Global News Radio: East Hamilton Rent Strike Set to Begin May 1, 2018

Campbell Young, organizer with the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network, was interviewed by Scott Thompson of AM 900 CHML (Global News Radio) about Hamilton’s rental housing crisis, HTSN’s organizing principles, and the conditions that led tenants of the Stoney Creek Towers in East Hamilton to declare a rent strike on May 1, 2018. The interview was recorded on April 26, 2018. Listen to the show here (beginning at 36:46) or below, or read a transcript of the interview.

Scott Thompson: As we have waited for so long for our city to turn a corner, to see a renaissance, to get to where we’ve been trying to get to for the last twenty years, twenty-five years maybe—always a question of gentrification and how when a city moves forward it may leave some behind. Residents in the east end of the city have decided to hold a rent strike next month to protest the landlord’s push for higher rent prices. Let’s bring in Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Board member, Campbell Young. Campbell is with us now. Campbell, thanks so much for taking the time to join us. We appreciate this.

Campbell Young: Thanks for having me on, Scott.

ST: So what is the Hamilton Tenant Solidarity Board?

CY: Uh, Hamilton Tenant Solidarity Network. We are a group of tenants, we are a volunteer group of tenants and their supporters and our mission is to support tenant struggles around the city, tenant organizing, and to link those struggles together across the city to fight for affordable housing and better conditions for tenants.

ST: How has what you’re doing changed in the last couple of years? What are you seeing?

CY: Well, obviously as a lot of people have noticed the rents are going up extremely dramatically. For example, in the buildings we’re organizing in a lot of the older tenants are renting at $700 or $800 a month, which is fairly doable for a lot of lower-income people. Empty units in that complex—a one-bedroom unit is currently going for $1,400 a month.

ST: How do you organize? How do you get people on board with something like this?

CY: Well, we do it the old fashioned way. We approach the tenants face to face. We knock on doors. We talk to them about their problems. We listen to them. We conduct meetings that are open and democratic. And we try to take actions that involve the tenants and that are meaningful and put direct pressure on the landlord, as opposed to relying on the legal system, which we all know is rigged in favour of the landlords.

Stoney Creek Towers tenants vote en masse to strike May 1, 2018

ST: How involved are the landlords in these discussions?

CY: Well, in this case the landlord is a bit of an absentee. They are a real estate investment trust based in Ottawa. They contract the management of the buildings. They’re called InterRent, by the way. They contract the management of the buildings to a property manager called CLV, which is basically a sock puppet for these real estate investment trusts.

ST: So tell us about the situation with these buildings in the east end. What is happening here specifically?

CY: So the tenants have long dealt with poor conditions in their buildings, even with the previous landlord. Poor windows, a heating system that doesn’t work, dysfunctional elevators, the list goes on. Now InterRent bought the buildings about two years ago. It’s a typical case of what we call renoviction. So they buy property at a discount price, multi-residential property, and basically they try to squeeze the older tenants out because every empty unit is money to them and increased capital value. So they do that by neglecting to make repairs in the units generally, sometimes direct harassment, conveniently losing rent cheques, things like that. And while they’re doing that, they make cosmetic repairs to the outside of the building, and in some cases necessary repairs that should have been done anyways, and then they try to flip those charges on the older tenants through this AGI [Above Guideline rent Increase] process.

ST: How old are these specific buildings? We’re talking about the buildings just east of Centennial Parkway and south of Barton Street East. How old are these buildings? What are the conditions?

CY: Well generally structurally they seem to be in okay condition. I don’t know the exact dates but they are decades old. The problem with the conditions is the actual condition of the units for the long-standing tenants. So we’re talking—like a major complaint that consistently comes up is the windows and the heating system. So countless tenants we’ve talked to over the winter have been dealing with apartments that are consistently below the legally allowed temperature. In many cases we have tenants with plywood put up instead of windows because the landlord’s property manager has been so slow to do those necessary repairs. We’ve also had elderly tenants being injured by dysfunctional elevators that stop half way above a floor and then they fall through, that drop suddenly several feet. And I don’t know, the list goes on.

ST: And obviously I guess they are not doing a lot of work to older tenants’ buildings—older meaning not necessarily their age but that they have been there a long time—hoping that they will leave and before the repairs are done, I’m guessing.

CY: Absolutely. They have a direct financial incentive to clear those longstanding tenants out for vacant units which they can jack up by several hundred dollars.

ST: And I understand that some are even being offered incentives to leave.

CY: Yes, there have been buyouts. Generally the tenants have not been taking them because, as far as I know, for that complex the maximum it has gone up to is $3,600 which is really—in today’s rental market doesn’t go very far, especially if you factor in moving costs. And a lot of times landlords will promise a buyout and then they’ll inspect the unit and observe every little scratch on the wall and then take half of it away for damage.

ST: Wow. So what can the tenants do here? I mean, you’re trying to organize them? What can they do? And what are these tenants doing? Obviously they are going to withhold rent.

CY: Yeah, they’re withholding rent, which is—

ST: Can you get full compliance with that? Can you get everybody to do that?

CY: No, it’s not like a labour strike where it’s a closed shop kind of thing where you need to have a strike mandate and everybody on board. It’s up to every individual tenant if they want to participate in the strike. But going door to door, holding meetings—we’ll have anywhere from fifty to one hundred people typically at a mass meeting. We have a lot of—a significant proportion of tenants participating in the rent strike.

ST: So like if some do and some don’t, what about repercussions for the tenants that withhold their rent? Even if it seems to be a well organized cause and such, are these people not opening themselves up to further, you know, harm in this situation?

CY: Well, I don’t want to comment in detail on that but we have informed the tenants of what they are likely to expect and we have them well prepared and we believe we’ll be able to avoid evictions.

ST: Right. So what about tenants who might be worried, like, “Geez, if I speak up against this, if I join this cause, then my rates are going to go up even more, they’re going to try to do even more to try to get me out!”?

CY: I think most tenants understand that right now they are basically frogs in a pot that is boiling slowly and that they really need to organize and stand together to fight this. I think there is a pretty broad understanding of that. Of course not everybody realizes that and we have to explain that to people but generally there’s a good understanding of the process that’s going on here of these real estate tycoons getting rich off of working class people’s backs. And there’s a pretty solid and intuitive understanding of that throughout the complex, and around the city, quite frankly.

ST: How does—how will this work? Like all of a sudden next month they won’t hand in their rent cheque?

CY: Well, we’ve advised tenants to keep the rent money aside, whether it’s a money order or a separate account, so they can pay it once the strike is resolved.

ST: So will this start with the May 1st cheque?

CY: Yes, it will be starting on May 1st.

ST: So they are organized and they have decided to do this. Any idea of how many will actually withhold rent, percentages-wise, and how many will just do business as usual?

CY: Well, May 1st we’re expecting twenty to thirty percent. If it drags into June, I expect significantly more than that. Who knows, it might be even more than our wildest dreams. Could be the majority, for all I know.

ST: Will we find out? Will we find out, Campbell, what those actual numbers will be? I mean, will those be revealed?

CY: Yeah, we’ll reveal that publicly once we tally it up in the first week of May.

ST: So let’s say that this all goes off May 1st, so many percentage of—say even if it’s half that withhold their rent, how long can they do this? What happens next? What happens after they withhold their rent? What do you expect?

CY: Well, I’m expecting InterRent and CLV to do what’s right and come to the negotiating table. Tenants are demanding that InterRent drop the Above Guideline Increase and make necessary repairs to the units and that’s what we’re expecting to happen.

ST: So what is the proposal that this company has put out? Is there something specific that they’re fighting? What is the policy?

CY: So this is an Above Guideline Increase. I don’t know how familiar your listeners are with that process. It’s basically a loophole around rent control laws in Ontario. These big landlords, these big corporate entities have it pretty fine tuned with their consultants and their lawyers. It’s become a pretty well oiled machine for getting around rent control and gouging tenants. Typically what happens is they make cosmetic repairs or, like I say, repairs that needed to be done anyways, and then they foist those charges onto the tenants.

ST: So once this is all started and the rent has been withdrawn or not paid, do you expect legal action from the company that owns this? I mean, you know, I don’t know how optimistic I would be about this, if everybody withholds their rent all of a sudden they are going to do the right thing.

CY: Well, there’s a pretty strong precedent right now. In the last year, Parkdale Organize in Toronto organized two successful rent strikes that were victorious. So we’re expecting the same to happen. We’re expecting InterRent and CLV to come to the negotiating table and meet the tenants’ demands.

ST: So what does victorious mean? How would this be resolved to make things better for everyone?

CY: That the company drops the rent increase and makes the repairs for tenants.

ST: And what do you think are the chances of that happening?

CY: I think they’re pretty good. Like I say, there’s a precedent. In the last year it happened twice in Toronto where there were two successful rent strikes.

ST: And is Hamilton, as a city, is it ripe for this sort of thing? It would be, right, considering the development that’s going on?

CY: Absolutely. As we all know, the industrial economy has been decimated in the last thirty or forty years. It’s been replaced to some extent by services and healthcare, but a lot of it has been replaced by really low wage service jobs and temp positions and employment that’s not really meeting people’s needs. So if you add to that mix rapidly rising housing costs, people are getting angry and people are getting organized.

ST: So what is the future for apartment renting in this province? Obviously there’s changes that need to be made. This would seem to help or may help these people here but what needs to be done in order to be done to correct the rental situation in the province? Because obviously there is less of these units that are available.

CY: Right, there does need to be more construction of housing. Personally, I would like to see the construction of a big amount of affordable housing. For example, with the LRT line where hundreds of people are getting directly expropriated and evicted from their apartments, Metrolinx has only pledged $5.9 million for new affordable housing, so that’s really a pittance. HTSN is not a lobby group. We don’t have a blueprint for how housing should be in Ontario, but we believe that positive changes will come through the direct organization and pressure of working class people, and working class tenants in particular.

ST: Could this set a precedent in this city, do you think?

CY: I think it will. I think it will spread, and landlords better be advised.

ST: Because as we said earlier, the city is ripe for this sort of thing so if this turns out to be successful, could you see others doing the same sort of thing?

CY: Yes, I could definitely see that.

ST: If people want to find out more information, if people are in a scenario where they are not sure they are being treated fairly or not, what should they do, Campbell? Where should they go?

CY: Well they can contact Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network and we can advise them on how to organize with their neighbours. Obviously we’re quite wrapped up with the rent strike right now, but after the rent strike is successful, and I believe it will, we will be doing educational work around the city to help other tenants get organized.

ST: And have you heard anything from the developers of these buildings that you’re talking about in the east end? Are they reacting to any of this? Any idea what their response will be to the tenants withholding their rent in the beginning of May?

CY: Not that I’m aware of but I can pretty much picture their office in Ottawa being a bit of a buzz right now.

ST: All right, Campbell Young has been with us from the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network. Residents in the east end of the city have decided to hold a rent strike next month to protest the landlord’s push for higher rent prices. Campbell, thanks for the time and insight. Much appreciated.

CY: Thanks, Scott.