Member Blog: Tenants deserve a safe and decent place to live

Posted December 5, 2019

This is a blog post written by Toronto ACORN member and East York ACORN Chair Alejandra Ruiz Vargas

We decided to write this blog because we want to tell the stories of ACORN members who have been suffering because of substandard housing conditions.  ACORN Canada or Association of Community Organization for Reform Now is an independent national organization of low- and moderate-income families. ACORN members fought for and won the RentSafe Toronto, a landlord registration program which seeks to make landlords more accountable. The city council had a discussion about the program, two years after the bylaw came into force in 2017. As ACORN members who deeply own this program, wanted to see if the program has actually been implemented because we strongly believe that proactive inspections work!
We contacted our members at 500 Dawes Road, rings a bell? You are right, it won the title of being the worst building in Toronto in 2018. Previous to this blog, we did a survey to which 107 low income tenants responded and not surprisingly, the findings were shocking.  One-third tenants reported seeing cockroaches every day and almost the same number reported having bed bugs in the last two years. To read more about the report and history of RentSafe program, here is the link.
It was precisely these reasons that we fought for a landlord registration program and now we wanted to know if it worked. So we headed out to meet Gabriella. Gabriella wasn’t very sure if she should allow us to use her name for fear of retaliation by her landlord. We asked her if she had noticed any changes in her building in the last two years. She shared that the building management cleaned the carpet in the lobby area twice in the last 18 months which was never the case earlier. She also said that she is happy to see that the management is finally picking up the garbage in the morning that some tenants throw from their balconies at night. The building also has a notification board. 
We were happy to note these changes but soon Gabriela shared a list of concerns.  During the month of January this year, the building got flooded, considerably damaging the floor of the lobby which was fixed using new and old tiles. However, the worst was yet to come, when she said, “in the summer I got trapped in the bathroom, because the door swelled so much that I wasn’t able to open it. I screamed from the top of my lungs - please somebody help me, help me, but nobody came”. She thought because her apartment was close to the superintendent’s office, probably someone will be able to hear her voice. Finally, when no one came, she hit the door with a plunger and made a hole so that she could make her way out. After this horrifying experience, she went to tell the story to the superintendent who replied, “its tough, somebody had a rough night”. Anyway! She then asked for a new door and until now no one has come to fix her door. Gabriela has put a plastic over the door to give it a little bit of privacy. Then she told us about the experience with bedbugs. “Now I want to talk about bed bugs. My son was eaten alive because of bed bugs. I contacted my management about it. And my husband and I prepared the place for the spray. When the person came to spray with a little bottle, he was looking like a random guy, not a certified technician, he told me that he will be back in two weeks but he showed up in three, and my family and I had to live with all the furniture and things in disarrangement. It wasn’t easy and the bed bugs never stopped”. She then decided to do it herself.
We tried to explain to Gabriela that all this is her landlord’s responsibilities, but she replied that she decided to do it because it was inexpensive. Is that the point? Not at all. Landlords are getting away with far too much protection as they are all powerful. Rents are too expensive and there are no real protections for city tenants. 
Gabriela was very excited that her story is being told and someone somewhere is listening! 
We did another couple of calls and spoke to another tenant who didn’t want to their name to be shared to avoid any trouble with the management. The tenant shared that the roof was leaking in the entire building. The other day there was a fire incident, the firefighters came to extinguish it but the water came into the tenant’s walls. Even today, the walls are wet. Asked if they shared it with anyone or made a call to 311, the answer was: no one is listening, nothing is going to change. The tenant is surprised that the building is not falling apart. 
Unfortunately, there are too many people in similar or worse situations. They have lost faith in the authorities because of several years of neglect, abuse, lack of respect and discrimination. We need to keep our eyes and ears open as responsible and vigilant citizens. It was for this reason that I joined ACORN. Remember that as tenants we have rights, no matter from where are you coming from, or who you are. We have responsibilities as well, but Landlords too, and the city needs to enforce the rules. Last week, we fought for changes to make the RentSafe program more effective. The city council voted unanimously for all the recommendations we gave to improve the program. Along the lines of DineSafe, we will now have a system where buildings will be rated using colour coding. AS ACORN members, we will continue our fight for affordable and healthy homes. We are not looking for luxury, we only want a safe and decent place to live, a life with dignity. Is that too much to ask? 
Have a peaceful day.
Alejandra Ruiz Vargas
East York Chair, ACORN

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