Organizing tenants, building solidarity

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Image: Nhl4hamilton  - public domain.

On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Tammy and Alex about the work of the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network. Over the last year and a half, they have been bringing tenants together to fight for better living conditions in their buildings, and their goal is to build a movement of tenants that spans the entire city of Hamilton, Ontario -- including through the conference and tenants assembly they are holding later in April.

In the last while, mainstream media have oscillated between giddiness and concern about Canada's booming housing market, which is driven at least in part by skyrocketing prices in cities like Vancouver and Toronto. The concern end of that spectrum has become impossible to avoid, even for generally unsympathetic commentators, as the negative impacts of these rising housing costs have taken a toll on more and more people. Living in the central urban areas of Vancouver and Toronto has become completely unaffordable for an increasing number of ordinary people, including many who used to live there but now find themselves displaced.

The impacts of these rising housing prices are being felt far beyond Canada's most metropolitan downtowns, however. Take, for instance, Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton is a city of over half a million people just around the end of Lake Ontario from Toronto. It has historically been known for its steel mills and associated industries, and for its vibrant working-class culture, but the erosion of manufacturing in Ontario over the last few decades has hit the city hard. In the last few years, what had been a trickle of arrivals from Toronto seeking housing they could afford became a flood. And, while the arrival of people just looking for a place to live is understandable, what has been much more troubling has been the influx of money -- sources ranging from individual investors and small businesses up to some of the most massive property development and management companies in the country have been treating this as an exciting new opportunity to make a buck. Which, of course, has consequences: just as in Toronto, neighbourhoods have started rapidly changing, rents have been shooting upwards, and people are getting displaced from their homes and communities.

The crisis for tenants in Hamilton had started to hit hard by 2015, and it was at that point that some experienced organizers who were directly impacted by these issues started to get together and talk about what could be done in response. These conversations grew and broadened, and drew in a larger pool of people, and eventually the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network took shape.

The network consists of tenants supporting each other as they work together to build collective power within their buildings, in order to make concrete improvements in their living conditions. Often, the first step in organizing a building is to bring as many tenants as possible together to talk about the issues they face. Issues of concern to tenants so far have included rent levels, bed bugs, lack of accessibility ramps, poor condition of the units, harassment from landlords, and more. Along the way, it is also important to challenge head-on any divisions that already exist among tenants, along lines of racism and sexism and homophobia, which landlords often deliberately enflame. Then, it's a matter of figuring out what demands to make and how to make them.

Sometimes taking action might mean going to the Landlord and Tenant Board or to other government bodies, and the network has a strong working relationship with the local community legal clinic that facilitates doing so. But a key goal of organizers within the network is to make sure everyone is aware of other possibilities for taking action together as well -- acting collectively, confrontationally, and publically in a way that builds solidarity among tenants and that doesn't depend for its results on hoping that an often reluctant and biased bureaucracy will act to support tenants. From collectively and publically presenting demands to landlords, to phone zaps, to pickets, and on up to rent strikes, it is from these sorts of experiences of tenants taking action for themselves that the network ultimately hopes to build not only committees or associations in individual buildings, but a fighting tenants movement at the level of neighbourhoods and of the entire city.

Tammy and Alex are both tenants who live in Hamilton. They talk with me about gentrification and the other pressures on tenants in the city, about what the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network is doing to fight back, and about the conference and tenants assembly they have planned for the end of April.

You can learn more about the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for this post was originally taken by Nhl4hamilton and is in the public domain.

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