Since May 1, tenants in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood have been on a rent strike in response to rising rent costs. Tenants have said that these increases are unlawful, immoral and are ultimately being used to force low income tenants out of their homes. The main target of this rent strike is Metcap Living Corporation. Metcap is one of the largest housing corporations in Toronto, owning 18 buildings in the city, primarily in low income neighbourhoods like Parkdale. Metcap’s proposal for a number of above guideline rent increases (AGIs) sparked the tenants of these buildings to push back against the corporations that control where and how they live. Parkdale tenants have courageously continued the fight against rent increases amidst the risk of evictions and penalties from MetCap. The struggle to keep affordable housing intact in Parkdale is a struggle connected to the rest of the city and province where affordable, safe and clean housing is a right to which everyone should be entitled.

Parkdale has historically been an important neighbourhood for city residents. Nicknamed “The Landing Strip of Toronto”, many immigrants and refugees took residence in Parkdale as their first home in Canada. Throughout its history, Parkdale has been a refuge for Tamil, Tibetan, Roma and Caribbean communities to name just a few.  As one of the least expensive places to live in the city’s core, many residents see Parkdale as one of the last affordable options for remaining in Toronto. If Parkdale, and neighbourhoods like it, are no longer an affordable place to live then Toronto as a whole stops being an affordable and accessible city for low income, immigrant and marginalized communities. At a rally on May 4 against the rent hikes, Parkdale tenant Alykhan Pabani had this to say about the city: “John Tory is always saying we’re so multicultural and we set such a good example for other major cities. Well the proof is in the pudding. If you don’t protect communities like Parkdale and other marginalized communities then you can’t really say that we’re a diverse city. This is the process of gentrification. Subjecting communities to the whims of the market.”

Rising housing costs have become a major concern for Toronto residents. As the city experiences one of the greatest housing booms to have occurred in North America, the cost of living has skyrocketed while the average income of working people in Toronto has stagnated. A contributing factor to these ballooning housing costs is an out-of-date rent control system that gives landlords the means to push existing tenants out of their units as a means of jacking up rental prices of those units. While units built before 1991 (and soon to be to all units in Ontario under the provincial government’s new housing plan) are subject to an annual rent increase cap of 1.5 per cent when occupied, a unit that becomes unoccupied has this restriction lifted. This means that the building owner is free to jack up the price of rent to even double what it was previously. Additionally, landlords can use Above the Guideline Rent Increases (AGIs) as a tool to hike up rent fees above the cap, by justifying the above-guideline hikes as arising from the cost of repairs. This tool is used to push out low income tenants. Landlords have an incentive to move low income people out of their homes, and the tools to do so.

Metcap of course claims that the repairs that are being completed are for the benefit of the tenants, in order to improve the standard of living in these largely crumbling and deteriorating buildings. For the tenants in Parkdale, deteriorating buildings and poor living conditions are nothing new. Complaints raised by tenants to deal with pests, plumbing and infrastructure issues have long been ignored by Metcap. Parkdale tenants know well that the work being performed on the buildings has little to do with unit maintenance and is really being done to price out the units for a hot rental market. Metcap executives who claim otherwise are hiding behind a well known gentrification strategy of forcing low income people out of their communities. This leads many to question, who do these repairs truly benefit? Improved living conditions in Parkdale are certainly necessary, but who will be able to live in the neighbourhood after deteriorated housing is completed?

“Not Our Laws, Not Our Courts”

On Wednesday June 7, over 80 Parkdale tenants and supporters of the Parkdale Rent Strike rallied outside the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), the only location where AGIs can be approved. The rally brought the workings of the LTB to a grinding halt for over an hour and the tenants made their point loud and clear, that MetCap’s proposal to pass AGIs in Parkdale was an illegal and unjust measure. MetCap has applied to raise rent fees up to 15 per cent over a three year period, allegedly to cover the costs of necessary repairs that include balconies, railings, boilerplates, rodent infestation and water damage. This AGI has been used to cover the cost of over $1 million dollars worth of repairs that, tenants say, go beyond what is necessary and into the realm of cosmetic additions used to increase the appeal of the rental buildings. The aim of the AGI is to make low income residents pay for the cost of upgrading the very buildings that they are being forced out of. If residents can’t pay and are forced to leave their unit, the landlord can then increase the rent however high they want. As quoted by Parkdale Legal Community Organizer Cole Webber, “This is really an attack on working class and immigrant families who won’t be able to afford the rent increase and will be forced to leave.”

Wednesday’s hearing regarding MetCap’s proposal was an example of the uneven battle faced when tenants challenge private housing owners in a legal system built to favour rich property owners. Two motions were put forward by Simon Wallace, the appointed lawyer of two Parkdale tenants against MetCap Living. The first motion was that the $1 million in repairs that are being pursued by Metcap go above and beyond the Landlord and Tenant Board AGI limit of $25,000. Wallace argued that anything more than $25,000 is a cost the landlord must shoulder. The second motion from Wallace argued that repairs conducted by Metcap were past the point of what was necessary, such as luxury repairs to increase the appeal of the buildings were prioritized before practical maintenance inside the residents’ homes. The costs of what was seen as ‘Cadillac’ vs ‘Chevy’ repairs, that would now be downloaded onto the tenants who did not ask for high-end balcony windows or improved concrete paving. Both of these motions came with demands for transparency into the construction contracts that MetCap had agreed to and a re-evaluating of the repairs that were deemed “necessary” in the eyes of MetCap management. The legal team defending MetCap Living quickly asserted that they had no legal obligation to release any of the contracts or documents pertaining to the level of repairs they deemed necessary for their buildings, and from a legal perspective, they were right. The failure of these two motions shows the limits of taking a legal route, as the laws are built to maintain and defend private ownership.

When housing is privately owned there is a clashing interests between those who own the buildings and those who actually live in them. Instead of democratically deciding how and when repairs are made, tenants are subject to the decisions of the building owners whose interests are maximizing profits. In the present context, this results in low income residents being pushed out of their homes under the guise of rent hikes for the purpose of providing repairs. Rental prices are not being determined by the wages of workers or the quality of living conditions, but rather by how best the landlord can make use of the housing bubble to generate profits.

The rent strike in Parkdale is an example of the power that people have when they collectively push back against the landlords. Fightback stands in solidarity with the rent strikers and supports their demands to withdraw all AGIs, to perform adequate repairs and to ensure affordable housing is available to all working class people in the Greater Toronto Area.

It should be noted that the Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo), one of the investors of Metcap, is a corporation owned by the government of Alberta. AIMCo manages the funds of hundreds of unionized Alberta government workers. Albertan workers have no interest in displacing the low income residents of Parkdale. The workers of Alberta also face housing shortages and high costs of living. Workers in both provinces have common interests in the fight for affordable housing for all.

Housing for All, Not Housing for Profit

What we must remember is that the resources exist to repair and build affordable housing for everyone. However, the capitalist system means that housing construction is not organized for social need but for the profits of developers and real estate managers. The argument of many politicians in response to the housing shortage has been to actually increase the role of the free market and deregulation. Rent controls have been lifted since 1991, but this has had no effect on addressing the acute affordable housing shortage, which is a condemnation of the argument of the defenders of capitalism that the free market could solve this problem.

However, rent controls in and of themselves are not a solution to the problem. The provincial Liberals’ Fair Housing Plan which was recently announced by the Premier Kathleen Wynne includes the extension of rent control laws to buildings built after 1991. Capping rent increases on new apartment buildings will not stimulate new construction, on the contrary it will encourage investors to insert their capital in more lucrative ventures such as condo development.

What is required is investment in public housing, however it is precisely the provincial Liberals that have slashed funding for social housing. The level of assistance for Toronto’s social housing decreased from 31 per cent to 7 per cent between 2013 and 2016. The city, with its limited ability to raise taxes on the rich, is forced to cover the difference. This fact alone demonstrates the utter hypocrisy of the Wynne Liberals who are presenting themselves as advocates for tenant rights, but are in actual fact applying a band-aid to a deep wound that they have exacerbated through cuts to public housing.

The only solution that can solve the housing crisis is to remove housing from the hands of private corporations. A national program of housing construction and repair must be launched to provide quality housing for all. Construction companies should be placed under public ownership to remove unnecessary costs in production and to ensure that the housing is built to appropriate quality and safety standards. Profit must be removed for the provision and distribution of this basic human need. Democratic tenants’ control of housing would ensure that buildings are properly maintained and that neighbourhoods do not fall into a state of squalor. While participating and supporting every local struggle of tenants in the fight for better and more affordable housing, Fightback puts forward a socialist housing policy as the only way to truly end skyrocketing rent fees and slum conditions maintained by landlords.