Toronto Tenants Vote

A local campaign to promote the electoral rights of Toronto tenants.

NOW Magazine: Voices in the void

Oct 1st, 2010 by Ellie Kinzer in the NOW Magazine Toronto

The emergency meeting of One-Toronto that brought 300 to the Church of the Holy Trinity Monday night, September 27, was both gratifying and slightly impossiblist.

The proceedings, which moved with military precision and no audience participation (save a Tabby Johnson singalong), were geared to reframing the current election debate. Backed by a coalition of labour, arts, enviro and social justice groups, OneToronto is dedicated to a vision of the city that “builds on its successes, cares for its neighbours, protects the environment and values community.”

So far, so good.

Chair John McGrath tells the enthusiastic crowd that he’s troubled by the negativity in the campaign. “There’s too much no and not enough yes,” he says, laying out OneToronto’s terms: “We won’t be endorsing any candidate; we want candidates to come to us to adopt our approach.”

Then a roster of impressive activists takes to the stage. Tam Goossen makes a pitch for pushing diversity issues, and Toronto Environmental Alliance’s Franz Hartmann says people have bought into the notion that something is terribly wrong with our city, but there are huge strengths we have to build on.

Annie Kidder scores thunderous clapping when she warns, “Beware of those who want to cut the fat from the system: one man’s or woman’s fat may be another’s flesh and bones.”

Prince Waifeh, an Acorn member, says, “Politicians ignore low-income people, so low-income people are ignoring the politicians.... We have to talk about issues that really matter.”

And former mayor David Crombie offers eloquent pleas for grassroots processes and reminisces about his youthful fight to save this very church, stressing that “the public has to be the push behind City Hall.”

Believe me, I really want to get excited, but my engines, I’m afraid, are starting to sputter. Animator-in-chief Jack Blum of REEL Canada urges the repetition “until you’re sick of it” of the following: 1) Facts, not fury. 2) Protect what’s great about the city. 3) My city includes everybody.

The idea is to ask candidates these questions: how would they tackle climate change, improve city services, invest in communities and further equity and diversity?

Everyone is told to write letters to editors, send video clips to OneToronto’s YouTube channel (onetoronto.ca), tweet messages to the site and text five friends to get them to email questions to candidates.

“We want to get more voices out there than the ones we hear,” says McGrath. Suddenly, sparks of light flicker through the sanctuary as cellphones get turned on for the networking effort.

Here’s my problem. I love all the stuff where people find each other online and feel all mass-movementish. Still, if the purpose is to thump Rob Ford, folks in this room contacting five of their buddies isn’t really going to be that effective, if you see what I mean.

More importantly, I’m not sure whether this crowd under the vaulted ceiling realizes what mix-and-match policy weirdness there is in this election. The David Miller legacy (if we dare use the word), though unacknowledged, hangs in the atmosphere.

So amidst all the chatter on fiscal responsibility and value for tax dollars, you’ll see even conservative-minded candidates, Fordists excluded, scraping together positions on OneToronto’s four concerns. It’s happening on the ward level, too. But while you can ask the four questions, what are the correct answers?

All mayoral hopefuls – minus Ford, who sticks rigidly to script – appear to favour the priority area plan and the liveable city. Conservative Sarah Thomson (no longer a candidate) pushes radical road tolls. Right-wing Rocco Rossi now likes bike lanes and wants to dramatically increase arts funding. George Smitherman’s got the Green Energy Act covered, but he’s also put privatizing garbage service on the table, and a tax freeze.

The truth, it seems, is more than a few questions away. But beyond references to the “values we share,” policy fine points aren’t a big item in the pews tonight. It’s all cozy and fun, but I’m really not sure we’ve made much headway.

Eye Weekly: Inconvenient vote

August 18th, 2010 by Chris Bilton - Eye Weekly

How do you get the half of Torontonians who don’t own property to actually vote?

There are over 250 candidates running for either mayoral or councillor positions in the municipal election, and yet we only really hear about a handful of prominent players (and far too much about Rob Ford). But this disproportionate coverage seems even more out of whack considering how little attention is paid to the upcoming election’s largest pool of players: the nearly 1.5 million voters.

In particular, tenants — and especially tenants in low-income housing — tend to get overlooked during election campaigns. Some tenants have even gone without having a reasonable place to cast their vote. This problem is more or less systemic, rooted in the fact that tenants are, by the very fact of their tenancy, one step removed from the political process — homeowners have a direct interest in voting during a municipal election since whomever wins will be determining financial realities like property taxes and utilities. Tenants, on the other hand, pay these same fees through a middleman: their landlord. That tenants have a disturbingly lower voter turnout than the rest of the city is almost secondary to the idea that they don’t really get a fair chance to vote.

But since approximately half of potential Toronto voters are tenants, the large problem is relatively simple to target. In the 2010 election, the city hopes to have 647 polling stations serving high-rise buildings (about 43 per cent of the total number of stations), some inside the buildings they serve and none more than 800 feet from them. The total number of stations, however, is actually down from previous years, due to a new accessibility requirement for voting locations (one that’s meant to eliminate barriers like stairs at entrances, etc.). Some groups think we need to do better.

Late last month, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Canada (ACORN Canada) was at City Hall calling for more polling stations in high-rise apartment buildings, citing Ontario voting regulations that state that any building with more than 100 units can have its own polling station. This is residual outrage from February’s provincial by-election, during which there were only three polling stations among the 18 buildings of St. James Town (serving around 10,000 potential voters). Combined with the nagging feeling of neglect that plagues low-income tenants during the municipal election season, this recent example of unfairness perfectly underlines ACORN’s year-old Tenants Vote 2010 campaign, which is raising awareness not only about how important it is for tenants to vote, but how much power a group comprised of half the city’s voters can actually wield.

Of course, the provincial regulation doesn’t apply to municipal elections. Instead, the similarly worded Toronto rulebook says that landlords must provide the space if the city clerk wants to put a polling station in their building. So why doesn’t the city clerk request polling stations in more high-rise buildings?

ACORN member Natalie Hundt, says that the elections office has a goal of adding more polling stations, but can’t do it right now, though they are not forthcoming with the information about what the current barriers are. “They said the funding was not available, but that they wouldn’t be able to share the information about why not — not until after the 2010 election,” she explains.

According to Janet Andrews at Elections Toronto, it’s not quite that simple. Since we are only about two months away from the election, even if they wanted to add more polling stations, there is no way to get more tabulation machines in time. What the department, and especially its newish outreach unit, has been doing instead is focusing on trying to make the election and information about the election more accessible. Over the past year, they, like ACORN, have been raising awareness in low-income areas: partnering with Toronto Community Housing to  go out and actively engage residents in the hows and whys of voting. They’ve made voter registration forms available in buildings and trained staff to help people fill and file them.

This grassroots effort to get tenants registered is essentially the first step forward after the two steps back in 1999, when door-to-door voter registration was scrapped and the whole process was handed off to the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation. They’ve been good at keeping homeowners on the voting list (they deal directly with anyone who buys a home), but terrible at ensuring tenants get the same attention. This is, of course, a painfully familiar tale of a big government organization taking over, whose ineffectiveness forces the city to create a new mini-organization to pick up their slack. At least the elections office is moving in the right direction, even partnering with ACORN to focus on more improvements for the 2014 election.

Supposing that the city is successful in encouraging more people to get involved in this municipal election and ensuring that they have a place to do so, it will only be a matter of time before voters — even tenant voters — will begin to reclaim the attention they deserve.

Original article at: http://www.eyeweekly.com/city/municipal%20affairs%20desk/article/99640--...

Put polling stations in high rise buildings

July 15th - Toronto ACORN members are holding an action at city hall to draw attention to the need for greater accessibility to polling locations in high rise buildings in the upcoming municipal election. 

We are calling on election officials to utilize their power under Section 13.4 of the Ontario Elections Act and place polling stations in all buildings containing 100 or more units where accessible space is available.

Providing increased accessibility in large buildings by providing polling stations is another tool election officials have to help address the endemic low voter turnout in these polls. 

ACORN member Cathy Birch who uses a scooter expresses her reliance on a polling station in her building, saying:

“I live in a building with 300 units and if there wasn’t a polling station I just wouldn’t vote.  There are too many places that are not accessible.  To get in and out of a place that has stairs is impossible, and that essentially takes away my ability to vote.”

ACORN member and St. Jamestown resident Edward Lantz comments:

“They just had a by-election in my riding.  My building has over 400 units and didn’t have it’s own polling station, none of the buildings here did and we have 30,000 people living here.  A lot of people didn’t even know there was an election.”

This event is part of Toronto ACORN’s “Tenants Vote 2010” campaign.  This campaign is working to increase the tenant voter participation rates in areas with high concentrations of low income renters in the upcoming municipal election.

Toronto ACORN win on polling stations

July 25th - Members of Toronto ACORN met with the director of elections for the City of Toronto last week over concerns about the accessibility of polling places in low income neighbourhoods in Toronto.

At the meeting he committed to dramatically increasing the number of high rise building that would have their own polling stations.  The City now hopes to have polling stations in 647 of the high rise buildings with more than 100 units, and that no polling place should be more than 800 feet from a high rise.

This meeting followed an action at City Hall in early July where tenants voiced their concern the City wasn’t doing enough to ensure that high rise tenants would have the same level of access to polling places that are found in many condo towers.

Globe and Mail: Councillors move to get renters to the polls

July 16th, 2010 by Kelly Grant - Globe and Mail

For council speaker Sandra Bussin, the scale of tenant disenfranchisement in Toronto hit home at Hanson House, a seniors complex near Coxwell Avenue and Hanson Street.

The entire building was accidentally dropped from the rolls a few elections back, she said.

The situation wasn’t much better at the Alexandra Park public-housing complex in Councillor Adam Vaughan’s downtown ward in 2006.

“When the polls opened three hours late on election day,” he said, “there were four names on the list.”

Toronto City Council and local election officials are determined not to leave renters out of the 2010 election. But they face an uphill battle adding tenants to a voters list riddled with errors and omissions.

“Right now, the likelihood that a tenant is on the list is virtually zero,” said Ms. Bussin, councillor for Ward 32 Beaches-East York.

Council voted last week to direct the city manager’s office to launch an aggressive outreach campaign in apartments and condos.

Achieving that proved difficult – the city clerk’s office, which oversees municipal elections, presented an outside legal opinion that concluded council couldn’t tell the clerk what to do on an election matter.

After hours of passionate debate, council found a loophole and asked the city manager’s office to build on the efforts of the clerk’s office, which is already working with tenant groups and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation to pump voter turnout beyond a dismal 38.9 per cent in 2003 and 39.3 per cent in 2006.

“What the clerk’s department said was for us to advocate on behalf of tenants is for politicians to interfere with the electoral process and that that would put the entire election in jeopardy,” Mr. Vaughan said. “If someone wants to overturn the results of the election because we made an extra effort to enumerate tenants, we think there’s not a judge in the country that would buy that.”

Renters have tumbled through gaps in the system since 1999, when Queen’s Park farmed enumeration out to the newly created Municipal Property Assessment Corporation and killed the old-fashioned, door-to-door voter registration drive.

Mistakes plague MPAC’s preliminary voters lists across the province, but the problem is especially acute in Toronto, where half of all residents rent and many don’t speak enough English to fill out the paperwork properly.

Whereas owners are added to the voters’ list when they buy a home or business, renters have to rely on the owner of their building to send their names to MPAC.

Assuming that list is correct, MPAC mails an occupancy form to the tenant. Owners receive the same form when they buy. Fifty per cent of homeowners return the form; only 20 per cent of tenants do, said Janet Andrews, Toronto’s manger of elections and registry services.

Like all eligible voters, tenants can still cast a ballot by presenting valid identification and proof of address at a polling place – assuming they can find the correct station.

That’s why ACORN, the controversial activist group, is pushing for Toronto to put polling stations in every building with more than 100 units. “It’s more convenient for people to go into their lobbies,” said Edward Lantz, an ACORN board member and chair of the St. Jamestown chapter, one of seven in Toronto. “We don’t want anybody to get left behind.”

Ms. Andrews called that idea cost-prohibitive in a city with 5,000 residential buildings five storeys or taller. Extra polling stations cost about $8,500 a pop: $8,000 for a new vote-tabulating machine and a minimum of $500 for staff.

Using census data and poll-by-poll counts, Ryerson University professor Myer Siemiatycki found that the percentage of tenants had no impact on voter turnout in 2003 and a slightly positive effect on turnout in 2006. In other words, places with a high concentration of renters actually boasted a voter turnout slightly higher than the average in the last election.

“Until very recently, one of the stock assumptions in the municipal arena was tenants vote at a much lower rate than homeowners,” he said. “The data over the last couple of elections shows that’s a myth. Tenants do vote and they need to be enumerated.”

Inside Toronto: ACORN members call for more apartment polling stations

July 15th, 2010 by Mike Adler - Inside Toronto

For those who find it hard to walk or hard to care, two or three blocks to a polling station is one more reason not to vote.

The City of Toronto can change that by putting a poll in every building with 100 apartments or more this fall, the advocacy group ACORN told municipal election officials Thursday, July 15.

Edward Lantz, a St. Jamestown tenant, handed a letter with that request to staff at the city's election services office and asked for a meeting with City Clerk Ulli Watkis, responsible for poll placement.

Municipal election turnout is low, particularly for tenants, read Lantz. "In the name of democracy, we hope you take this request seriously."

Outside in Nathan Phillips Square, red-shirted members of ACORN - Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - said tenants with disabilities, seniors and busy single mothers can find even a short walk to a polling station too long.

"There's handicapped people who can't get around and they don't want to go all the way to a school to vote," said Marion Callow, a Weston woman. "There's people that are scared to get around."

ACORN member Mary Blakelock of Scarborough uses a cane and has called candidates for a lift on election day, but said not everyone knows they can do that.

Bonita Pietrangelo, the city's director of elections, said having a poll in every large apartment building would be impossible for this October, given the number of vote tabulators the city has.

The city must have polling stations in retirement homes with 50 or more occupied beds and in institutions for the disabled or chronically ill with 20 beds or more, she said this week.

But for the first time, the city must also ensure all its voting locations are accessible to the disabled, so Pietrangelo said her department is reviewing each one before the election.

Tenants in the demonstration said they will work on removing other barriers to participation, which include, some said, widespread apathy toward politicians who never seem to listen.

If votes from tenants are scarce, "that's because they haven't been heard for a long time," said Lucy Fukushima of Riverdale.

Tenants Vote 2010

In the last 5 years we’ve petitioned, we’ve picketed, and we’ve organized.

But the next 16 months leading up the municipal election are going to decide whether Toronto City Council is interested in improving standards for tenants or simply letting the status quo remain.

Today, Toronto ACORN is announcing a plan to escalate this campaign.

In the coming months every City Councilor will have a chance to vote on an ACORN-backed proposal to levy a fee on large landlords to fund pro-active apartment inspections.

Toronto ACORN is pledging to use this vote as a yardstick to identify a number of key ridings to run aggressive campaigns to increase the tenant voter turnout by 25% in support of councilors or candidates who support tenants.

But we need our supporters online to send a message to council and let them know we’re serious. Can you help? (Just click the link below)

www.tenantsvote2010.ca

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