Last week, Toronto’s City Council finally agreed that Toronto’s landlords should be licensed.
ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) Canada has been one of the groups organizing around this issue. What does this win mean for tenants and for us? Activist Toolkit interviewed Kemba Richardson, Chairperson for the Jane Finch, York West Chapter of ACORN
Kemba Richardson got involved in ACORN because of a fight she and her fellow tenants should have won. The barriers tenants faced when fighting for their basic rights highlighted the inadequacies of the tenants’ rights regime which existed in Toronto. After fighting doggedly for more than a decade, Toronto ACORN and tenants’ rights advocates have finally substantially changed the tenants’ rights regime.
Activist Toolkit (AT): How did you get involved in ACORN?
Kemba Richardson: I live in an apartment building near Jane and Finch which has 23 floors and about 20 units per floor. For years, many of us had been reporting problems to our landlord. In many apartments, the sliding doors were not closing properly and this meant wind would come in during the winter. The heat was inadequate so people had to wear their sweatpants, sweatshirts and sometimes even winter coats indoors to keep warm. The elevators were not working properly. Most of us had no cold water, and the water pressure on the top floors was inadequate. Apartments had cockroaches, bed bugs and things of that nature.
We pay our rent every month and these are basic things — heat, water, infestations — and should be taken care of by the landlord as part of the rental contract. We were not asking for extras.
Finally, my landlord decided to fix all the issues collectively. He petitioned for what is called in Toronto an ‘above the guideline rent increase’ where the landlord would petition the Landlord and Tenants Board for the amount of money he spent fixing the building. That way he would put a percentage on each tenant’s rent to recoup the money he spent to fix the building.
AT: How did you start working together to organize?
Kemba Richardson: ACORN and another organization called the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations (FMTA) contacted us. They gave us some information about how we could fight the landlord and get all that we were requesting.
Unfortunately, we did not get as much of a decrease on the percentage as we were hoping for and the landlord got most of what he was asking for. However, we did go to court, we did show that collectively we disagreed with the landlord’s petition because it was unfair. It was unfair that we had so many issues accumulate in the building, that he had refused to fix them, and then, when he did fix them collectively, the court approved an above the guideline rent increase.
AT: How did you deepen your engagement with ACORN?
Kemba Richardson: After that, a few weeks after the case was over, a representative from ACORN knocked on my door and explained to me what they do and asked me if I would like to get involved. I said “Yes, I would like to get involved because what they’re doing to tenants in Toronto is unfair and we need to fight against that.” I joined that day and have been working with ACORN ever since.
When I went to the first leadership meeting, that was my first time going, they showed to deal with issues that the collectivity of people is having and complaining about. When you find people that have the same issue that you are experiencing, then you can get together, and there is always strength in numbers. They teach you how to organize yourself, how to connect and engage others, and how to motivate people to get results.
AT: Tell me about the win last week at City Hall, about Landlord Licencing?
Kemba Richardson: We at ACORN had been fighting for Landlord licensing in the city of Toronto for 12 years, since 2004, before I even got involved with ACORN. We did not win back then.
What did result from that fight was a program called Multi-Residential Apartment Building audit program or MRAB. Under MRAB, the city would send out inspectors if they had enough calls from people in a certain building on a certain issue. The inspectors would be in the lobby and encourage tenants to come down and speak with them to say what was going on in their building. Then the city would inspect the common areas, such as the laundry room, hallways, the boiler room and electrical systems to make sure they were working properly.
However, MRAB didn’t go far enough because people were still having problems and the question remained how can a person operate a business in the City of Toronto without being licensed? No other business is allowed to operate without a license, so why should landlords, who are operating a tenant business, be able to operate without a license. We were going for landlord licensing to license the landlords so that they would be held accountable for the issues that tenants were having.
AT: What does this mean as a change for tenants’ rights in Toronto?
Kemba Richardson: Tenants’ rights in Toronto are being trampled on in more ways than one, left, right, and centre. There is no way for a tenant, really and truly, to fight a landlord unless they go to court. A lot of times tenants live paycheck to paycheck, they can’t afford to take a day off to fight a landlord. They are greatly at a disadvantage.
With this landlord licensing, when the tenant has a issue, s(he) has to fill out a work order and give the landlord time to get around to fixing the issue. If the issue is not addressed in a timely fashion, then the city of Toronto has a program that’s called 311. You call there, you file a complaint, and then they send out an inspector. Now, if the landlord had more than enough time to address the issue then s(he) will be faced with an extremely high fine. That’s exactly what we wanted and that’s exactly what we got.
With most businesses, unless you attack their bottom line which is their profit, they don’t care. They don’t give any importance to your complaint. Therefore, we wanted to increase the fines that landlords will pay when they don’t address an issue that is basic to their responsibility as a landlord.
If you are living with cockroaches, if your sleeping or your kids are sleeping, and you are waking up with bedbug bites all over your bodies, it is not only painful and embarrassing. A lot of people feel stigmatized that they’re poor or their underclass, when they are living with certain conditions, so they don’t want the outside world to know. It is embarrassing because you don’t want to bring company over and cockroaches are running across your floor, right? These are things that tenants are living with, these are things that tenants feel helpless about. They can fill out work order after work order and nobody will come and fix the issue.
Therefore, we at ACORN have to go and fight for this. You are paying your rent every first of the month, you’re supposed to have the basic standard of living that the landlords are supposed to provide. That’s what ACORN fought for, that’s what we won yesterday and we are so excited.
AT: What are you going to take on next?
Kemba Richardson: Some of the campaigns that we are talking about are the hydro campaign because right now, what is prevalent in the city, is tenants paying their own hydro, which means they have to pay their own electricity. If you are in a building for more than five years you are exempt from having to pay your own electricity because electricity was included in your rent. Now if you move from one apartment to the other, even if it is in the same building, you are then responsible for your own hydro and the rent is not decreased, so you are now incurring the cost of hydro plus your high rent. Hydro is another big campaign that we are fighting for.
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