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3000 Across the country, ACORN tenants are fighting for the same rights - ACORN Canada Across the country, ACORN tenants are fighting for the same rights

Posted August 23, 2023

ACORN President calls the organization a nation-wide tenant union, and says their strength is growing.

What do pest infestations in Scarborough, ON, a broken elevator in New Westminster, BC, and 30 per cent rent hikes in Calgary, AB have in common? Marva Burnett, President of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) Canada, says these are the kinds of issues that will only be resolved if tenants across Canada work collectively to address them.

Burnett started one of their first local groups in Scarborough in order to pressure the building’s landlord to properly manage the pest control. But she says ACORN Canada is a union that represents tenants all across the country.

It is an ambitious concept, taking after labour unions like the Canadian Union of Public Employees or Unifor. Instead of organizing their labour, however, renters organize their demands for adequate and accessible living conditions.

Bringing demands to landlord

One benefit of organizing is that it puts the pressure on landlords to take their tenants’ demands seriously.

Stephanie Haynes started organizing the tenants in her building in Calgary, AB, after their landlord started an intrusive renovation project in spring 2022. The project is shaking countertops and creating “crazy levels of noise,” Haynes said.

It also means tenants had all their windows sealed with plastic during the heat wave this summer, and scaffolding on the side of the building gives people access to break into apartments. In one incident, Haynes noted, a thief climbed up the scaffolding and stole someone’s laptop through the window.

Then, tenants’ rent was increased by an average of 30 per cent, Haynes says.

“I didn’t really know what to do next. Some of my family lives in the same building and we discovered ACORN online,” Haynes recalls. “We were inspired by what we saw. I printed out flyers and did a little covert mission, putting them under people’s doors.”

Out of the 62 residential units in her building, Haynes got 55 of them to sign up to join the building union.

That was around three months ago. Since then, Haynes and her neighbours have drawn up a list of demands for their landlord. Their only win so far is getting security back in the building, Haynes says. But her building union is not planning to give up.

Navigating the landlord-tenant tribunal

Collective organizing may also be the only realistic way for tenants to challenge their landlords in court.

That is what Monica Bhandari and her neighbours did when property managers of Skylines Towers in New Westminster, BC, announced they were applying to impose rent increases on the basis of elevator repair costs.

Bhandari is now the treasurer of ACORN Canada, and helps lead tenant action across BC.

Her building, Skyline Towers, was built in the 70s and has 17 floors, each with four-to-five units. Property management has neglected to keep the elevator in good repair for as long as a decade, Bhandari said – opting for “temporary, miniscule fixes” instead of long lasting repairs.

Bhandari said the elevator has trapped people inside, gotten stuck between floors, and it’s doors have even hit people and caused bruises.

“I’ve lived in this building for just under 10 years. You hear about a number of these issues just through chatting with your neighbors when you’re doing laundry and whatnot,” Bhandari said.

She knocked on her neighbours’ doors and reached out to the people she knew in the building. There was an existing group called the Skyline Towers Tenants’ Union on Facebook. Together, they built a 30-page document containing testimonials, photo evidence, arguments, and incident reports from the city and local fire department.

Failure to properly maintain the elevator over the past decade is what led to the high cost of repairs, the group argued.

Building the case was a group effort, Bhandari emphasized – but most of her neighbours wish to remain totally anonymous for fears that their landlord will retaliate against them.

That is also why presenting their case as a union was crucial, Bhandari said – individuals providing testimonies and evidence could simply identify themselves in the files as a member of the tenant union, without disclosing their name or unit number.

The adjudicator eventually decided in favour of the tenant union. But they do not expect this is the last they will see of unethical behaviour from their landlord, Bhandari said.

Building the case was also taxing on tenants’ time and energy. What kept Bhandari going, she noted, was just thinking to herself: “if I don’t, who the f* else will?”

Legislative campaigns

But in the long run, says Burnett, the solutions to tenant problems lie with policy makers. Otherwise, tackling cases of negligent property management and unfair rent hikes one-by-one is like pushing a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again.

Amongst ACORN’s legislative demands are rent control in every province, limits on how many units a single, private landlord can own, and to halt “renovictions” – a legal way for landlords to evict tenants on the basis of pursuing renovations.

ACORN has held rallies to call on Canada’s Public Sector Pensions Investment Board (PSP) to divest from “exploitative housing.” PSP a landlord at Thorncliffe Park, where tenants have been staging a rent strike since May to protest the landlords’ proposed above-guideline rent increases.

They are also a watchdog on landlords and politicians. An ACORN investigation found in 2021 that every member of Toronto’s city council had accepted donations from people with personal or professional ties to the private development industry.

And Burnett and her colleagues have not been shy when it comes to voicing their complaints. They have barged into city-hall on live television and shown up at Doug Ford’s doorstep in various campaigns demanding for tenants’ rights.

“We have to be optimistic. We have to, if we want to make change,” Burnett said.

Rent may be less affordable and the homelessness crisis may wage on, Burnett says. But tenants’ collective power is growing: “if we want help, we have to learn to help ourselves.”


Article by Georgia Kelly for