To Fight Gentrification, We Need a Fighting Tenants’ Movement

BY Jason Brock

There has been a considerable buzz as of late about the rapid pace of gentrification in this city. Heeding calls for an ambitious re-branding of Steel City by its cultural, political and business elite, an influx of private investment is currently reconfiguring Hamilton’s urban landscape. The resulting discussions have produced a mixed bag of recommendations on how the city’s development can best incorporate the interests of its current and future residents: from city-sponsored Neighbourhood Action Plans that advocate for meticulously constructed, mixed-income communities, to condo moratoriums and citizen-led calls for inclusive zoning and high-density “intensification” as a means of mitigating the steady loss of affordable rental units. All of these solutions speak to the desire to manage the worst aspects of gentrification, while making the most of the city’s rising reputation as an attractive alternative to Toronto’s overpriced housing market.

image-1336609_960_720

But one thing that is strikingly lacking in many of these macro-level discussions of “sustainable urban development”, is a proper understanding of how gentrification actually occurs on a micro level – and the central role that tenants play in the process.

Hamilton currently has the fastest-rising rents of any city in Canada

Hamilton currently has the fastest-rising rents of any city in Canada. This rather unsettling fact is simultaneously a cause and effect of increased private investment. Gentrification is a self-perpetuating, cyclical process: increased investment in a neighbourhood raises rents, which puts pressure on poorer tenants to leave the neighbourhood in search of more affordable housing, which in turn attracts more investments… and on and on it goes.

The main choke-point in this cycle is the displacement of existing tenants. This is because one of the few stabilizing factors in the Ontario housing/rental market is the existence of state-imposed rent controls. Vacancy controls once placed restrictions on landlords’ ability to jack up rents in between tenancies, but they were eliminated during the neoliberal assault of Mike Harris’ so-called Common Sense Revolution. In their absence, landlords have been given a strong incentive to push out long-standing tenants – whose rents are often much cheaper than the city-wide average – in order to bring in new tenants, who they can then charge whatever the market will allow them to get away with.

landlords have been given a strong incentive to push out long-standing tenants

There is a cold, calculated logic to this, which becomes even more starkly apparent when corporate landlords enter the fray, and begin buying up high-rise apartment buildings in areas where they expect a sizeable rate of return on their investments. This has been taking place across Hamilton for some time now, and it generally follows a similar pattern.

Between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, Toronto-based real estate conglomerate Greenwin Inc purchased the buildings at 181 John St, 192 Hughson St and 44 Robert St. This complex, consisting of two high-rise apartment buildings and attached townhouses, is located in the central neighbourhood of Beasley, just a short walk away from the new Harbour West GO Station.

In February of this year, tenants in the buildings began receiving offers of $2000 if they would sign a contract to voluntarily vacate their units within two months. They were informed that if they chose to stay, they would be subjected to months of noisy construction, as renovations were carried out on the buildings. They were warned that if they stayed, their rents would ultimately be raised by way of Above-Guideline Rent Increases (AGIs), or increases above and beyond the legal limit that the province sets each year (the rate for 2016 has been set at 2%).  AGIs are an increasingly popular means by which landlords can circumvent rent controls, provided they can prove to the Landlord and Tenant Board that these increases are justified by capital expenditures. Eventually, the offers for tenants to vacate their units increased to upwards of $6000.

Many tenants took these offers, and it’s certainly hard to blame them for doing so. But other tenants chose to stay – including a large Somali community within the building who decided that they wanted to stick together, several elderly tenants who have lived in the building for decades, and others on ODSP and/or city-subsidized rent programs which would have been threatened if they’d taken the buy out.

Alongside the offers of cash, and increasingly once those offers were rejected, Greenwin has resorted to a litany of coercive mechanisms in order to convince tenants to move out. These have included harassment from the building’s security and management, failure to carry out repairs in non-renovated units, bogus eviction notices, frequent and unannounced unit inspections, and threats of fines if tenants didn’t remove furniture from their balconies.

There is still a long fight ahead

Thankfully, tenants in these buildings refused to take this lying down, and instead began organizing against Greenwin’s efforts to get rid of them. So far, this has taken the form of holding several meetings with tenants and their supporters, a municipal bylaw blitz that forced Greenwin to carry out a number of needed structural repairs to the buildings, a community rally, and a collective letter signed by forty-five tenants demanding an end to harassment. There is still a long fight ahead – including a looming legal challenge against the first AGI application – but the tenants are increasingly uniting around the realization that it’s a fight they must wage collectively if they have any chance of winning. As they say, there’s strength in numbers.

This simple ethos is the driving force behind the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network (HTSN), a nascent grassroots initiative which our members hope will grow into combative, city-wide tenants movement. It is our belief that organized tenants, grouped into federated assemblies and linked together through acts of solidarity and collective self-defence, are the best bulwark that this city has against rampant gentrification, and the displacement and soaring rents that it leaves in its wake.

Jason is an organizer with the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network (HTSN).  To find out more about the HTSN, or for tips on organizing your building, email HamiltonTenantsSolidarity@gmail.com or visit our website at http://HamiltonTenantsSolidarity.ca

Want more? Continue reading The Gentrification Issue

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “To Fight Gentrification, We Need a Fighting Tenants’ Movement

  1. I have a job cleaning out the cockroach filthy slums dwellings that are invested with people of whom disrespect ownership and pride. These people are lazy unclean for what ever reason they will tell you about some thing that happened a long time ago in a place that seems to have made them not be able to clean up after them selves or never come up with he rent on time or have squatters take over there apartment and so on…then they move on to the next gullible land lord and squat on the property and don’t bother to pay on time and then get evicted and so on…I know this as I clean up after them. FILTH. This is a personal hygiene issue and some people cant seem to get past the basics. There are too many places that these people disrespect and feel entitled to occupy decent real-estate. Wrong, minded do gooder s support the sloth and neglect. Decent hard working people that pay the bills are in a scarcity downtown Hamilton and I for one with open arms endorse welcoming a breath of fresh air to BALaNCE THE MIX of people down town. Even the word “gentrification” smacks, as insult to hard working honest people that want to live in a green urban environment, with a balance of people that CAN and with, some whom cant take care of there own properties. Landlords are forever getting there properties trashed because of some mental disturbance in some irresponsible persons that are un willing, for what ever reason, to be personally responsible for the properties they rent. TOO many incapable or bad attitude, people in a too concentrated area of an urban environment . Too much sloth .

    Like

  2. We started this group to fight on behalf of all people living in Ontario and across Canada to pressure our politicians amend the Residential Tenancies Act to remove the provision allowing landlords to increase rent above guidelines and to reinstate proper rent controls to protect tenants from exploitive and predatory landlords.

    A little background …

    Our landlord, Hollyburn Properties, has been approved for over guideline increases five years out of the last ten. Adding approximately $200 +/- to our monthly rents over the course of 14 years. In some cases this has added a debt burden of $35,000 + to vulnerable renters in Ontario. This is happening all over Ontario (and Canada). Millions of dollars are being syphoned out of the pockets of hard working renters into the pocket of these powerhouse corporations.

    The multi-million dollar owner of Hollyburn Properties has been approved for things such as mailboxes, lobby renovations, landscaping and many other unnecessary “upgrades” and the list goes on.

    We are trying to organize a group in Ontario to pressure the Liberals to have this provision removed and to protect the people that put them in power.

    Apartment building owners are some of the richest people in Canada and to expect tenants to fund renovations, with the approval of our government, is unconscionable.

    We are trying to organize as many tenant associations/tenants that have been affected by this outdated provision, so that we are able to bring a strong voice to parliament that the direction they have been taking by allowing this extortion and outright abuse of the provisions currently afforded under the Residential Tenancies Act to be removed.

    We are looking to add your voice to this movement to have the Act changed to protect tenants from predatory landlords that “upgrade” their buildings using money from provided by hard working tenants.

    This provision should be replaced and a new provision that requires landlords to put 10% of their existing rental revenue into a reserve fund to pay for these capital expenditures. Tenants do not have a financial interest in the assets of these corporations and should not be required under the provision to fund them.

    We are in the very early stages trying to gather as much support as we can and hope that you will add your voice to our cause. We don’t believe that this is the direction that society should be taking when so many are in jeopardy of losing their housing because of this practice.

    We need as many stories from tenants as possible to provide us with the paperwork relating to these above-guideline increases. Please help spread the word to all people affected so we can have our voices heard.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s