By Sahar Ashraf
Parkdale residents are fighting back against their buildings’ management company, MetCap Living, and calling for a community wide rent strike on May 1. Tenants living in MetCap buildings are demanding an immediate improvement to their living conditions and an end to illegitimate rent increases.
MetCap manages a total of 19 buildings in Parkdale, five of which are facing considerable rent increases in the coming months. The Residential Tenancies Act limits rent increases to the rate of inflation, currently at 1.5%. A loophole in the Act, however, allows landlords to petition the Landlord and Tenant Board for an Above the Guideline Increase (AGI) if they ‘carry out a specified capital expenditure.’ To qualify for an AGI, landlords allow their buildings to deteriorate so that the court approves the ‘capital expenditure’ for repairs.
Last summer, tenants of 87 Jameson were notified that their rent will increase to cover the cost of MetCap’s low-grade balcony improvements, amongst other hasty renovations. Meanwhile, management has continuously ignored more pressing maintenance requests made by individual units that affect tenants’ day-to-day needs.
Tenants began talking to their neighbors and quickly realized that many could not afford the AGI and that several units were in dire need of repair. In her 40 years as a resident, Diane Ragaram saw her rent increase from $150 in 1977 to $1000 in 2017, while average wages in Canada have remained stagnant or even fallen over the past four decades. Some tenants were empowered and enraged enough to go door to door and walk around their community to unite others who were also interested in fighting back.
When looking into their rights, tenants learned that they could fight against the AGI in court as a collective. However, if they wanted their units to be repaired, they would need to individually bring their cases to court.
“It’s a way to divide us,” said Alykhan Pabani, a resident of 87 Jameson. “No one wants to go through the process by themselves because they’re too low-income to afford a lawyer, or they work too much to put in the time, or English is their second language.”
But the tenants got to work with the resources they had. They petitioned 50% of the units to apply for a city grant which provides $1000 for tenants seeking to collectively dispute rent increases in court. They knew the odds were stacked against them, and worried that the grant’s limited financial means would not secure proficient legal representation.
“I have never in my experience—and I’ve been doing this for 15 years— seen a landlord not get a rent increase, unfortunately,” said Vic Natola, a representative from Parkdale Community Legal Services at a planning meeting held by Parkdale Organize.
In court, tenants faced ruthless opposition. Brent Merrill, the CEO of MetCap, bluntly told CTV that the property management only prioritizes profit. “I just want a fair return on the money I invested,” he said. Alberta Investment Management Corp, who partially own the building and is pushing for AGIs through MetCap, endorsed the exploitation and told The Toronto Star they “are pleased with the quality of management provided by MetCap.”
A mediation to dispute the AGI for units in 87 Jameson was scheduled for February 8. The tenants collectively decided that the best way to pressure the Landlord and Tenant Board to disqualify the AGI was to organize a rent strike leading up to the hearing. On February 1, 20 of the 90 units in 87 Jameson unilaterally refused to pay rent.
In a resolute display of opposition to the rent increase, the Parkdale community rallied outside the Board on the day of the mediation. An agreement could not be reached, but their struggle received widespread media attention. It emboldened tenants of other MetCap buildings to fight, and more and more began attending planning meetings in libraries and churches. On March 16, they took their fight directly to MetCap with a box of dozens of repair orders. Over 70 people crammed into the management office’s lobby, only to be locked out and refused a meeting.
A hearing for 87 Jameson’s AGI is scheduled for June, but the Parkdale community’s united and systematic resistance to the exploitation has already made significant gains. The very public affair has shamed MetCap into making substantive repairs to units it had neglected for years. It also sowed seeds of anger amongst tenants in other buildings who have been affected by MetCap’s deliberate mismanagement.
Tsering Lhundup, a resident of 32 Maynard, father of four and sole breadwinner of his family, was one of the tenants inspired by the work of his neighbors at 87 Jameson.
“We have a large Tibetan community in Parkdale,” said Tsering. “Lots of immigrants came and started their lives here. They settled down and improved Parkdale for 15 years and now this integration is coming to pieces.”
Tibetan immigrants have been integral to the growth and success of Parkdale, and the city is thanking them by making housing so unaffordable that they have to leave their homes. Tsering is determined to protect everything he has worked for, and makes the time to actively participate in weekly organizing meetings and convince others from his community to join the struggle. By meeting frequently, tenants are able to get on the same page about exactly what they are up against.
They now know, for instance, that MetCap is trying to economically evict them by constantly increasing rent above the guideline, ignoring maintenance requests, shutting down water repeatedly, letting heat get so low that tenants have to call the city to complain, and forcing tenants with disabilities to crawl up the stairs by refusing to make their buildings accessible. Once tenants are terrorized into evacuating, MetCap makes minor renovations to their units so they can increase rent by hundreds of dollars for new tenants.
Tenants also know now that the system is set up against them. Slumlord policies by the government have enabled corporate landlords to exploit their tenants’ safety and comfort for their own profit. Meanwhile, even in the face of such tyranny, the courts blindly approve the abuse, while declaring that the tenants’ decision to resist the abuse through a rent strike is illegal.
Parkdale tenants are now fighting for themselves outside of a system that denies them protection. Once they strike on May 1, they will have 14 days until MetCap may apply to evict them. And the corporation is terrified.
Out of desperation, MetCap is using petty intimidation tactics to try and subdue tenants who are rising up against them. Tenants all over Parkdale are proudly showcasing their support for the rent strike by displaying banners in their windows and on their balconies. MetCap sends notices, or property managers like Darren Shaw, to scare them into taking the banners down. But they cannot seem to shake the resolve of the tenants.
When two women from 135 Tyndall, Barb and Daphne, were instructed to clear their windows by noon the next day, their neighbors showed up in the morning to defend them and make sure they were not bullied by MetCap into do anything they did not want to.
Parkdale is one of the last communities standing up against gentrification in Toronto, and they are not fighting just for themselves. Tenants have a number of mobilizations planned throughout the month of May, and they hope to walk side by side with people from every neighborhood suffering from the housing crisis
“We feel like we’re trailblazing for other communities,” said Aliza Kassam. “We feel like we know the pain that people in Scarborough and Rexdale are facing. We want to let them know that we’re here if they need support. We can’t be afraid of corporations. The city is becoming completely inaccessible, especially for women, minorities and millennials.”
The neighbourhood-wide rent strike in Parkdale serves as an inspiration for all working class communities in Toronto and beyond. We should not have to choose between buying groceries and paying rent. Parkdale tenants are showing us all that if we organize, work as a collective and fight back, anything is possible. We are not alone in our struggles.