Toronto Tenants Are Uniting in a Mass Rent Strike

As Toronto grapples with skyrocketing housing costs, tenant unions across the city are uniting against major corporate landlords in a massive rent strike. The strike is vitalizing the fight for housing justice in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Toronto tenants on strike at 33 King Street, June 1, 2023. (Twitter / YSW Tenant Union)

Tenants throughout Toronto are currently leading a rent strike against some of the country’s largest corporate landlords in one of the world’s least affordable cities.

The long overdue rent strike involves tenants across Toronto in multiple buildings — 70 Thorncliffe Park, 33 King Street, 77 Spencer Avenue, and 109 Indian Road. Together, they are fighting back against their corporate landlords’ “above-guideline rent increases” (AGIs).

Although Ontario’s rent control typically limits rent increases to 2 to 3 percent per year, AGIs enable landlords to raise rents significantly beyond these regular limits, ostensibly to account for expenses related to repairs and retrofits. In reality, however, they offer an easy way to evade rent controls and bolster landlord profits.

The latest round of AGIs are the last straw for many tenants. As CBC News notes: “Rent strikes in Canada are on the increase” — especially in Toronto — and they have been for at least half a decade.

Reached for comment, Chiara Padovani, cochair of the York South-Weston Tenant Union, told Jacobin that “Tenants are fed up with paying more for less and seeing their rent increase three times above rent control.”

Protests At 77 Spencer Avenue and 109 Indian Road

In Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood, Akelius Investments tried to push a 5.5 percent rent increase onto its tenants. This increase is more than double a normal rent increase of 2.5 percent. The increase was justified as necessary for “balcony repairs.”

Tenants responded by descending onto the company’s office and demanding an end to the rent hikes.

As resident Annie Gibson told CBC News: “They’re applying [to the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB)] for balcony repairs. A lot of the people who live in the building don’t have balconies and we’re expected to pay for it any ways because it’s considered a capital expense.”

Worse, as Parkdale Community Legal Clinic legal case worker Candace Nguyen notes, “They haven’t been maintaining the apartments and they use capital expenditures on things like lobbies, useless things that don’t help the tenants, while they have real issues like mice and cockroaches and real maintenance requests that have just been ignored time and time again.”

While the company has little to show for its balcony repairs in the unit, its profit margin is massive. According to its 2022 annual report, across Canada, Akelius owns 8,834 units and enjoy a capitalization rate of 4.13 percent and a net operating income of over 48 percent.

Rent Strike at 33 King

Among all buildings in Toronto, 33 King, which is owned by Dream Unlimited, received six applications for AGIs from 2012–22. “I’m afraid I might become homeless,” one tenant told CBC News.

AGI applications require the landlord to inform tenants of the plan to increase the rent beyond the legal limit, pending approval by the provincial LTB. In 2018, the tenants fought a 6 percent increase and successfully negotiated a settlement that resulted in the removal of the AGI, with a promise to reimburse those who had already paid the 6 percent. But, in reality, it hasn’t been that simple.

“The landlord never paid them back,” Padovani says. “The landlord said the reason they didn’t pay anyone back is because they have all these other applications that they are expecting will get approved so they don’t owe anybody any money.”

During the recent AGI process, despite tenants being legally permitted to keep paying the current rate, the union claims that Dream Unlimited sent eviction letters as a form of intimidation to those who exercised this right. Under pressure from the union, the company apologized, but its push to hike rents continues.

“The building is not a new building, the landlord is using the AGI to evade rent control. The owner has a history of doing this, they’ve applied for it at every single opportunity, back-to-back, over the last ten years,” Padovani says. “The current landlord inherited all the past applications and even according to Dream’s own financial statements, 50 percent of its revenue is profit.”

These rent hikes have not gone to improving the conditions of the building, tenants say.

Shelley, a long-term tenant, told Jacobin, “We’ve had floors with a bedbug epidemic, to cockroaches, to ants. What’s frustrating is being told they’re going to take care of it and then they don’t.”

Against the backdrop of landlord neglect, after weeks of making phone calls and knocking on doors, Padovani explains that the union managed to garner support from over half of the building’s tenants, resulting in their current rent strike.

“We have to be adamant. This is where we raise our families. This is our home,” Shelley said.

Rent Strike Across Thorncliffe Park

Since May 1, PSP Investments and Starlight Investments have faced a rent strike from hundreds of tenants at 71, 75, and 79 Thorncliffe Park Drive, who have refused to pay rent in opposition to an application seeking to raise their rents by about 5 percent. Previously, the building’s owner sought a rent increase of 4.2 per cent in 2022. If these increases are approved by the LTB, it will mean a monthly increase of almost 10 percent in two years. Worse, most of the tenants will also owe “back rent,” due to the increases.

“Tenants are working together to fight the massive rent increases and defend their homes from those seeking to profit from displacement,” a website dedicated to PSP displaced tenants said.

Like the other landlords on the list, Starlight has enjoyed massive profits alongside rent hikes and a general deterioration of its housing stock. In fact, in 2012, Starlight changed its name, following a string of negative media reports decrying the horrendous living conditions in its buildings.

In March 2022, the Thorncliffe Park residents delivered a stack of over fifty repair requests they said were ignored — sometimes for years. These included, according to the National Observer, leaking bathroom ceilings, mold, malfunctioning stoves, and garbage chutes that overflowed with waste.

“Everything is leaking and it smells very bad,” one tenant wrote. “We’re very tired of opening many maintenance requests but not getting anything in response.”

In 2019, Starlight’s CEO said, “We think there is a definite housing shortage, or almost a crisis level in Canada . . . and the good news for investors is there is no easy solution in sight.” In a 2021 presentation, Starlight told its investors its value proposition is based on “high growth” in rents as well as “deteriorating home ownership affordability.

“They try to build their money from our weakness,” one tenant told the National Observer. “This community is just looking for the end of the month to cover food and everything and that’s it.”

Paying More for Less

Canada’s landlords, like all landlords, make their profits by increasing their revenue and cutting their costs. In plain language that means cutting services and repair funds and gouging their tenants for every last dollar of rent. Alongside horrendous living conditions — with pests, mold, and the like — this means a drive for regular churns and regular evictions. The results are visible at the national level.

This is why Toronto, like nearly every other major Canadian city, has seen homelessness rise to crisis levels — with tent cities in nearly every park. It’s why food bank use is exploding. And it’s why, increasingly, ordinary workers are poor, hungry, homeless, and living in squalid conditions. This is not despite landlord profits; it is the source of landlord profits.

A recent survey by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation titled The Lived Experience of Evictions in Canada found that a majority of the respondents were evicted by their landlords so that the property could be flipped, sold, or renovated and rented at a higher cost.

In the process, the report found: “Most participants described a range of different negative landlord behaviours, including non-responsiveness and harassment, and a third of participants reported some sort of negative or potentially illegal landlord actions during the eviction process itself.”

After eviction, the study found that most of the tenants were, unsurprisingly, far worse off. Overall, the participants paid higher prices for smaller, lower-quality homes after their eviction.

As the study concludes: “Being evicted once puts you in the position of instability and increases your chance of having more housing instability after that.”

Extend the Fight

These strikes are of enormous importance if they can bring powerful landlords to heel. They show the power of ordinary people to fight back.

Supporting and expanding these rent strikes is crucial to challenging the dominance of property owners in the city. Reclaiming housing from those who prioritize profits over people is essential for securing the necessary homes that ordinary individuals require for their well-being. This approach is the key to transforming the prevailing stress, fear, and instability experienced by countless renters into lasting stability.