Rent StrikesTenants across the city are taking action to stop landlords from pushing rents even higher, using one of the most potent (and difficult) tactics
By Fernando Arce
So, your landlord wants to raise your rent for what they say are necessary repairs to the building, but you don’t see any improvements. You and other tenants have done all you can to stop the increase – from organizing marches, to meeting with your elected officials, and even tried meeting with the landlord. But nothing changes, and they insist on ramming it through.
What can you do?
“At this point, we can either give up and let the landlord get away with increasing rent, or we can take the next action,” says Chiara Padovani, co-chair of the York South-Weston (YSW) Tenant Union. “At this point, the only next action left to take is a rent strike.”
Across the city, landlords are increasingly exploiting a section of the Residential Tenancies Act that allows them to apply for Above Guideline Increases (AGIs) to tenants’ rents as long as they are for “eligible capital expenditures incurred.”
Among the latest landlords implementing AGIs are PSP Investments, owners of 71, 75, and 79 Thorncliffe Park Drive, and Dream Unlimited, which owns 33 King Street. Tenants at 33 King St are members of the YSW Tenant Union.
Current mayoral candidate and former deputy mayor Ana Bailão joined Dream in January before leaving in the spring to run for mayor. Her voting record in city council includes voting against rent control measures and in favour of above guideline rent increases.
Padovani says the law allows “infrequent capital repairs,” but these landlords have been applying for them nearly every year. Tenants of 33 King St. have received six AGIs from various owners in the last 10 years – the “highest in the city,” says Padovani. There are currently two AGIs pending from 2019 and 2021, both of which Dream inherited after aquiring the building in 2021 and has chosen to pursue.
“That should absolutely raise some red flags at the [Landlord and Tenant Board], but unfortunately these applications are just rubber-stamped,” she says. “[Landlords] go to the LTB, they add up the receipts, they see how much extra money should be charged to tenants, [the LTB] rubber-stamp them, and they move on.”
But tenants are fighting back through organized rent strikes where they withhold rent from the landlord until the landlord agrees to negotiate, or to specific demands. On May 1, over 100 tenants in the three Thorncliffe buildings went on strike. By early June, there were nearly 140, says Sameer Ahmed, a Thorncliffe tenant.
Over 100 tenants at 33 King St. announced their rent strike June 1.
So, what exactly is a rent strike, when should you engage in one, and what are some of the considerations to keep in mind when doing so?
What is a rent strike?
A rent strike essentially means withholding rent for a time. “It is a powerful tool that tenants can use,” says Padovani. “But it is one that requires a lot of organizing.”
Ahmed spent the last year and a half knocking on doors, helping organize meetings in lobbies and church basements, putting up flyers and staging demonstrations outside the homes of PSP board members.
Tenants’ strength is in their numbers, says Padovani. It can take the form of a tenant union, like at 33 King St., or a less formal title like a “group effort,” which is what Ahmed calls what they’re doing at Thorncliffe. In either case, the point is to get your neighbours on board.
“Every struggle you feel as a tenant – whether it’s repairs not getting done, rent eating up all your income, fear of eviction, elevators not working – whatever it is, you’re not alone. And the second you start talking to your neighbours, you realize that,” she says.
“What was once scary to ask your landlord as one person, with a tenant union, it becomes an empowering thing – a collective struggle.”
When to call one
Both the Thorncliffe and 33 King St. tenants had marched, flyered, and petitioned, hoping to get the landlord to engage with them, but got nowhere.
“For us,” says Ahmed, “this is kind of the way to escalate matters. The owners are not willing to engage with us in any form of discussion or any form of consideration about this AGI. So, for us, we decided that we need to make this matter more effective, and the decision was made that we need to implement a rent strike.”
Padovani says even at that point, the decision must be made democratically. For YSW, that meant having at least 50 per cent of member support, plus “a lot of buy-in from the rest of the building.”
Ahmed calculates nearly 90 per cent of Thorncliffe tenants are against the rent increase, with about 10 per cent joining the rent strike. Still, he says, “you don’t look at it as a percentage,” but as solidarity growing. In one month, they’ve gone from just over 100 to around 140 on strike.
Don’t be scared or fooled by landlords
“The biggest fear that people have when engaging in a rent strike is fear of eviction,” says Padovani. But it’s important to note that withholding rent is different from free rent, she adds, because it means you are willing to pay it when the strike is over. “That’s your greatest defense [in front of the LTB] against eviction for arrears or retaliation from the landlord.”
That doesn’t mean landlords won’t retaliate. In fact, they often do. By early June, all 100+ Thorncliffe Drive tenants who had joined the strike in May had received eviction notices, says Ahmed, and those who’d joined in June were in the process of receiving them.
But that’s simply “part of the process used by the landlord” as a “mere tactic to make people scared and confused,” he adds. Tenants can’t legally be evicted until the landlord has a hearing at the LTB, a process that can take three to four months. Landlords often hope tenants don’t know their rights and will leave without having to go to the LTB.
Landlords may offer “rent relief,” which can come in many forms. But “it’s a joke,” says Ahmed. PSP offered rent relief to Thorncliffe tenants in the form of a meeting, two hours, two times per week, to go over their financial situation to determine if they qualify for rent relief. To Ahmed’s knowledge, this was first offered about a year ago and not a single tenant has yet been asked to meet with PSP.
Danny Roth, a spokesperson for Starlight Investments, which manages the Thorncliffe buildings on behalf of PSP, told The Grind that "to date, hundreds of residents across our portfolio have sought and received some form of rental assistance." He did not specify how many of those tenants were from Thorncliffe Dr.
If the landlords’ requested AGI goes through, it may include arrears, so Ahmed recommends stashing away your deferred rent money accordingly.
Even after being established for over seven years, it took YSW about five months to organize the current strike. The Thorncliffe organizers were preparing for over a year and a half.
That doesn’t mean organizers and tenants need to be everywhere all at once to organize a rent strike, says Ahmed. “Not everyone can be committed to everything we do, but we try to manage to have everyone be committed to at least some form of action.”
This article appears in the Summer 2023 Issue.