After a three-month long rent strike, frustrated Hamilton tenants packed into a yellow school bus and journeyed to Ottawa over the weekend to demand that their landlord withdraw an application to increase their rent above the provincial maximum.
“We hope that this sends a message that we’re serious, and people refuse to be priced out of their homes," said Emily Power, a volunteer organizer with the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network.
The tenants of the Stoney Creek apartment complexes in Hamilton’s east end went on rent strike earlier this summer, after some residents were notified of a coming rent increase that exceeds the ceiling outlined in provincial guidelines, Ms. Power said.
Ottawa-based InterRent, the company that manages the Stoney Creek Hamilton properties, has submitted an application to the province for an Above Guideline Rent Increase (AGI). The increase is meant to pay for significant renovations and repairs in the buildings. Above Guideline Rent Increases have been heavily debated in the Greater Toronto Area, and were at the heart of a dispute between tenants in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood and their landlord earlier this year. The issue is exacerbated by low vacancy rates in Toronto, with rent increasing well above the inflation rate in many parts of the city, causing what many call a continuing housing crisis.
Ms. Power said the tenants delivered a letter outlining their demands to the InterRent offices in Ottawa on Saturday, but were met with police stationed at the front door, and were refused a formal meeting with CEO Mike McGahan.
Jolly Augusthy, a mother of three who is participating in the Stoney Creek rent strike, said that “low-income, middle-class or working-class people cannot afford" the rent increase InterRent is demanding. She added residents have long advocated for necessary repairs to units in the Stoney Creek buildings, including upgrades to laundry rooms and windows and improving the safety of elevators.
InterRent public relations manager Roseanne MacDonald-Holtman said in an e-mail that the company purchased the Hamilton properties in 2015, and has since “been investing in essential and much-needed repairs to the properties.” She added these repairs and upgrades have exceeded $17-million to date.
But Ms. Power said most of the renovations have been cosmetic in nature, focused mainly on the exterior of the buildings, which are not covered under the provincial guidelines for rent increases. An AGI is approved by the province if the landlord can prove the repairs done are necessary to improve housing standards or security.
Kerry Riordan, a tenant in Parkdale’s Waldorf Towers, where around 50 tenants withheld their rent in January to protest their landlord’s application for a rent increase, said residents are feeling the pressure of an affordable-housing crisis affecting much of Southern Ontario.
“There aren’t any places left to go inside of the city, and wages certainly aren’t increasing," Ms. Riordan said. After two months on rent strike, the Parkdale renters managed to meet with their landlord in late March, who agreed to withdraw the request for a rent increase. Ms. Riordan said a similar rent strike occurred in the neighbouring MetCap buildings last year.
“It is a last resort going on strike, it’s definitely not the first thing you want to do," Ms. Riordan said. "… We have to protect ourselves and our neighbours.”
The Federation of Metro Tenants' Association, a non-profit that advocates for tenants' rights in Toronto, deals with about 200 cases involving Above Guideline Rent Increases a year, according to executive director Geordie Dent. “Oftentimes we see landlords not following the rules appropriately,” Mr. Dent said.
He said he has dealt with cases of landlords applying rent increases to tenants that shouldn’t be affected, not giving proper notice periods or trying to file minor capital work under the increase. For this reason, Mr. Dent said striking has become “an effective tactic for tenants that have had enough.”
Ms. MacDonald-Holtman said that for the Hamilton tenants to withhold their rent as a form of protest is “illegal,” and that the company will be looking to solve the rent disputes individually through the Landlord and Tenant Board, a formal body operated by the Government of Ontario. Dave Nevins, the COO of InterRent, said in an interview that his company has already met with several tenants through the board, and will not be seeking to solve the dispute outside the formal process. "[The Board] is the only form that we have to deal with it,” he said.
Ms. Power said the tenants plan to continue their strike until InterRent addresses their demands and negotiations take place.