communities, it should come as no surprise that almost half of Oakwood-Vaughan’s community members live in renter households and a full fifth of the neighbourhood lives below the poverty line (these numbers, from the city’s own 2018 neighbourhood profile, are by now surely a colossal underestimate).

Within the context of Toronto’s now-infamous housing crisis, these dynamics spell obvious trouble for Oakwood-Vaughan’s non-home-owning community members, who make up 47 percent of the neighbourhood. Low-income renters throughout Toronto are increasingly at risk to renovictions, illegal rent hikes, intimidation from landlords, and neglect of needed unit repairs.

As large multinational corporations continue to buy up more and more of Toronto’s rental housing stock, these abuses are only becoming more systemic and entrenched. A 2021 report outlined the ways in which large corporate and financialized landlords position above-guideline rent Increases (AGIs) as “as a revenue-generating tool to help increase profits,” and are responsible for 64 percent of all AGI applications in Toronto.

Meanwhile, a recent survey of Toronto tenants by ACORN Canada found that almost 80 percent of respondents living in buildings owned by a financialized landlord needed some urgent repair or maintenance in their unit.

The effects of Toronto’s ongoing gentrification are hitting hardest among disproportionately racialized communities like Little Jamaica, where the continuing urban planning disaster of the Eglinton Crosstown construction—compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of economic support—have resulted in the closure of 140 Black-owned businesses since 2020. It might be argued that Little Jamaica, and Oakwood-Vaughan as a whole, will benefit from the increased transit infrastructure, with five new stops catering to the neighbourhood.

It’s necessary to point out, however, that the financial housing sector has jumped at the social capital of this transit hub. Given the low-to-non-existent standards for affordable housing expected of new developers, there is every reason to believe that residents of these developments will be tremendously unrepresentative of the area’s existing low-income and racially diverse community, and instead contribute further to the erosion of Oakwood-Vaughan’s existing culture mosaic.

The Oakwood Vaughan Community Organization (OVCO) has stepped into this worsening crisis of cultural displacement. The OVCO is an incorporated group of community residents whose mission is to “to bring our neighbours together, create a community hub for services we need and for a space for us to be, and to advocate for a vibrant and healthy community.”

In 2022, OVCO obtained a grant from a tenant solidarity program to establish a grassroots organization that could help local residents fight back against their increasingly-predatory landlords. The first iteration of this project, billed as the “Oakwood Vaughan Tenant Network,” was envisioned as a mutual aid organization helping to bring tenants together and crowdsource solutions to evictions, maintenance disputes, and other common forms of exploitation reported by local tenant-community members. As organizing efforts evolved, the membership voted in December 2022 to rename this initiative the Oakwood-Vaughan Tenant Union (OVTU). The name change signified the increasing urgency of building grassroots tenant power in the neighbourhood.

With the help of the grant money, as well as a small extra bump from OVCO’s operating budgets, the newly-named OVTU was soon able to hire a tenant organizer named Samantha Ponting to lead this charge. Speaking today, Ponting recognizes the importance of educating working class community members of their rights as tenants as well as building consciousness of common struggles against predatory landlords:

The fact is that tenants so often live in isolation. And having a broad organization across the community that tenants can participate in as a way to make their voice stronger, I think is very important. [In cases] when tenants are facing intimidation and harassment, so much of what landlords [can] get away with comes down to a very unequal power relationship, where landlords are able to create really toxic environments for tenants. And sometimes that can be a strategy for pushing them out as well. Based off my conversations with tenants, it is incredibly stressful to be facing a potential upcoming eviction. Instead of exercising their rights, tenants will often just leave because the stress is too much. And so a tenant union is a way to help build the confidence of tenants so that they do feel like they can stand up for their rights.

Ponting, a 35-year-old recent transplant from Vancouver, had originally moved to Oakwood-Vaughan in early 2020. She quickly became witness to the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on her working class neighbours. In her other capacity as a tenant hotline worker with the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA), Ponting recalls getting “a lot of calls about landlords coercing tenants into accepting illegal rent increases, or else threatening them with eviction—often bad faith and fraudulent evictions.”

View of Oakwood-Vaughan from Oakwood and St. Clair Avenue. Half of Oakwood-Vaughan’s community members live in renter households and one-fifth live below the poverty line. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

As has now been widely reported, these evictions would typically be justified under the guise of “landlords’ own use” (typically called an N12), in which a tenant is told to vacate because the landlord or a member of their family wants the unit for themselves. Local news reports have, in recent years, reported on countless fraudulent uses of N12 evictions as well as the low-to-non-existent penalties for landlords who commit the fraud. An N13 eviction for renovations, or “renoviction” as the practice has come to be known, was (and remains) another common and aggressive tactic Ponting hears about on her calls. Landlords would use the spurious promise of unit upgrades to evict older, lower-rent-paying tenants with more affluent, higher-paying ones. The practice has become so widespread and pernicious that the aforementioned RenovictionsTO outlined a “Landlord Playbook” for continual “escalations in pressure to push tenants out of their homes.”

Along with recent readings on tenant struggles—notably Ricardo Tranjan’s The Tenant Class—these experiences have led Ponting to believe that tenant unionists need new terms to accurately describe the fight they’re in. So much information has made it to mainstream media regarding Toronto’s so-called housing crisis; Ponting, however—echoing Tranjan—believes this language is detrimental to the struggle:

[We’re dealing with] a problem [of housing] supply, and that we just need to build more homes. That’s definitely been the rhetoric of the [provincial Ford government]. But I see [this] more as an eviction crisis, as an affordable housing crisis, as a greed crisis, where a system has been built that is allowing [exploitative] rental pricing for tenants—who, by the way, make up 40 percent of the Canadian population.

While consciousness is growing in Toronto of the abysmal features of the modern day rental market, Ponting’s work as an organizer and FMTA hotline agent constantly exposes the deeper roots of systemic tenant exploitation and abuse. As she explains, Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board, which is ostensibly a neutral provincial body responsible for resolving disputes between residential landlords and tenants represents:

An incredibly demoralizing space to be in. [The Board] is plagued with problems and it is clearly heavily biased in favour of the landlord.
Every single report from the Ontario ombudsperson finds that landlord applications [to the board] take, on average, six months to be processed with a hearing, whereas tenant applications take about two years. So right there, that’s a clear example of the bias in the legal system.

Ponting points out that many of the adjudicators on the Board’s panels are in fact landlords themselves. Ponting recalled accompanying a tenant to a hearing, in “a case where the landlord was effectively creating fraudulent tenant ledgers and stealing from tenants.” The board had previously mandated a rent reduction for tenants in this building, but the landlord had refused to implement a board-mandated rent reduction handed out earlier. The adjudicator of this particular hearing eventually decided to postpone the hearing but first made an interim order for the tenant to keep paying rent until the next hearing and then allowed the landlord to set a new, higher rate without any evidence. Ponting recalls stating the landlord’s lies to the adjudicator:

[T]hat’s not what the rent is. And the adjudicator said, ‘Nope, that’s the rate we’re going with. If you prove at a hearing at a later date that it’s different than the landlord says, he’ll owe you money.’ So now a low-income tenant is forced to pay a higher rent through the board’s court order.

When it comes to discussing the prospects of OVTU struggle for affordable housing, Ponting deftly combines a pragmatic approach to immediate campaigning and organizing with a long-term vision of housing for all, informed by socialism, decolonization, and a Right to the City.

In the coming months, Ponting and the rest of the OVTU membership will be launching a major rent control campaign, consisting of three interrelated initiatives:

  • OVTU will work toward closing the disastrous rent control loophole opened by Doug Ford’s provincial government that allows buildings built after November 2018 to be exempt from rent control. The Ford government’s loophole policy allows for tenants to sign standard lease agreements, but afterwards are told, sometimes less than a year later, that their rent is being raised by up to $500. Under these circumstances, tenants have no recourse to such maneuvers beyond moving out and starting again somewhere else.
  • OVTU’s campaign will raise awareness of the injustice of above-guideline increases, which, according to Ponting, are “another rent control rule that allows landlords to apply to the landlord and tenant board for massive increases in rent, up to nine percent over three years, in order to do what they call ‘capital upgrades,’ which are often renovations that tenants don’t want and are not asking for.”
  • OVTU will also be mounting a frontal attack on vacancy decontrol, the catastrophic policy introduced by Premier Mike Harris in 1997. Under Harris’s policy, landlords are empowered to charge whatever they wish for a rental unit whenever an existing tenant moves out. This would do much, Ponting believes, to quash the current incentive for landlords “to push low-income tenants out of their home so that they can push the rents up with a new tenant.”

Yet even if all of the OVTU campaign’s objectives were realized, and “even if rent control in full was implemented today,” Ponting points out that “we’re still stuck with the high rents we have now. Rent freezes or mandated rent decreases across the board are also needed.”

Ponting notes that the very concept of home ownership is in itself problematic:

[Home ownership is a] colonial way of understanding land. You know, private property means that is a system that is going to produce inequality because property isn’t shared evenly among people. Ideally, there would be no landlords, because housing would be distributed evenly between people. But that is considered quite a radical change.

Ponting resists mainstream dismissals of land redistribution and the wholesale socialization of housing as a lofty dream, and insists we have real revolutionary models in other countries to look to for inspiration and guidance:

You know, abolishing private property and redistributing property, it is possible to do. It happened in Cuba after the revolution. Property was expropriated, and a lot was redistributed across the country so that everyone had access to a home. If you go to Cuba today, there isn’t really a rental market at all. The only rental market that exists is for tourists, there isn’t really a rental market and there isn’t really much visible homelessness.

There remains a long road to this kind of revolutionary approach to housing for all from the vantage of our own system of exploitative, for-profit rents. With new movements like OVTU, however, taking on the financialized landlord class and articulating working class demands for decent housing, it is possible to imagine a better, more equitable Toronto.

Andrew Winchur is an anarchist educator and writer living in Toronto/Tkaronto. His non-fiction writing has previously been featured in CineAction and Red Pepper magazines, and his creative mixed media work can be found on Instagram: @wordstendtobeinadequate.


URP leaderboard June 2024

Browse the Archive