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The London Free Press: ANALYSIS - Soaring rents, bureaucratic hurdles fuelling tenant rallies - ACORN Canada

The London Free Press: ANALYSIS – Soaring rents, bureaucratic hurdles fuelling tenant rallies

Posted August 10, 2023

Tenants of Old Oak Properties apartments on Adelaide Street North march from Victoria Park to Old Oak Properties headquarters on Dufferin Avenue on Aug. 2, 2023, to protest what they say is a disturbing pattern of disrepair, mismanagement and harassment from their landlord. (Derek Ruttan/London Free Press)

Two in the past week and almost a dozen in the past year – rallies of tenants with signs demanding change from London landlords and politicians have become common in the city.

Only a few years ago, the only methods tenants used to complain about their landlords were official city hall complaints and occasional calls to the media.

So what’s changed, and are new tactics making a difference?

Conditions have worsened for many London tenants, because of rising rents and a few large, greedy landlords, says Jacqueline Thompson, executive director of LifeSpin, an organization working for low-income Londoners.

Many landlords are good but some property management companies of larger buildings see profits in letting units deteroriate, she said.

“They want the properties to deteriorate so people leave, they can fix the units up and charge higher rents,” Thompson said.

Because there are so few reasonably priced places to go, tenants are stuck in worsening conditions, she said.

“If you’re paying $900 a month and it’ s crappy, you don’t want to rock the boat because it’s $1,500 a month somewhere else.”

Thompson has spent years pushing the city to do more for tenants living in substandard conditions, and LifeSpin has long helped individuals navigate the city’s property complaints system.

It’s a system that doesn’t allow tenants to file anonymous complaints, creating a barrier that has only grown, she said.

“The housing prices have silenced a lot of people from speaking out about their conditions. Tenants are afraid if they speak out that they will lose their housing, and they cannot afford to re-house, because of the price of the rents.”

The city of London’s website makes it clear that the burden of identifying a problem in a unit and getting changes rests on the tenant.

The tenant must file a complaint to the property manager or landlord, and keep proof of any communication for later – in case city officials require it. If that doesn’t work, a tenant can email the city and provide personal information, address and “all the information requested by staff.”

If the city agrees the complaint is valid, compliance staff will contact a tenant within a few days, and “if appropriate,” arrange for an inspector to schedule a visit to the unit.

City staff will inform the property owner of repairs needed and the tenant is expected to follow up with the city about the status of repairs.

The holes in that system became most apparent in February 2020 when three young women from India were pulled out of the burning house at 1281 Hillcrest Ave., through a basement window by two neighbours. Twelve others escaped from the crowded house.

Neighbours told The Free Press at the time they had complained to the city about conditions there, but it seems unlikely any of the tenants did.

City officials refuse to say anything about the property complaints, their post-fire inspection of the property and what, if any repercussions, the landlords of the building faced.

Tenant advocates and some city councillors have pushed for an inspection system like Toronto’s, where buildings are evaluated every three years regardless of complaints.

In 2022, council and city hall staff rejected that kind of system, leaving London’s to be based on complaints.

Weighing in on the debate last year were the relatively new London tenant landlord task force, created in response to ongoing complaints about property issues.

The task force has accomplished some measures, and has brought forward concerns about specific buildings to city officials for targeted inspections, said Thompson, one of the task force members.

But there are no minutes taken to record or evaluate measures, no council representative on the task force to advocate with colleagues for any measures, no meetings this year from May to September, she said.

The task force also drafted a new website to make it easier for people to file complaints, but the website never materialized, she said.

Given the bureaucracy and secrecy facing Londoners, it’s no wonder a group like ACORN has taken root in London.

The national grassroots organization advocating for low-income Canadians has had a presence in London for about a decade, but received relatively little public and media attention until the past few years, as rent increases and property concerns rose.

Melissa Chambers, one of at least 20 tenants at 1270 and 1280 Webster St. in London who have received eviction notices from their landlord, speaks at a rally for tenants at the buildings on Friday, May 12, 2023. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

The local rallies and protests seem to have grown in number, with the potential renoviction of tenants on Webster Street this year galvanizing political attention and giving ACORN an even higher profile.

The individual protests draw attention to immediate problems at specific locations, said Jordan Smith of the London chapter of ACORN.

“The protests bridge that gap between what’s actually happening, how these tenants are being treated, and the public at large.”

But there are long term goals as well, Smith said.

“Once we get public awareness and the media presence, we’re able to then apply pressure to our governments, municipal, provincial and nationally as well. It’s to help the city understand the scale at which tenants are being abused.”

City hall has good people working to help tenants, but it’s still a bureaucracy, where progress comes slowly, Smith said.

“The reality of the bigger picture is city hall tries to look good with minimal effort and not really addressing anything. There’s a real disconnect between the reality of poor and working class people in London, and how much the city is aware of these issues,” he said.

But, with the protests, “We are gaining ground with them,” Smith said.

ACORN does more than organize tenant rallies. The organization provides information to city staff and council when issues come up.

“We’re just trying to solve these systemic issues, and to prevent things from falling apart, protecting the vulnerable,” Smith said.

The protests have value in bringing the issues to public attention, Thompson said.

They also send a message to landlords, she said.

“If they are bringing together tenants from one building, it sends a message to management that people are listening to each other. It’s good to have property management realize people are upset and considering joint action.”

But until the system changes, tenants can protest all they want, but they still have to do the paperwork, Thompson said.

“Protests will help bring attention to the issues but if you want something done, youve got to file those complaints. Write letters, take photos, keep copies,” she said.

That last point is key, Thompson said. Many large companies have online portals for filing complaints, but when a tenant does that, there’s no paper copy for backup.

That’s a problem tenants at the centre of recent protests have found – the company denies receiving complaints and is trying to prevent ACORN from contacting tenants, Smith said.

That’s yet another reason to mobilize tenants and raise public awareness, he said.

“If companies are allowed to continue behaving like this, without any accountability, we’re on the precipice of a disaster that it’s going to be so much more than it already is, if we don’t send a clear message that this is unacceptable.”

The impact of high rents and substandard housing is reaching middle class neighbourhoods, Thompson said.

She know of several families who can’t afford apartments banding together to rent houses, with adults getting the bedrooms and kids sleeping on couches and living room floors, she said.

LifeSpin knows of one home that has 30 people using it as their address, although they may not be living there, she said.

“It is probably totally illegal but people do what they’ve got to do. It looks like an ordinary middle-class home. As long as they don’t get complaints from the neighbours, they’re probably fine,” she said.

But it might make more Londoners take notice of tenant problems, and tenant protests.

“We’re creating a system of private shelters,” Thompson said.

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Article by Randy Richmond for The London Free Press