The high-rise people of Canada's »ties complain they're harried by their landlords under laws framed for feudal serfs. The high-rise people are in revolt. A Maclean's report on the develnnhin baffle for
MACLEAN’S CANADA’S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
REMEMBER THE DAYS when a tenant's last resort was a lease-breaking party? Driven to the end of his tether by a recalcitrant landlord, he would stock up with beer, hire The Roaring Teens and their three electric guitars and invite the world and his wife around for a glorious family brawl. No longer. Today's method of getting out from under bad landlords is more refined if less fun. It was demonstrated a couple of months ago by two nurses sharing an apartment in north Montreal. They had been
irked by an endless series of inconveniences — poor heating, clogged drains, elevators that didn’t elevate — and leaped at the chance to move into a new place nearer work. But when they approached the landlord and politely asked if they could break their lease, his response was a dry McCarthy-like cackle. He, he, he, cough, ho. He’d see them in court first. So then the girls sat down and did what thousands of angry rent-payers in Canada are doing right now. They organized their apartment-block neighbors into a tenants’ association and asked the landlord to attend the inaugural meeting. He arrived panting on their doorstep the next day, his cackles turned to whimpers, and begged the girls to accept his written permission to move out.
When it comes to a conflict between people and property, people have tended to be the losers since the ancestor of all tenements went up in Ur. Now, for the first time, tenants are demanding and getting something like equal rights. What makes Tenant Power the more remarkable is that it’s largely a middle-class phenomenon, involving that sluggish section of society which usually can be aroused to concerted action only by a formal declaration of war. But the pressures of the accommodation vise have altered old habits. Hivelike high rises are humming with organization as the occupants crawl out of their private cells and start to talk to each other. Pseudo-Spanish main lobbies are echoing to slogans previously heard only in labor-union halls, and bulletin boards in steamy basement laundry rooms drip with manifestos. The concept of collective bargaining by tenants has the awesome invincibility of an idea that is ripe for its time. Politicians and property owners are learning that they can’t afford to ignore it.
To begin with, many landlords scoffed at the numerical weakness of Tenant Power, pointing out that only a tiny fraction of tenants were active in any given city. For instance, the Vancouver Tenants’ Council, a consolidation of several smaller associations, has fewer than 500 paid-up members out of a citywide total of 150,000 tenants. “That’s not very many considering the publicity they’ve had,”
VANCOUVER: Taxes went up 43 cents a month — but rents went up $10
sniffs Mrs. Eva Virtue, an owner who has been in the apartment business since 1945. But Mrs. Virtue, like many other landlords, claims she likes the idea of tenant associations: “After all, we apartment owners have an association and maybe if the tenants were organized we could get together and iron things out.”
Mrs. Virtue talks about ironing things out from firsthand experience. It was in her 54-unit Rosemont Apartments that Vancouver tenants scored their biggest victory to date. When Rosemont residents were faced with a rent increase plus a retroactive $25 “cleaning-and-damage deposit” last year, 18 of them formed an association and refused to pay. After six weeks of negotiations with Mrs. Virtue, arbitrated by City Councillor Tom Alsbury, the tenants won an agreement that fixed rents for a year, promised three months’ notice of future increases and guaranteed interest payments on the deposited funds.
What landlords initially failed to realize is that, while tenant activists may be few, they can make a considerable amount of noise and they represent an enormous power base. Canada is rapidly shifting from a property-owning society to a rent-paying society. If tenants don't already make up 50 percent of the adult urban population, they soon will. This creates a potential interest group more than three million strong — and growing.
Certainly Transport Minister Paul Hellyer is now impressed by the latent strength of Tenant Power. His touring task force on housing heard a number of cogent briefs from tenant associations urging fundamental changes in the laws relating to landlords and tenants. Hellyer’s report, tabled late in January, stressed that “tenants do have some rights” and recommended that a landlord should be required to justify to his tenants abnormal rent increases. The report added: “The task force does not believe, for example, that it is unreasonable to ask landlords to recognize tenants’ associations and to give them an effective voice in deciding how their building or buildings are administered and serviced.”
So far, effective organization of apartment dwellers has been mainly confined to the high-rise forests of Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Meanwhile, a modified form of Tenant Power, concerned more with political rights and redevelopment projects, has been leaning heavily on city councils in Montreal, Ottawa and the smaller highdensity centres of southern Ontario — Windsor, Belleville and Kingston. However, two forces are at work that could soon make Tenant Power a fact of urban life everywhere.
First, there’s the housing crisis. Even if it doesn’t grow more acute, it shows no immediate signs of easing. With the vacancy rate sometimes as low as 1.3 percent, as it is in Ottawa, landlords are reveling in a lessor’s market. The natural tendency of some property owners to exploit this situation forces otherwise lone-wolf tenants to run with the pack for protection.
More important, there’s the sociological impact of modern high-rise design. If you stack a couple of thousand discontented people on top of each other, it is practically inevitable that they will combine against a common enemy. And the high-rise tower makes an ideal bargaining unit. In the old days, when rented premises were either indi-
vidual houses or low-rise blocks clustered horizontally, it was much more difficult for tenants to communicate.
What does Tenant Power want? Basically, the revision or abolition of the Landlord and Tenant Act in every province. These musty statutes, inherited from pre-Confederation law, are blatantly biased in favor of property owners. The original intention of the legislation was to protect the lords of English manors from the chicanery of unruly peasants living on their estates. The very words “landlord” and “tenant” have a feudal ring that sounds ridiculous in a world of concrete and steel. “Unless we get new legislation with guts,” says James Trotter, an Ontario Liberal MPP, “tenants will continue to be the modern serfs of the 20th century.” Trotter is only one of several members on both sides of the legislature pressing the Ontario government for a Tenants’ Rights Act.
Such an act would correct grievances in four main fields. Causing the most bitterness by far are the security deposits, usually equivalent to a month’s rent, that many landlords now extract from incoming tenants as insurance against damage or moonlight flits. Tenant Power would prefer to see these deposits outlawed. But if they must continue, it is argued, then interest should be paid on the tied-up capital. Also needed are independent boards to settle disputes over how much of the money is refunded. What a landlord calls damage may be permissible wear and tear in a tenant’s eyes.
“As the law now stands,” says Toronto lawyer Bruce Thomas, “the landlord is prosecutor, judge and jury.” Thomas, an aspiring provincial Liberal who has hitched his political ambitions to the tenant cause, thinks security deposits should be diverted to special government trust funds and landlords forced to present detailed notations of repairs before collecting for damage. Thomas also suggests the interest on the estimated minimum of $15 million Toronto landlords now hold in security deposits — at five percent it would yield $750,000 a year — could be used to finance a permanent office and pay the legal fees for a citywide tenants' association.
Almost as high on the tenants’ reform program is the need to rip up the present standard lease form and substitute a fairer contract. Desperate for accommodation, young couples often sign leases without consulting a lawyer or reading the fine print. Later they learn to their chagrin that what they’ve signed may deprive them of the benefit of future legislation (such as rent controls) and may give the landlord almost dictatorial sanctions to interfere with their domestic lives. Even the leases issued by the Ontario Housing Corporation contained the restrictive clause about future laws until a blushing provincial government revised it last December.
Next, tenants want protection against unjustifiable rent increases. When the occupants of a Vancouver block were suddenly hit by a $10-a-month increase last year, the landlady justified it on the grounds of higher taxes. One of the tenants was Ray Sourisseau, a garage mechanic who is now an executive official on the Vancouver Tenants’ Council. Sourisseau investigated and discovered that the actual cost of the higher taxes worked out to only about 43 cents per suite per month. He and six other tenants were soon locked in a bitter battle with the landlady.
Some high-rise landlords have a habit of offering attractive rent scales when the building first opens up. Tenants fall for the bait, move in and settle down. Then when the leases come up for renewal two years later, the landlord levies a rent increase of 30 percent or more. When a Winnipeg property owner pulled that stunt in one of his buildings last summer, he triggered an organizational campaign that evolved into the citywide Canadian Tenants’ Association.
TORONTO: Three young couples organized the tenants in their high-rise block — and came home to a bailiffs notice on their door
Finally, tenants intend to use their collective power to ensure that landlords live up to the few basic obligations present law does require of them. Aside from failing to provide promised services and being slothful about repairs, there are thousands of minor ways delinquent landlords nettle tenants. One member of the Vancouver Tenants’ Council described how his cheese-paring landlady progressively dimmed the light bulbs in the laundry room from 60 watts to 40 watts to 15 watts. “If I searched for three weeks in this town,” he said, “I couldn’t find a 15-watt light bulb in a store. But she found them.”
High-rise tenants also complain about the modern trend to limit bread, milk and other deliveries to firms nominated by the landlords. If there have to be monopoly franchises, they argue, then it’s the tenants who should do the choosing and receive any financial kickbacks that accrue.
If the revolutionary spirit motivating Tenant Power seems vaguely familiar, perhaps it is because many of the new tenants are young married couples fresh out of university or high school. These are the legendary under-30s, veterans of the power game. They’ve seen activism work once and they know how to mount the machinery to make it work again. To them, Tenant Power is a natural extension of Student Power. Moreover, they are further embittered by a social economy that compels them to pay exorbitant rents to live childless in a concrete pigeonhole while they try to scrape together the down payment on a house that grows ever more expensive. Pity the landlord who blithely ignores the forces blowing through the 1960s. If he tries to assert the more arrogant prerogatives of property under the ancien régime, he is virtually inviting a deluge.
Just how quickly such deluges can descend was clearly illustrated by Toronto’s epochal Battle of 33 Eastmount last fall.
When newlyweds Dennis and Lynn Crisp started apartment-hunting a year ago, the new high rise going up at 33 Eastmount Avenue in the midtown area looked pretty enticing. The architect had designed a clean-lined 25-story tower soaring out of a pleasant landscape. Newspaper ads promised such extras as a heated underground garage, a sundeck, a sauna bath and an indoor swimming pool. True, the rents, starting at $147 a month for a one-bedroom suite, were a little steep even for the Crisps’ two-income budget — but the bite was no less painful anywhere else. Dennis, 29, is a buyer for Eaton’s jewelry department. His vivacious 23-year-old wife is a secretary for the Ontario Hydro local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. (CUPE, incidentally, has since become the labor movement’s chief liaison link with Tenant Power.)
Dennis knew the building was uncompleted when he signed a two-year lease in March. But he was assured the essential services — elevators and laundry room — would be functioning by the time he moved in in May. They weren’t. “Our brand-new furniture had to be hauled up on a dirty outdoor construction hoist,” recalls Dennis, “and we were still walking up eight floors three weeks later.” The Crisps eventually won a two-week rent rebate for that
pioneering period. But as the months passed, and the building began to fill up with other young couples, conditions failed to improve much.
In September the grounds still looked like Flanders after the Third Battle of Ypres. One level of the garage was a foot deep in sludge, the lobby and corridors were only half finished, the elevators and laundry room weren’t fully operational, storage lockers lacked doors and there was no sign of the advertised sundeck, sauna bath and swimming pool. When a fire broke out on the top floor, firemen couldn’t make the elevators rise above the 15th level. When they finally did reach the blaze, they discovered the internal hydrants were not connected.
By October, Dennis Crisp had penetrated beyond the building’s unco-operative management office and discovered that the owners were Solomon Tennenbaum and Maier Kaiser, who also owned another high rise nearby containing more unhappy tenants. Kaiser turned out to be the active partner. Tenants say his position, then and later, was that he simply wanted “to be able to come into the building and see a bunch of smiling faces.”
He was out of luck last October. In fact, more than 90 percent of his tenants — about 85 people — signed a petition circulated by the Crisps, saying they would withhold November’s rent unless management quickly gave them something to smile about. The rent strike was a week old before the landlords replied with an ultimatum. It said that under the terms of the lease, rent was due regardless of the building’s condition. Tenants then re-examined their printed leases and found a clause typed in at the bottom that read: “It is understood by the lessee that the building is not fully completed and should not be subject to complaint or deduction of rent.”
The ultimatum frightened about half the tenants into paying. But one of the 40 strikers who remained was John Gault, 27 and boiling mad. Both Gault and his wife Carole, 24, work as reporters for the Toronto Telegram. Together with the Crisps, they sought the help of lawyer Bruce Thomas and formed an association. The landlords received a registered letter asking them to attend the first meeting on the following Tuesday. This time the landlords’ response was as crude as Scrooge’s might have been. The Crisps, the Gaults and a third couple, Stephen and Maureen Clark, both 25 and recent arrivals from Scotland, returned home from their various jobs on Monday to find themselves locked out of their apartments and a bailiff’s notice on the door.
“The reaction to this move was spontaneous,” says Gault. “Somebody went down to the foyer, pushed all the intercom buttons and told the rest of the building what had happened. People dropped everything and came pouring down to the lobby. They were infuriated by the landlords’ audacity and gall. Dozens of people offered us clothes, food and a bed for the night. The unanimity of feeling was amazing. It was the best possible thing the landlords could have done for the tenants’ association. It focused the attention of the news media, city council and Queen’s Park on our problem.”
Television played a particularly active role. Both networks, tipped off about the evictions, gave the impromptu meeting full coverage in their late-night news programs. At one point CBC interviewer Warren Davis dramatically underlined tenant grievances by brushing against two exposed wires in the lobby and short-circuiting a major fixture.
The next night there was another well-publicized meeting in the lobby of 33 Eastmount, this one attended by Mayor William Dennison, two Toronto controllers, one alderman, the deputy leader of the provincial New Democratic Party, and representatives of CUPE and the local
OTTAWA: Do-it-yourself tenants raised a loan for the landlord — at three-percent interest
labor council. Mayor Dennison found the landlords’ action “unconscionable.” Controller Margaret Campbell said the building had been a headache ever since it was started: “This is the same owner who was told not to remove trees from the front of the property but went ahead and moved his equipment in at night to do it.”
By Wednesday the publicity was hurting Kaiser badly. Inspectors were swarming over his building and city council was debating a key point: should developers continue to receive tax relief while their buildings are under construction when the tenants are being charged full rents? Kaiser worried about the reaction of his bank, his mortgage holder, his insurance company, other landlords and Toronto’s sensitive Jewish community. At the end of the day he capitulated to Bruce Thomas, let the evicted tenants back into their apartments and agreed to negotiate with the association.
At subsequent meetings Kaiser met the association’s demands on several minor matters and promised all work on the building would be completed by mid-December. (The deadline was not met.) He also agreed to accept a new model lease based on the contract used by the Urban Development Institute — a relatively enlightened association of big developers in Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax. Among other things, UDI landlords pay interest on security deposits. When Kaiser continued to stall on some demands, the Eastmount association proved its collective strength was no passing matter. It called a second rent strike in February, honored by more than 70 tenants who were all prepared to face a lockout.:
In Montreal, where high rises are fewer, Tenant Power has flexed its muscles in other ways. It has even become a force to be reckoned with in elite Outremont, which is Trudeau and Beaubien country. Last year when the council slapped a “temporary” seven-percent tax on Outremont’s 5,000 tenants, they promptly formed an association and marched 200 strong on the town hall. It wasn’t just the tax itself that angered them. It was the fact that in Outremont, as in many other cities, tenants have almost no municipal rights. They can’t run for or sit on council and they can vote for only one out of three aldermanic candidates in their district. The slogan of the Outremont Tenants’ Association is: “No taxation without representation.”
Farther downtown in Montreal, the Jeanne Mance Tenants’ Association is locked in negotiations with Concordia Estates Limited, a development corporation that plans to bulldoze the area’s quaint but seedy grey-stone houses for an urban-renewal scheme. After active young professional people in the area formed an association, Concordia speedily set about making short-term improvements to its buildings. But so far the corporation hasn’t budged on the association’s major demand, tenant participation in the planning of the renewal project.
Tenant Power achieved much more spectacular results in Ottawa last summer during what became known as the Elm Street affair. A landlord who owned seven dilapidated row houses presented his tenants with a choice: either buy the houses for $15,000 each or move out by September 30. Since none of the tenants could afford to buy — their
average income is $3,000 — they banded together under Mrs. Edna Bedard, a slender woman with seven children and a flair for politics. Mrs. Bedard soon rounded up church and council support for her organization and forced the landlord to let the tenants stay. The landlord then offered to supply the materials for renovating the houses if the tenants did the work themselves. When it turned out that he didn’t have enough capital to back up this offer, the tenants undertook to raise the necessary $42,000 on their own and lend it to the landlord at three-percent interest. “What tenants are beginning to realize,” says Mrs. Bedard, looking back on it all, “is that we are the masters of the city.”
On the subject of collective bargaining, the former masters of the city tend to have a collective no-comment. “Our policy is that we’re not saying anything,” explains an official of one apartment-owners’ association. Individually, many landlords are resentful that Tenant Power isn’t viewing the situation in its proper historical perspective. Ten years ago, when high rises were springing up like stylized toadstools almost overnight, landlords were laying out broadloom, providing drapes and even offering trips to Florida in an effort to woo tenants. Some of them went broke. “Five years ago there were suites to burn in this town and we had to take our licks,” says Vancouver’s Mrs. Eva Virtue. “Now that we’ve got full occupancy, tenants are up in arms. Is that fair?” (j!.
Landlords also have a plausible defense for security deposits. If the deposits didn’t exist, they argue, rents would be higher still to cover the cost of repairing damage. Says AÍ Green of Toronto’s ubiquitous Greenwin Property firm, “Abolishing security deposits will only penalize the good tenants and not the bad ones.”
In general, however, landlords recognize that their years of dominance are ending. Most of them extend a lukewarm welcome to Tenant Power and its aims if only because the other alternative lurking in the background — rent controls — is anathema to any laissez-faire property owner. Ottawa, Toronto, Windsor and Vancouver have all been toying with the idea of introducing short-term rent controls and Montreal already has controls on buildings erected before 1951. But even tenant associations are wary of this solution because it scares away developers. Needed, they say, are more houses and not more controls.
The provinces are responding to the legal reforms demanded by Tenant Power with varying degrees of speed. The Ontario government delayed legislation until its Law Reform Commission completed a study of the problem. The commission’s report, published just before Christmas, contained 24 recommendations, ranging from the outlawing of security deposits to the establishment of rent-review boards. Although slightly shaken by the sweeping nature of the proposals, the government has indicated it will act on the report sometime this spring.
Even when Tenant Power achieves all its objectives, no one should expect landlords and tenants to settle down to a totally peaceful co-existence. There will always be squabbles. The conflict between the owner and the renter is as basic and as inevitable as the war between the sexes. But certainly today’s tenants will have a lot more to look forward to than did poor Rebecca Bogess, who died in Folkestone, England, on August 22, 1688. Anyone who has ever been a tenant will appreciate the ode engraved on her tombstone:
A house she hath, ’tis made of such good fashion, The tenant ne’er shall pay for reparation,
Nor will the landlord ever raise her rent Or turn her out of doors for non-payment;
From chimney-tax this cell is free,
To such a house who would not tenant be? □