Rent Strike Month #4: Campaign Highlights So Far
As of August 1, 2018, the East Hamilton Rent Strike enters its fourth month with tenants more determined than ever.
Over one hundred households from the Stoney Creek Towers are continuing to withhold rent from their landlord, InterRent Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), and property manager, CLV Group. Dozens more units remain empty, in large part due to the press coverage generated by the strike that has exposed the truth about the conditions of the buildings and the landlord’s poor treatment of tenants.
Tenants will continue to withhold rent until the landlord comes to the negotiating table, agrees to cancel its application for an Above Guideline rent Increase (AGI), and completes repairs to tenants’ units. This Above Guideline Increase, when combined with the annual guideline increase permitted by the Ontario government, will amount to a nearly 10% rent hike. Such an increase would be unaffordable for the tenants, including many households on fixed incomes. Tenants understand that this is the first of many AGI applications their landlord is likely to seek, and that if they do not fight back now, they will soon be priced out of their homes.
The Stoney Creek Towers is made up of four large apartment buildings in the Riverdale neighbourhood in East Hamilton. Riverdale is the largest immigrant and refugee settlement neighbourhood in Hamilton, known as Hamilton’s Arrival City. Demographic data for the two census dissemination areas where the buildings are located paint a picture of the Stoney Creek Towers community and the conditions tenants face:
· 95% of residents are renters; · 43% of residents are living in homes they cannot afford, spending more than 30% of their income on housing; · 33% of residents live in homes in need of major repairs; · 50% of residents are immigrants; · 57% of residents identify as visible minorities; · 53% of residents have a non-English mother tongue; · 45% of households live below the poverty line; and, · 33% of residents live on fixed incomes, receiving social assistance in the form of Ontario Works, Ontario Disability Support Program, Canada Pension Plan, or Old Age Security (Statistics Canada, 2016).
The Stoney Creek Towers is a vibrant community that represents the very best of Hamilton’s scrappy working class roots. It’s a community made up of seniors on pensions, single mothers and their children, and large immigrant families, many of whom have come to Canada after being displaced from countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, Syria, Pakistan, India, and Iraq. Importantly, it’s a community where neighbours have each other’s backs and are willing to fight for what’s right, including the fight to hold onto their homes.
Their landlord, InterRent REIT, has made several attempts to break the strike. They’ve threatened tenants with eviction, sent company executives to harass tenants in their homes, dragged tenants before the Landlord and Tenant Board, offered them repairs in exchange for quitting the strike, and tried to bribe tenants to move out. But through it all, tenants have stayed firm. They refuse to be priced out of their homes and the neighbourhood they love.
Over the past few months, rent strikers have employed a range of tactics of their own, in order to maintain pressure on the landlord. Here’s a short run-down, followed by some steps you can take to support their struggle.
With signs and banners in hand, tenants marched through their neighbourhood, stopping in front of each of the four rent striking buildings to hear speeches from strikers from 11 Grandville Avenue, 40 Grandville Avenue, 50 Violet Drive, and 77 Delawana Drive. Many other tenants watched and cheered from their balconies above. The march began with a large RENT STRIKE! banner drop from the top floor of one of the buildings. Echoes of the chant “You say rent hike? We say rent strike!” rang out across the block.
Tenants rallied outside property management company, CLV Group’s, on-site office. They delivered a large stack of work order forms, documenting a slew of longstanding maintenance issues in their apartments and demanding that they be addressed.
Tenants made speeches about how CLV’s neglect of their living conditions has impacted their health and wellbeing. They spoke about their anger at being asked to pay for a large Above Guideline rent Increase to cover the cost of cosmetic upgrades to the buildings (new landscaping, lobby renovations, etc.), while necessary repairs to their units are ignored by the landlord. Some of the issues raised included drafty windows, faulty heating systems, unresolved pest infestations, dangerous and unreliable elevators, broken appliances (including stoves and fridges), crumbling paint and cracks on walls and ceilings, leaks, and mold, etc.
Although the rally took place during CLV’s regular office hours, when tenants approached to deliver the maintenance request forms, staff locked the doors and tried to pretend they weren’t there. Under the spotlight of TV news cameras, the district manager soon realized how bad this looked and agreed to accept the work orders. Soon after, tenants reported work being done in their units, albeit often in a patchwork and sloppy manner.
CLV staff regularly hold open house events in an attempt to attract new tenants to rent in the buildings. Rent striking tenants decided to hold their own open house to share the truth about the conditions of buildings and how the landlord treats its tenants. Tenants set up an information table outside the property management office, dropped banners from their balconies, gave speeches, and provided tours of their units, showing the many repairs the landlord has neglected to address and describing the harassment they have experienced from CLV staff. CLV cancelled the open house they had planned for the day. They continue to have a hard time renting out vacant units to new tenants.
Many rent strikers have been living in their units for years and are paying $650-$700/month for a 1-bedroom apartment or $750-$800/month for a 2-bedroom apartment. CLV is currently advertising 1-bedroom apartments for $1,350/month and 2-bedroom apartments for $1,500/month at the Stoney Creek Towers. Given that there is no rent control on vacant units in Ontario, CLV can effectively double the rent for incoming tenants on turnover. CLV/InterRent REIT has a large financial incentive to push longstanding tenants out and bring new tenants in. They call this ‘repositioning,’ but that is simply renoviction by another name.
A recent study (Geoforum, 2018) published by Martine August (University of Waterloo) and Alan Walks (University of Toronto) reveals the strategies used by real estate investment trusts (REITs) like InterRent REIT in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. They explain that REITs are “aggressively ‘repositioning’ buildings in coveted areas with strong markets, transforming them from affordable into luxury buildings.” REITs aim “to hasten the removal of sitting tenants to allow for the renovation of their vacant suites — in order to attract a more affluent newcomer who will pay steeply increased rent.”
In InterRent’s internal reports to investors, they admit that their goal is to buy “properties that are in good rental markets but that may be underperforming” — in other words, attracting ‘below market’ rents. InterRent promises its investors that it will ‘reposition’ buildings within three or four years of purchase — in other words, InterRent will push all of the existing tenants out, renovate their units, and bring in new tenants at twice the rent. InterRent aims to “grow the rental revenue base” by “removing undesirable tenants and implementing policies and processes to attract more desirable tenants.” At the Tenant Open House, tenants exposed this strategy and spoke passionately about their refusal to be ‘repositioned’ and pushed out of their homes in order to make way for higher-paying tenants.
A crew of rent strikers travelled from Hamilton to the financial district in Toronto to visit the head office of CI Financial, the largest institutional investor in InterRent REIT. CI Financial is one of the largest asset management companies in Canada, with an investment portfolio of $180 billion.
As the main group of tenants caused a distraction by rallying on the sidewalk (joined by local tenants from Parkdale Organize), a second group, dressed in their Sunday best, walked into the office building, rode the elevator up to CI Financial’s offices, and demanded to speak with company president Sheila Murray. During a brief impromptu meeting with Murray and CEO Peter Anderson, and a longer meeting with Vice President (Legal), Matthew Scott, these tenants demanded that CI Financial withdraw its investments from InterRent REIT, a company that makes money by displacing poor people from their homes. As this was going on, dozens of supporters were phone-zapping CI Financial executives, voicing their support for the rent strikers and echoing their demands. Tenants left after they were given assurance that CI Financial would conduct an investigation into the matter.
In the lead up to the third month of the strike, tenants and supporters from other cities in Ontario and Quebec organized a series of rallies and small actions in support of CLV tenants in East Hamilton. Simultaneous visits were made to CLV site offices in Burlington, Guelph, London, and Montreal, as well as the CLV/InterRent head office in Ottawa. CLV tenants in many cities have experienced constant rent hikes and lack of repairs at the hands of CLV/InterRent. Sharing Stoney Creek Towers tenants’ frustration with CLV, many CLV tenants in these cities honked their horns and voiced their support for the actions taking place. Supporters who paid a visit to the CLV head office in Ottawa reported that CEO Michael McGahan and VP David Nevins refused to meet with them or to accept a letter written by the rent strikers. Instead, they hid in their offices and sent a staff member to retrieve it on their behalf.
During the second month of the strike, InterRent began filing legal notices to collect outstanding rent and evict striking tenants. Most of the households on strike received either L9 (‘Collect rent in dispute’) or N4 (‘Collect rent and evict’) notices.
The L9s were a strange notice for InterRent to issue. They are typically used to address a dispute between a landlord and a tenant when the tenant claims she paid rent but the landlord claims she didn’t. Stoney Creek Towers tenants, on the other hand, had been very open about the fact that they hadn’t paid rent, after all they’re on rent strike! This is not in dispute. Tenants viewed these L9 notices simply as an intimidation tactic by the landlord, one designed to scare strikers, drag them to the Landlord and Tenant Board, and drain the Rent Strike Defense Fund.
Rather than negotiate in good faith with the tenants, InterRent made it clear they intended to use their army of paralegals and the protections of the biased Landlord and Tenant Board to try and make the strike quietly go away. They would use the L9s as an attempt to pick rent strikers off one by one, by pretending that the non-payments of rent were individual cases of negligence, rather than an organized, collective protest.
The first block of tenants (33 in total) had hearings scheduled at the Landlord and Tenant Board on July 3rd. The Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network organized a rally across the street from the courthouse before the hearing began. Tenants and their supporters rallied in big numbers and then flooded into the hearing room to occupy the court and halt the proceedings. We chanted and played drums and forced the adjudicator from the room. The majority of cases were not processed and only a handful of tenants were given court orders to pay their rent. Nine CLV/InterRent executives and their lawyers had to make the trip from Ottawa to Hamilton and sit in a sweaty court room for hours on end, shoulder to shoulder and face to face with the tenants they are exploiting, and leave empty handed.
July 28, 2018: Rent Strikers Gather for Barbecue and Family Fun Day
To celebrate the courage and persistence of the rent strikers as they enter the fourth month of their strike, the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network organized a Barbecue and Family Fun Day at the local park. Tenants shared a meal and gave speeches. Younger tenants had fun with crafts and games. They drew pictures of their homes and their families. They had their faces painted. For the final hurrah, they took turns hitting a piñata of Mike McGahan, CLV/InterRent CEO, and ate the candy that poured out.
The children understand that millionaire McGahan and other CLV/InterRent executives make money by exploiting poor families. McGahan & Co. burden their parents with large rent increases they cannot afford and these children suffer as a result. They suffer cold winters due to drafty windows the landlord fails to replace. They suffer bed bug bites from infestations the landlord fails to resolve. They eat fewer healthy fruits and vegetables when more of their parents’ incomes must go towards rent to fatten McGahan’s wallet. They suffer from the stress their parents feel about their uncertain futures, fearful of being priced out of their homes. If displaced, these children suffer by being uprooted from their communities, forced to move to a different school and make new friends. These children might not understand the intricacies of real estate investment, but they understand the importance of having a safe, secure home and the chaos set in motion when a home is lost.
Dozens of rent strikers and their supporters came to the event. Interestingly, CLV organized an Open House at the Stoney Creek Towers for the same day but it appears no one showed up. What a shame. Maybe this is the reason why CLV has started advertising for a new Hamilton property manager. Sorry Oliver, your days are numbered. You won’t be missed.
Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network organizer and hip hop artist Lee Reed has put together a Rent Strike Party at Sous Bas (145 Main St E, Hamilton) on Saturday, August 4th to raise money for the Rent Strike Defense Fund. Lee will be performing tracks from his new EP, The Steal City, inspired by working class resistance to the gentrification of Hamilton (aka Steel City). Other Hamilton locals !KrymeWon, Rac-One and Joose will also be performing. The EP is available for purchase online, with all proceeds going to the Rent Strike Defense Fund.
On Sunday, August 12, starting at 8pm, the Hamilton District Labour Council will be hosting a free family movie night at Riverdale Park (150 Violet Drive), screening The Lego Movie. Stoney Creek Towers tenants and members of the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network will continue their hot dog fundraising series by selling hot dogs at the event. We are grateful to many unions who have donated hundreds and thousands of dollars to the Rent Strike Defense Fund in support of the tenants.