Photo: Reanna Rosso
by Andy Crosby
Radical approaches to fighting back against landlords and tenant injustice can be more effective than relying on existing legal frameworks.
This is a principle finding in research undertaken by Martine August (University of Waterloo) and Cole Webber (Parkdale Community Legal Services). August and Webber published a report — Demanding the Right to the City and the Right to Housing (R2C/R2H): Best Practices for Supporting Community Organizing — this past December.
On Feb. 26, August and Webber presented their findings at the University of Ottawa. The presentation — “Fighting Housing Displacement through Community Organizing” — outlined best practices and the role of law, lawyers, and community legal workers.
“We’ve seen more radical approaches to fighting for tenant justice in recent years,” said August.
August and Webber interviewed tenants involved with three recent struggles against their landlords:
- the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network, who were fighting landlord InterRent Real Estate Investment Trust;
- Parkdale Organize in Toronto, who were taking on landlords Akelius and MetCap Living; and
- the Herongate Tenant Coalition (Ottawa) who are dealing with landlord Timbercreek Asset Management.
The goal of the report was to evaluate tenant mobilizing strategies, with a specific focus on relationships between organizers and social agencies.
August and Webber discussed the pragmatic goals that these groups embraced, which included stopping evictions, pressuring landlords to drop rent increases, and building community power. Instead of engaging and relying on the legal system to seek justice — such as the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) — the groups engaged a radical approach, using extra-legal tactics such as rent strikes, occupations, and disruptions to fight back.
In Ottawa, the Herongate Tenant Coalition attempted to organize those served eviction notices to stay put and precipitate a crisis for Timbercreek, who would have to file hundreds of eviction applications with the LTB and deal with the optics of forcibly removing people from their homes.
The report highlighted the achievements, challenges, and best practices for community organizing. In examining why tenants organize, August highlighted the testimony of a Herongate organizer in the presentation:
“People that lived in that neighbourhood saw the … injustice that were going on, because they could not necessarily, I will say – breathe,” the organizer said. “That is why they became activists. They could not live with the constant threat to their dignity, their housing, their place of community that’s being demolished. So at a certain point you stand up … simply because you cannot breathe.”
The Role of Social Agencies
August and Webber explored the relationship between community organizers and non-profit organizations and examined how social agencies can both support and limit the strength of community organizing. Ultimately, they highlight the importance of radically-oriented organizing practices and therefore offer recommendations for how non-profit organizations and social agencies can support community-level organizers.
Perhaps surprisingly, Webber discussed that non-profits can act as a hindrance to grassroots organizing efforts. Here, tension exists between the radical goals and tactics of the three groups and the social agencies and legal clinics that tend to rely on funding, focus on lobbying, and ultimately work within the confines of power and the legal system.
Webber discussed the report’s recommendations to non-profits, urging them to respect direct engagement — which can include extra-legal and direct-action tactics such as collectively withholding rent, occupying offices, and disrupting LTB hearings — to respect district-based scale and organizer priorities, and to support (materially and otherwise) independent organizing.
The Right to Stay Put
At the “Access to Justice” roundtable panel discussion following August and Webber’s talk, Josh Hawley — a member of the Herongate Tenant Coalition — likened the eviction and displacement of hundreds of Herongate residents to the forcible removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands. In the month of February, police used force to remove Wet’suwet’en, Gitxsan, and Mohawk peoples from their unceded territories.
In these cases, people are “ripped from their homes,” noted Hawley who added that, at Tyendinaga, police threw donations given to the Mohawk land defenders in a dumpster, similar to how landlords discard evictees’ belongings.
For Hawley, tenants being faced with notices of eviction should collectively take a stand — as Indigenous peoples have done on their lands — and say “no, we’re not leaving.”
The “Rule of Law” and Extra-legal Tactics
As a buzz-phrase, the “rule of law” has been repeated ad nauseum throughout the month of February. Politicians, pundits, and corporate commentators have had their message about respecting the rule of law broadcast over and over again in the mainstream media, as Indigenous blockades ground the Canadian economy to a halt.
The notion of respecting the rule of law should be scrutinized though, rather than simply swallowed whole.
If these dominant voices were particularly concerned about upholding the rule of law, they would engage seriously with Indigenous law, international law, and yes, even Canadian law. Indigenous law predates settler law by millennia and international law protects Indigenous land rights and their right to “free, prior, and informed consent.” The Canadian Supreme Court’s 1997 Delgamuukw decision determined that Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan title to the land was never extinguished; further, it recognized the hereditary chiefs as the governing authorities of those two nations. Even the provincial and federal governments recognized the hereditary chiefs as responsible for negotiating treaties in the B.C. Treaty Commission process.
The “rule of law” is applied arbitrarily to suit the interests of dominant actors who declare that they have the power to determine who commits a transgression, often against corporate interests.
The parallels that Hawley draws between forced removal and refusal are relevant for interrogating the rule of law regarding tenant struggles.
As Webber pointed out during the roundtable discussion, landlords are acting within the law. The law allows for landlords to apply for above-guideline increases to rent, to exorbitantly raise the rent on vacant units, to engage in rapid gentrification practices under the auspices of “renewal” or “revitalization.” The role of the Landlord and Tenant Board is often to rubber stamp landlord applications, said Webber, so tenants increasingly must rely on extra-legal tactics.
For Webber, victories don’t come from engaging with this framework. “Wins come from widespread working-class organization.There’s no substitute for that.”