Tenant Organizing and the Right to Adequate Housing
Security of tenure is an essential part of adequate housing. Yet tenants too often are powerless in our housing system – a system in which landlords and real estate interests are themselves highly organized and well-resourced.
More attention is being paid to tenant circumstances and the need for tenant empowerment as a growing number of tenant households are being impacted by housing challenges, heightened by financialization. Including relentless (and illegal) do not rent lists, unresolved pervasive pest issues, ongoing unchecked rental increases (which incomes cannot keep pace with), renovictions and growing homelessness. These issues are of particular concern as we now have federal legislation that recognizes the Right to Housing (2019), but are lacking the proper mechanisms at each order of government for access to adequate housing. In fact, without working to implement the right to housing, some of our recent federal housing programs have actually worsened unaffordability (due to the vast majority of loans going to private developers instead of non-profits), while many current provincial initiatives are actually in clear violation of the human right to housing. Including functional cuts to income support (i.e. supplementary benefits), cuts to AISH, policy changes to social support (no longer a 30 day warning with changes made), decades of chronic underfunding of supply and demand side housing (social assistance as well as capital projects with non-market housing), cutting off social assistance to recipients without access to a residential address and criminalizing homelessness, Bill 78 and the threat of losing already insufficient non-market housing stock, etc.
While these circumstances are dire, one effective response is tenant organizing – both as a means of building collective power, as well as a self-made mechanism for (potentially) accessing adequate housing.
Our own history of tenant associations dates back at least 100 years provincially and at least 70 years locally including: the Edmonton Tenants’ Protective Association (~1950), Westview Village Tenants Association (~1975), Edmonton Tenants’ Association (1970s – 1980s), the Edmonton and Area Tenants Association (1990s), and Alberta ACORN (2021 –)). While continuity seems to be an ongoing challenge, tenant associations remain incredibly relevant and important mechanisms for tenants – and was one of the key areas for action identified in our Pivot process
As the next event in the AHSL’s ongoing series on the Right to Housing, the AHSL organized a panel to learn about where and how tenants have been organizing and mobilizing across Canada today, to inform tenants about additional possibilities when organizing locally.
Featuring representatives from:
- Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network
- Alberta ACORN
- Herongate Tenant Coalition
- Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario
our invited panelists generously shared their insights from tenant organizing in response to one landlord across a number of primary rental properties, to many landlords (in primary and in some cases, secondary rental suites) at the neighborhood, city, as well as provincial level. Attendees learned about some of the first steps to take toward organizing, ideas and tips on how to engage with neighbors, and how to creatively address inadequate housing needs in a timely and effective way through a collective plan of action.
Although organizing can be incredibly hard, especially while dealing with housing insecurity and precarity, the main message from our speakers was that tenants hold the power when collectively organizing.
– The power of tenants finding common ground and standing together collectively can last over time – when highly organized, tenants are more effective collectively than politicians or the courts.
– An organized movement creates equity for tenants by placing pressure and onus on landlords or housing providers to engage and meaningfully collaborate with tenants. Concern about public image may also increase accountability to tenants.
– Remember you are stronger together – do not try to do anything alone.
While landlords are not legally allowed to retaliate, collectively taking action and voicing concerns together means the landlord is not able to pick on just one person.
Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network (HTSN)
HTSN’s focus was on helping Hamiltonians form tenant associations spurred by widespread concerns such as building disrepair, pests, and discrimination. HTSN’s pillars were direct action, mutual aid, and solidarity and organized an annual city-wide tenant conference and launched a tenant newsletter. Ultimately, the HTSN decided their energies were better spent organizing within their own living circumstances and disbanded in 2021.
Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO)
ACTO’s mandate is to advance human rights in housing for low-income Ontarians by providing legal advice and representation, law reform, community organizing, education, and training. Mandana has been instrumental in organizing neighborhood residents, starting numerous community building initiatives, establishing and coordinating networks and coalitions, and has supported many resident-led groups and associations.
Herongate Tenant Coalition (HTC).
HTC was formed as a response to mass evictions brought about by Hazelview’s plan to redevelop the Herongate community.
ACORN is a community union made up of low and moderate income people. Their mission is to build empowerment for those who typically do not have power in their communities, such as tenants. ACORN is a pan-Canadian organization which launched its first Albertan chapter, Alberta ACORN, in 2022.
Key Learnings from the Panel
I want to organize. Where do I even begin?
It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to organizing. The panelists shared that the best place to start is by talking to those around you. An easy win can be organizing with those that are already vocal about the issues they are experiencing, but it is important to involve everyone. One suggestion was to go door to door to discuss issues that individuals might be experiencing with the building or complex. Having these initial conversations can draw out common ground and concerns that tenants may face.
An initial challenge that may hold some back is a lack of understanding of what is allowed. One panelist shared that in their door knocking experience, many people initially said that they did not have any problems in their home. But, when they came to understand that their situation was illegal or unacceptable, they were more willing to get involved in organizing.
Some may be hesitant to get involved because there is not enough trust established. A panelist shared that trust is especially important in neighbourhoods or buildings with large immigrant populations who may have experienced political oppression in their countries of origin. This may cause a degree of reticence to getting involved in organizing. A casual, friendly approach, plus free food, go a long way to encourage people to get involved. Additionally, creating a presence and visibility of tenant challenges in the rental complex helps to demonstrate the collective care people have for their neighbours.
Does organizing work?
When well-organized, a collective of tenants can be more effective than political action or going through the court. We might have stronger protections today, but these protections can shift over time and become weaker in the future. The power of tenants can put pressure on landlords to engage in a meaningful, collaborative dialogue with their tenants and create a healthier negotiable environment for everyone. One panelist, who lives in Ontario, spoke to the power of organizing against rent increases. When facing a rent increase, one option is to contest the increase in the tribunal system as an individual. This process can take months, and has no guarantee that you will win the case. Working collectively with neighbors to directly engage with the landlord represents an alternative.
Note: in Ontario, the Landlord and Tenant Board sets a yearly cap on the maximum amount that landlords can increase rents by. In Alberta we have no limits on the amount landlords can increase rents, only that increases can only occur for ongoing tenants every 12 months – only rental increases before that time can be contested).
How should I start?
Try talking to 2 or 3 people in your building. These initial conversations could start with a friendly conversation with a neighbor you meet in a shared space in your building, such as the building lobby. Who knows how far a message could spread if each of these 2 or 3 people (including yourself) brings one more person into this conversation? The panelists stressed that striking up a conversation gets easier the more you do it: try just jumping into it by knocking on a neighbor’s door. If you are uncomfortable, ask someone to go with you – be they a friend who might not live in your building, or one of your neighbours.
Having an ask can be helpful when door knocking. For instance, asking for signatures for a petition or letter to the landlord can help focus the conversation and spark ideas about how to respond to issues that tenants are facing.
Where can these small actions take us?
Once you have signatures from interested neighbours, you can share your petition that outlines your concerns and asks to your landlord (i.e. in person at their office). If you do not get a response to your petition, you could try to get media coverage (tv, newspaper, and/or radio) to expose your living conditions. Tenant groups have used additional, oftentimes creative, tactics to draw public attention to landlords who are not fulfilling their duties.
Need more ideas? Reach out to other tenant organizing groups for advice, they will have ideas for you.
Tenant organizing might seem formidable. But engaging in the process together with neighbours as a united front can help. Plus, the next time you are facing an issue in your building, you will be less intimidated and more willing to respond and act together. As well, landlords are not allowed to retaliate. Collectively taking action and voicing concerns together presents a united front and protects individual tenants from being individually targeted.
It is important to note that housing issues are just as critical to address between market rental housing (with primary purpose built rental housing as well as secondary rental housing) and the non-market sector. Despite some small differences (i.e. named as ‘housing provider’), the nature of the landlord/tenant dynamic relationship, and the legal documents that mediate that relationship, are the same. This includes negative concerns, such as evictions (in fact, in Ontario, some social housing providers evicted tenants at the highest rates during the pandemic). Because social housing providers receive public funding, there can often be a lot of concern about public image. Tenants forming independent unions often make non-market landlords more susceptible to pressure, and thus, more accountable to tenants.
Resources & Information:
Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network
Herongate Tenant Coalition
Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario
Herongate – Tips for Organizing / HTSN – Organizing Guides / FMTA – Tenant Organizing Manual / FMTA – Tenant
Association Toolkit / R.E.N.T. – Tenant Organizing Manual / 280 Wellesley St. E. Tenants’ Association – Tenant Organizing Best Practices (Slides)