The Development of ACORN Canada: Tenant Rights in Toronto 2004-2010

The Weston/Mount Dennis area in Toronto was visibly rundown in August 2004 when ACORN Canada launched its inaugural drive. Weston/Mount Dennis is dominated by a large number of high rise buildings that are a mix of social housing and private rentals. Many of the buildings were in derelict condition, with obvious pest problems, including cockroaches, and bedbugs, large, unfixed holes in both common areas and occupied units, mold spreading through ceilings and walls, and elevators in high rises completely non-functional. Nothing was being done about these problems. Residents found themselves unable to get the attention of their landlords.

ACORN Canada adopted a door-knocking methodology that was largely the same as the highly successful model used by ACORN offices across the United States. Organizers have fifteen to twenty-five minute conversations with residents, talking about local issues and the power of collective action. After each conversation, an organizer methodically asks people to join the local organization as a full member. Membership requires a bank draft of $10 per month. Individuals who decline full membership are asked to join as associate or provisional members, which requires them to pay a small one-time sum or nothing at all, respectively. Associate and provisional members are invited to join in the developing campaign, but do not receive the same voting rights as full members. Experience has shown ACORN that the people who join as full members are by far the most engaged in the organization and hugely value their ownership stake and voice in the organization.

The pay for membership model is sometimes criticized as marginalizing or exploiting low income people, who are “too poor” to have to pay dues. However, ACORN encourages provisional membership for people who wish to be involved but are concerned about paying the monthly membership dues. Importantly, this approach avoids the condescending position that low income people are not able to make decisions about their own personal spending patterns. Further, like the concept of unionism, an independent funding source from the membership base is the key to maintaining control on the campaign and objectives of the organization by its board, which is comprised of members of ACORN.

During two months of working in the neighborhood, we talked to over 800 people in their homes about their community and about the larger issues that they identified and were concerned about. We also undertook hundreds of hours of house visits to interested people and worked the phone bank with nightly phone calls. At the end of two months of door-to-door organizing, we finally felt we had big enough lists of engaged community members to do a community organizing drive.

The organizing drive started with a series of three meetings, one each week, with the new members. In this way, the new group sprung to life. The group overwhelmingly voted to focus its first campaign on improving apartment building conditions. The other two priorities that were identified for future action were police profiling and the need for more youth-based community programs.

The group quickly identified that the Toronto Municipal Code established apartment building standards. For example, the Municipal Code has an explicit standard related to pest control:

629-9. Pest control. All properties shall at all times be kept free of rodents, vermin, insects and other pests and from conditions which may encourage infestations by pests.

However, the reality for ACORN members, is that this standard is not met in either private and publicly owned buildings. The Municipal Licensing and Standards office with the City of Toronto has no effective way of enforcing the Municipal Code. The process of issuing work orders and the penalties related to them do not create a penalty costly enough to give landlords an incentive to maintain their buildings.

The three introductory meetings were followed by a fourth and final planning meeting at which members created an action plan. The members decided to do a Cockroach Derby press event, to take place outside one of the worst buildings in the neighborhood, 1775 & 1765 Weston Road. The members and newly emerging leaders invited all media outlets, Municipal Licensing and Standards, the absentee landlord, and all levels of politicians. Staff and members started working on turnout while members collected cockroaches.

In late October 2004, ACORN Canada held its first event. About thirty members some with cockroaches showed up at 1775 and 1765 Weston Road for the Cockroach Derby. The media, Municipal Licensing and Standard, and some local politicians attended, and the event was a success. The media picked up the event.

The City of Toronto even agreed to move all of its rent-geared-to-income tenants out of the building. The consensus was clear: the politicians, Municipal Licensing and Standards, the media, and our members all agreed that the buildings were far below the standards outlined in the municipal code. The landlord did not attend. For a short time after the event, the landlord, Vincenzo Barrasso, responded to the negative press accounts and boosted maintenance in mostly superficial ways, such as painting and fixing broken locks on the front door, but these efforts were not sustained.

ACORN Canada continued its work. Municipal Licensing and Standards, working with ACORN staff and leaders, agreed to bring their special investigations audit team into the building and, unit by unit, tried to force the landlord to do the repairs. Part way through the process, Municipal Licensing and Standards had issued work orders in about 490 units. While the landlord took responsibility for some of the repairs, some things were never fixed.

ACORN staff and newly emerging leaders continued organizing and doing press events. Actions included “The Prison of 1202,” which focused on ACORN member Sharol Jason, who is in a wheel chair, and how she was trapped in her apartment for six weeks due to an inoperative elevator. Living on the twelfth floor, she had no way of getting up and down in her building while the elevator awaited repairs. The press tracked the story and was at the building about once a week for three months. Headlines, which included “Tenants Lived in Hell,” “Highrise Hostage,” “Home Not so Sweet,” and “Building Tension,” tell the stories of the many members who lived in the two buildings. Although ACORN Canada and the members had initial success with its actions, it had a more difficult time maintaining pressure on the landlord to continue to respond to work orders and tenant issues after the City left the building and after ACORN was no longer organizing a press event at the building every two weeks. The landlord stopped investing any money in bringing the building up to standard. Over time, the building started to slip back to its original state.

ACORN leaders then decided to use other tactics to raise the standards in the building. ACORN leaders decided to try to use the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, as it was then called, as a tool to force the landlord to bring the building up to the standards outlined in the Municipal Code. However, due to the pro-landlord legislation and the procedural requirements of the Board, this approach turned out to be no small feat, and the activities that the ACORN members needed to undertake against their delinquent landlord proved extremely cumbersome.

One might think that designation of disrepair and a full scale audit by Municipal Licensing and Standards, as well as the City’s decision to move all of its rent-gearedto- income tenants out of the buildings at issue would support a prima facie case against the landlord and assist the tenants in this action. Moreover, one might think that there would be support for tenants who are trying to raise issues like these before the Landlord and Tenant Board. To expect low-income tenants to have the capacity to put together a case against a landlord is a human rights issue.1

ACORN staff and leaders helped all interested tenants in the building to fill out the complaint form required by the Tribunal. This activity alone took hundreds of hours from ACORN staff, leaders, and members in the building. Nevertheless, ACORN leaders felt that it was important to act against their landlord and even took time off work to help other tenants complete these forms. ACORN paid the filing fee required by the Tribunal for the forms from the 105 people who chose to file collectively. The filing fee alone was $45 per building, plus $5 per additional tenant.

The case went before an adjudicator. However, at this first hearing, we quickly realized we needed a legal aid lawyer to help manage the issues involved with 105 complaints. York Community Services Legal Clinic picked up the case. One of the lead filing tenants was on Ontario Disability, which enabled him to qualify for legal aid. Hundreds of hours were spent by YCL, ACORN staff, and ACORN leaders to put together this case and then in the hearing before the Tribunal.

In March of 2005, Elizabeth Beckett, a member of the Tribunal, issued an interim order ruling in favor of the 105 tenants. Subsequently, in her final order, Beckett separated the rent abatements into two time periods based on the evidence of disrepair that she heard. Tenants received a twenty percent refund on rent paid from March 1, 2004, to Feb. 28, 2005, and a ten percent rebate from March 1, 2005, to Dec. 31, 2005. As monthly rent costs about $900, the average tenant would receive a total of $3,060 in return. Some tenants were compensated an additional $100 to $600 for the inconvenience caused by damages in the common areas such as the elevators. Victory! This equaled over $321,300 dollars in savings to tenants. However, the lengthy process and ongoing frustration with the landlord and the state of their homes had taken its toll on tenants. By the time the tenants were able to claim the rent abatements, about thirty percent of the tenants who participated in the action had moved out. Rent abatement was of no benefit to them at that point, and the landlord in effect received a windfall.

To this day, the buildings are still in massive disrepair, and most of the people who had the means to move out did so long ago. Approximately ninety-five percent of the 105 tenants who brought the action against the landlord before the Tribunal have now moved out.

Following the Rental Housing Board proceedings, again, as soon as the City, ACORN, or the press stopped investing energy into enforcement of basic building standards, the landlord stopped doing any repairs. The complaint-based system provides no long term incentives to maintain standards and is completely ineffective with a landlord like Vincenzo Barrasso, who has resisted compliance with work orders and standards at every turn. In short, it is cheaper for the landlord to ignore the Municipal Code as a standard operating practice and deal with the consequences repeatedly, than it is for the landlord to maintain a building in a state of good repair. Tenants be damned.

However, ACORN established itself as a leading voice for tenant rights, and members were well engaged in tenant issues, which affected them directly. By 2006, ACORN staff had done two other organizing drives in other communities in Toronto, Scarborough Centre and Chalk Farm at Jane and Wilson, both of which resulted in ACORN members deciding to tackle massive disrepair in apartment buildings. In short, these decaying high rises with absentee slumlords were numerous across the city of Toronto in the lower income neighborhoods.

The ACORN leaders across these communities decided it made no sense to try to fix the buildings one at a time. They started researching potential legislative fixes to this enforcement catastrophe on a broader scale. As a result, Toronto ACORN leadership decided to put together a Landlord Licensing and Rent Escrow Campaign.

Landlord licensing programs exist in other cities like Los Angeles. These programs require landlords to maintain a license for their buildings. Where building conditions fall below basic requirements, it triggers tenant use of a rent escrow account. Rent escrow programs allow tenants to pay their rent into a rent escrow account, typically held by a city, when a unit is in disrepair for a given period of time. The city can then draw on that money to fix outstanding work orders, and the tenant is protected from eviction due to non-payment of rent. Landlords are pressured by the loss of rental income to address the outstanding complaints. We were also fighting for a communication component, which allows the city to post signs in the lobby if an apartment building is below code, so that tenants become more aware of their rights and the vehicles that they have available to assert those rights.

ACORN lobbying was successful in winning the support of City Councilor Anthony Perruza of Ward 8, who introduced a motion at City Council directing staff to research and implement a landlord-licensing system. The City staff report returned with the recommendation from Municipal Licensing and Standard to boost the already existing audit program with a target of four buildings in each ward across Toronto. The recommendation, adopted by Toronto Council, was a huge organizational victory but a very small step forward. The audit program focuses on common areas and represents minimal progress for the actual units and the tenants in them. The audit program has limited impact on landlords’ behavior.

It is worth noting that Municipal Licensing and Standards in January 2010 stated that roughly 100 million dollars in repairs have been done in slum buildings across Toronto as a result of the program. However, the details behind this number have been difficult get from the city, leaving the leadership feeling skeptical about the claim.

There is much speculation as to why the city did not come out with a full landlord-licensing program. Some have suggested that the landlord lobby was too strong. Others have suggested that this program would have put the city in a conflict, because the largest landlord in the city, also very below code, is Toronto Community Housing TCH, which is a crown corporation that houses thousands of low-income tenants across the city. ACORN’s Toronto office continues to work on these issues. The scope of this problem in Toronto is tremendous, and the city of Toronto has little help from the province. The campaign continues.

Judy Duncan has been the Head Organizer for ACORN Canada since 2004. She started the ACORN Canada field program after working with Washington ACORN in the United States for over a year. Judy has her Masters Degree from UBC in Community and Regional Planning

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