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Parkdale strikes against Nuspor Investments

By: 
Kevin Taghabon

February 6, 2018

"I live with two kids. It's so cold," Aziza said as bitter winds cut sharply through the crowd outside the Landlord and Tenant board in Toronto. "We have a window, it's a single window...I have to put pillows, blankets [in the window]. We live in very freezing [temperatures]. How do I live? How am I happy? First thing is my health, and my kids' health."

Aziza was joined by fellow tenants of 1251 King West alongside dozens of activists and community members in support of the recently launched rent strike against Nuspor Investments. Nuspor, which owns the building at 1251 King, is taking a page out of Wynn Properties, Akelius Canada and Metcap Living's book by pursuing above guideline rent increases (AGIs) at their building. Parkdale is one of the final neighbourhoods in Toronto where working class and immigrant families can afford to live. Nuspor is seeking a 3.4 percent rent increase, nearly double the 1.8 percent guideline increase. In a neighbourhood where many people are raising families, working multiple precarious jobs, or living as retirees on fixed incomes, this steep rise in rents can effectively evict them from the home they've made in Parkdale. This also makes it impossible for many others to save money for days of rest or emergencies.

Unity, resilience, and energy

Despite the numbing cold and anticipated hostility from the Landlord and Tenant Board and Nuspor, spirits were high at the demonstration before the hearing. "Our microphone might be gone because it's too cold right now, but we are not!" said Ashley, one of the organizers with Parkdale Organize. "A lot has happened in the last year in Parkdale. The teachers at Queen Victoria [Public School] have planned four rallies in support of tenants who are being pushed out of our neighbourhood. We have seen two strikes at the Ontario Food Terminal held down by people who live in Parkdale. We have now seen a dozen buildings go on rent strike."

Ashley pointed out that the conversation about how many units are involved narrows the scope of what is actually happening. "Those are families. So when we talk about 300 to 400 units withholding their rent in Parkdale over the last year, we are talking about thousands of people." Not to be painted as victims, she also pointed out that the story playing out is not simply one of predatory landlords. "It is a story about the power of working-class people organizing in their homes, organizing at their place of work, organizing in their schools, to say that we deserve better lives...We deserve to keep living in the community in which we live. We are here today to tell Nuspor [that] they don't get to push our neighbours out of their homes, and that we will not stop until these above guideline rent increases are done in Parkdale!"

Members of other buildings and homes came out as well to speak about the need for solidarity and unity. One older gentleman named Andy who lives nearby on Tyndall Avenue received a hero's welcome, with community members cheering and chanting his name until he took the microphone. “[The landlords] are [coming] up to us, to take everything that we have. They reach into your pocket, man! They take it out and they say, 'no more for you.' We are here to support everything and everyone [from 1251 King].”

Past lessons learned

Parkdale's residents are acutely aware of the similarities of this fight to their previous victories. Over the past several years community members have proactively banded together in an effort to beat back gentrification and neglect in their community. Their umbrella organization, Parkdale Organize, has experience fighting against AGIs and neglectful building managers. Just last year Parkdale Organize led a successful months-long rent strike against Metcap Living, which eventually met tenants' demands of dropping AGIs and completing outstanding repairs.

In January, Parkdale Organize put together a phone-zap action for community members to call in to Nuspor Investments en masse. Anticipating the call-ins from tenants and supporters, Nuspor chose to dodge concerns by locking their doors, leaving phone lines unattended, and shutting down for business. The phone script provided by activists on the Parkdale Organize phone-zap event page promised, “If you ignore tenants' demands, you will face escalating actions from tenants and community members.” Nuspor has now reaped what they sewed.

This behaviour was expected by the community members. Cole Webber, a resident and organizer with Parkdale Community Legal Services, spoke to the group outside before everyone went to the hearing room. "Let's be clear that the Landlord and Tenant Board is not our friend. This tribunal approves these rent increases for the landlord. This tribunal is part of the system that gets these landlords their rent increases and drives people out of their homes and neighbourhoods...We need to be here today to stand alongside our neighbours at 1251 King."

Existing systems hurt working people

Over 650 AGI applications in Toronto have been made to the Landlord and Tenant Board since 2015. The systems set up in Ontario to deal with the exact issue of affordable housing incentivizes landlords to spend money where it is not needed. If a landlord spends money upgrading a building, they can legally transfer the costs onto people in their units through AGIs, a loophole which landlords habitually abuse. Nuspor has consequently spent nearly $300,000 making aesthetic improvements to the lobby at 1251 King, including thousands of dollars worth of framed artwork. Meanwhile, residents report that the landlord has ignored demands to meet basic living standards. “I need inside beauty, not outside beauty, my unit. First: health,” said Aziza, referring to her unheeded requests to make her apartment warm enough to safely shelter her children in. This is a transparent effort to push out current residents and appeal to wealthier would-be renters. Aziza described the wasteful cosmetic renovations as “makeup”.

One woman, who worked for Toronto Community Housing and will be on the TCH wait list for, “at least another five or ten years” said the landlord is trying to, “squeeze money out of me for making things look nice.” This behaviour represents a pattern of neglect at the building. “Ketchup spilled in my hallway hasn't been cleaned up for a week, and that's how the old carpet got gross. There's cockroaches in the building for at least the past six years. It's all over bedbug reports, and they're not dealing with it properly. The wiring is from the 1950s and '60s.” About the proposed rent increase, she said, “I'm just supposed to produce this money. For what? To make them richer. How's it gonna benefit me?” In an interview with Socialist.ca, Brandon, who lives on Cowan Road, said that this neglect is common practice of landlords in the area, but that they often back down in the face of large mobilized groups. At previous actions Parkdale Organize members have explained that the Landlord and Tenant board is skewed against tenants, but also that the Board is wholly unprepared to face large groups opposing them and supporting tenants.

Beyond rent

The problems some tenants have in their homes go further than AGIs and poor living conditions. When asked why developers are targeting working-class, immigrant communities, Aziza said the question is too narrow. “I've been attacked in that building...I've been assaulted. I called the police. In front of the camera. I went [to] Legal Aid. They got a letter. I didn't even get a 'sorry' letter, or by word...Twice I got that kind of problem.” When asked if this happens to other tenants, Aziza replied, “yes. All the time...We need more safety, our health. For my kids – it's cold, freezing in this weather. That's all the things I need right now.”

Upstairs at the Board, Parkdale residents immediately recognized the lawyer representing Nuspor. as the same lawyer who defended Metcap Living a year earlier.  One wonders what section of ethics courses in law school led this attorney to pursue a career protecting slumlords' profits at the expense of working families. An administrator for the Landlord and Tenant Board said the attorney made it clear that she did not feel "safe" and would not appear at the tribunal until all non-tenants were removed from the hearing room. The Board's administrator also made it clear to the whole room that details of the hearing were not to be made public, then cleared out supporters of the residents at 1251 King. This stalling by the Board and Nuspor's lawyer ate up over an hour of residents' time.

Parkdale: a model of resistance

Parkdale Organize has used diverse tools and tactics to wage their successful battles against developers and building managers in their community. The most visible of these is the outreach and campaign coordination which has attracted people from across the city. Additionally, Parkdale Organize regularly puts out their own media and publications in order to spread the story from their own perspective, and promotes sympathetic videos on their Facebook page. This is a strategy that Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Herman recognized in their seminal media critique, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. “Grassroots movements and intermediate groups that represent large numbers of ordinary citizens should put much more energy and money into creating and supporting their own media...These [independent media centers] and other nonprofit community based broadcasting stations and networks...the Internet, and independent print media will be essential for the achievement of major democratic and political successes.” Recognizing the threat that disseminating independent information poses to their profits, landlords have told tenants to report any organizing activity in their buildings to management. This intimidation tactic has largely failed.

The struggle in Parkdale can be seen as the spearhead of a broader movement against gentrification and mendacious capitalists seeking to lure in the rich and rid cities of working-class people. “We know that within neighbourhoods around Toronto there is the nucleus of the struggle we are seeing in Parkdale right now,” said Ashley addressing the crowd. “It is often said that Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods. What we need to see now is every neighbourhood in this city getting organized like they are in Parkdale...take control of their lives, organize against predatory landlords, and say, 'we have had enough! We are going to defend our place in this city before we don't have a place in Toronto at all anymore!'”

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Socialist Worker interviews Parkdale resident
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