REVENGE OF THE RENTER
Sharlene Henry moved into 33 King Street, a 27-storey apartment building in Toronto’s Weston neighborhood, 20 years ago. She was 30 years old and working as the manager of a Foot Locker. Her one-bedroom apartment, shared with her boyfriend, Peter, cost only about $700 a month, parking and cable included. Her mother, Theresa, moved into an apartment in the building a few years later.
Henry had grown up in Weston, and she loved it. Wedged between downtown Toronto and the city’s inner suburbs, the working-class neighbourhood was diverse and tight-knit. The Humber River flowed serenely along its west side. On weekends, Henry and her family would spill onto the main drag, Weston Road, to buy produce at the farmers’ market and visit the area’s Caribbean restaurants and shops. Henry calls herself a “Toronto ride-or-die girl,” but her Toronto is, first and foremost, Weston.
33 King was an inexpensive, aging highrise, but it was a bastion of affordability in a city that seemed to grow more expensive every year. In 2010, the couple moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor that rented for less than $1,000. Two years later they had their first child, Xavier.
Then, in 2013, the landlord, a company called Realstar, informed Henry that her rent was going up that year by 5.5 per cent. She was confused. 33 King was rent-controlled—increases were capped in 2013 at 2.5 per cent. But there was a loophole: in Ontario, landlords can apply for what’s called an above guideline increase, or AGI, to make major repairs. Realstar fixed the roof and elevators that year, so Henry thought it might be a one-off. When it happened again the next year, with an increase of 3.8 per cent, well above that year’s 0.8 per cent guideline, she and her neighbours were incensed. They’d long talked about deteriorating conditions in the building and regular maintenance that seemed to go undone. Some felt the AGIs were simply a way for Realstar to boost the value of its asset by squeezing extra money out of its tenants.
In 2017, Henry started working on the assembly line at a Chrysler plant in nearby Brampton, and became a member of Unifor. It was the first time she’d joined a union, and it was exciting to be part of a group of people banding together to fight for their rights. Energized by that experience, in 2018, she helped form a tenants’ association at 33 King to fight future AGIs. Still, they kept coming—in 2018, 2019 and 2021.
That year, a company called Dream Unlimited, a real-estate giant with $23 billion worth of assets, bought 33 King. Because the 2019 and 2021 AGIs were still pending approval by Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board, or LTB, Dream inherited the applications. Henry and other tenants wasted no time making their feelings about them known to the new owners. Working with the York South-Weston Tenant Union, or YSWTU—an umbrella organization for 13 tenants’ associations in the area—they staged protests, called Dream’s president, Michael Cooper, and went to the media in a bid to have the AGIs cancelled.
In the summer of 2022, they managed to negotiate a reduction to the 2018 increase, but Henry’s rent had by then increased to nearly $1,500—about 50 per cent higher than when she’d first moved into the apartment. If her rent had instead gone up every year by the maximum rent cap, without AGIs, the increase would have been less than half that. Still, she knows how lucky she is, relatively speaking. “Financially, I’m okay,” she says. “But the people beside me are not, the people below me are not.”
At a tenants’ meeting this April, Henry’s mother, Theresa, floated a radical idea: what if everyone just stopped paying rent? It had been done before. In 2017 and 2018, renters in Parkdale, a gentrifying neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end, held two separate and successful strikes. But it was extremely risky. In Ontario, landlords can begin eviction proceedings as soon as a tenant misses a payment, and anyone kicked out of 33 King would have a hard time finding comparable rent nearby. Some might have to leave the city altogether. By the end of that meeting, they had about 50 people on board, but they wanted at least half the building’s tenants committed before calling a strike.
Then, in May, a group of tenants across town beat them to the punch. Renters at three buildings in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood had received proposed AGIs in 2022 and 2023. After their landlord, a real-estate investment company called Starlight Investments, told tenants it would only deal with them one-on-one, more than 100 tenants stopped paying rent.
Emboldened, renters at 33 King launched their own strike in June. Even the size of the strike at the outset was a matter of dispute between the tenants and Dream. The YSWTU says it started with 206 tenants, based on its canvassing of the building. Dream insists it was only 59, based on how many people withheld rent that month.
Regardless, Henry was exhilarated: “It showed that we could make a change, and it could spiral into something bigger.” Over the course of the summer and fall, more tenants in more neighbourhoods joined them, motivated by their own grievances: rent hikes, bedbug infestations, shoddy maintenance. As of this writing, hundreds of people are on rent strikes in Toronto—and while the strikes are only loosely coordinated, altogether they likely represent the largest such action in Canadian history.
The movement hasn’t come without consequences. Dream has initiated eviction proceedings for more than 70 tenants at 33 King, and Starlight has started them for 75 in Thorncliffe Park. More are likely to come, but the strikers have remained resolute, the fear of losing their homes outweighed by the impossibility of continuing the status quo.
Their fights are just beginning. Tenant activism is flaring across the country as renters face skyrocketing rents and deteriorating living conditions in the most brutal housing market in memory. Whatever their outcome, the Toronto rent strikes are the latest, loudest volley in a brewing class war.
The first rent strike in Canada took place before the country as we know it even existed. In the years before Confederation, tenant farmers in Prince Edward Island cleared and planted land for British elites who rarely set foot on the Island. Their rents could be raised capriciously, or the leases simply not renewed, leaving them with nothing at all. In 1864, about 80 farmers formed a tenant league to advocate for their interests. It soon had 11,000 members, more than 10 per cent of the Island’s population at the time. League members wanted a chance to buy the land they worked; when landlords balked, the farmers refused to pay them. The colonial government sent in the military to quell the uprising, but in 1878, the newly created Canadian government passed legislation dispossessing the absentee British landowners.
Tenant activism was rarely so fierce in the years that followed, however. Since at least the end of the Second World War, Canada has been a homeownership society in which renting was generally reserved for students, low-income households, racialized Canadians and newcomers. Most people sought to leave it behind, not to fight to improve it. But today, with home prices spiralling out of reach, homeownership rates are dropping for the first time in generations, especially among younger Canadians. Tenant households are growing at three times the rate of owner households. A poll conducted by Ipsos this March found that more than 60 per cent of Canadians who don’t own homes have abandoned the idea of ever becoming homeowners.
That means that competition for Canada’s limited rental stock is exploding. This year, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported the national vacancy rate for purpose-built rental apartments stood at 1.9 per cent, the lowest in two decades. Prices are rising in lockstep. This September in Vancouver—Canada’s most expensive city—the average two-bedroom unit on the apartment-listing platform Rentals.ca cost more than $3,900, compared to $2,900 four years ago. In Toronto, where half the population rents, the figure was $3,400. The median household income in the city—$74,000 after tax—is barely adequate, assuming a household also needs groceries, transportation, daycare and other basics.
To some extent, the problem is simple: there aren’t enough new apartments to satisfy demand, and scarcity is pushing rents higher. According to Carleton University professor and housing policy analyst Steve Pomeroy, a typical new apartment in Canada now goes on the market at about 150 per cent of existing average rents. The rental market is not simply becoming more expensive; it’s leapfrogging into another echelon of unaffordability.
Yet the problem isn’t entirely a matter of plummeting vacancy rates and skyrocketing rents. Obscured in the focus on facts and figures is how the relationship between landlords and tenants is also changing. For years, most new rental housing was found in purpose-built apartment buildings, operated by property managers whose sole business was to rent apartments. Over the past 20 years, new kinds of landlords—individual investors on the one hand, and large corporate players on the other—have increasingly turned Canada’s rental housing into a financial asset first and foremost. That’s fuelled faster rent increases, more precarious living situations, and more potential for conflict.
The roots of that change go back at least as far as the 1980s, when construction of purpose-built rental housing dropped off a cliff. The reasons for the decline are complex, though one is simple: the condo boom of the past few decades drove land values for multi-unit buildings higher, making rental properties less economically viable. By the late ’90s, only a few thousand rental apartments were built annually across the country. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of rental units in condo buildings controlled by small-scale investors grew from about 400,000 to almost 800,000. Those units are subject to the whims of individual owners rather than professional property managers. According to research by Pomeroy, renters in these units experience higher rates of so-called “no-fault” evictions—when landlords want to sell a property, for example, or take it over for personal use. In the federal government’s 2021 Canadian Housing Survey, one quarter of all evictions reported were due to landlords taking over properties. Rent arrears accounted for fewer than 10 per cent.
At the same time, large corporate landlords have taken over more of the market. Real-estate investment trusts, hedge funds and pension funds, and companies like Starlight and Dream have gone on buying sprees, picking up much of the country’s old rental stock. They now hold at least 20 per cent of rented apartments in Canada, with 350,000 units and growing. Real-estate investment trusts—which pool investment capital into a company that acquires property—have gone from holding zero units at the turn of the century to more than 200,000 today.
No agency or researcher tracks every eviction and rent increase in Canada. But the prevailing attitude among many housing scholars is that these landlords’ overriding mandate—to rapidly generate wealth for investors or shareholders—leads to higher rent increases and more bad-faith evictions, pushing out old tenants for new ones who can pay higher rents and generate more profit. In 2022, University of Waterloo planning professor Martine August prepared an unsparing report for the Canadian Human Rights Commission making exactly this point. “Rental apartments are treated as assets for financial investment and managed to generate maximum profits for investors,” she wrote. “This trend is intensifying hardship for renters.” AGIs are a common strategy deployed by corporate landlords, she writes. Indeed, between 2012 and 2019, 64 per cent of all AGI applications in Toronto came from large corporate landlords. Starlight applied for more than any other landlord in town.
Tony Irwin is CEO of the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario. He makes the counterargument that with high interest rates and construction costs, steeper rents are increasingly necessary to keep buildings from falling into disrepair. “We live in a rent-cap environment that’s by no means keeping up with the rising costs of running buildings,” he says. Corporate landlords that also own commercial property—like Dream—are also bearing the cost burden of carrying empty office space as people continue to work from home.
Whether AGIs are being levied to keep properties in good shape, or simply to juice profits, is an academic question for tenants barely hanging on to their homes, like many at 33 King. No one who loses a two-bedroom priced below $1,500, like Sharlene Henry’s, will likely find anything like it again—in Toronto or, increasingly, anywhere in Canada. And never in recent memory have so many renters felt such acute anxiety about their housing situation. That collective fear is making many people consider actions that until recently might have been too radical to contemplate.
When Sharlene Henry and her mother first broached the idea of a strike to other tenants, they were faced, unsurprisingly, with several pressing questions: could Dream kick the tenants out? What were they even trying to achieve? Both answers were simple. To the first question, they responded that no, Dream couldn’t kick residents out. It would need to get an eviction order and take its case to the Landlord and Tenant Board, or LTB. The board was already backlogged; the process could take months or even years. As for what they were seeking, the answer was simple: to cancel the two pending AGI applications, promise a moratorium on future AGIs, and grant tenants a rent abatement—the details to be negotiated with Dream—in exchange for disruptive renovations the company had been carrying out.
In 2021, shortly after taking over the property, the company began to “decarbonize” 33 King by replacing windows, retrofitting the HVAC system and adding solar panels. In theory, these were welcome changes, but tenants say they came with constant noise, disruption, dust and inconvenience. In the summer of 2022, every apartment balcony railing was removed for months as new ones were built and installed. Some are still missing. Workers crowded the elevators, and wait times grew until kids were routinely late for school and residents missed doctor’s appointments.
Some tenants were also skeptical of a strike, thinking the association was simply angling for free rent. But a rent strike doesn’t work like that. Once the strike is over, strikers need to pay back the rent they missed. The question for the 33 King tenants is whether those payments will include the AGIs or not.
Others needed less convincing—especially those living so close to the bone that any rent increase could cost them their homes. Pathma Tharmathevarajah is a tiny, amiable 64-year-old woman who has lived at 33 King for 15 years and worked at a nearby lighting factory for 25. She still makes only about $2,000 a month, and her rent is $1,075. If even one AGI went through, she would lose her apartment, and not just due to the monthly increase. When an AGI is approved, tenants don’t just start paying the higher rate on that date. They also need to retroactively pay the higher rate all the way back to the date of the application. That means that if the 2019 and 2021 AGIs are successful, Tharmathevarajah and other tenants at 33 King will need to pay years’ worth of higher rents all at once. For Tharmathevarajah, it was better to fight.
Finally, some tenants were simply fed up: with the AGIs, and with Dream’s constant renovations. It felt to some people as if Dream was intentionally trying to drive them out. In the company’s 2022 sustainability report, president Michael Cooper is quoted as saying, “We are retrofitting buildings across our portfolio which will reduce operating costs over the life of the asset, lead to higher rents and attract like-minded tenants.”
Once the strike started in June, representatives from the York South-Weston Tenant Union began canvassing the building twice a week, over the phone and in person, knocking on every door. Henry calls Theresa the “quarterback” of the strike; her mother’s comprehensive knowledge of the neighbours—their lives and political inclinations—helped organizers as they recruited. They put up posters, arranged rallies and protests, and even hosted a block party with an ice-cream truck.
Living in a high-rise, you can smell what a neighbour is making for dinner and hear their children’s cries. But it can also be lonely and atomizing. The strike helped break down barriers, giving neighbours a common purpose. In a world where almost everything—the economy, politics, the climate—had become overwhelming, the strike offered a semblance of control. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others trying to figure out how to get through tough times also provides a kind of unique joy. At one protest, a 65-year-old tenant named Montas Descollines, originally from Haiti, reflected on the sense of common purpose. “Rich or poor,” he said, inhaling deeply. “We all breathe the same air.”
In mid-June, Dream started calling tenants, asking why they were withholding rent. It issued letters telling tenants they were violating the law and proposed that if residents were having trouble with rent, they could work out payment arrangements individually. In conversation, Michael Cooper, Dream’s president, seems genuinely affronted by the vehement criticism. “There’s a real housing crisis,” Cooper told me. “We’re not disagreeing on that. But this environment, where really bad things are said about us, it’s not constructive. I don’t see how it helps us; I don’t see how it helps tenants.”
Cooper also mentioned that Dream has a history of community investment. Soon after buying 33 King, for instance, it created a breakfast and homework club, and ESL and swimming classes. It sent kids to camp and awarded $59,000 in scholarships. And in an arrangement with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation to secure financing for building renovations, it made 137 units in the building permanently affordable, defined as no more than 30 per cent of the median renter’s income in Toronto for 2019. That’s about $1,350 monthly; units are required thereafter to only receive rent increases at the rent-cap guidelines and to be exempt from future AGIs. The affordable units are also required to be turned over to new tenants at the previous tenant’s rate. Cooper felt that the YSWTU was using the situation to advance a political agenda around rent control, something he argued was the responsibility of government, not companies like his.
Even as Dream fought back, the tenants’ cause spread. Henry’s union, Unifor, allowed her to work full-time on the strike while receiving her salary. More than 50 community groups, including FoodShare, the YWCA and Social Planning Toronto, offered public support. The involvement of the YSWTU was critical to generating that broad support. Led by Bruno Dobrusin, a labour and climate activist originally from Argentina, and Chiara Padovani, a social worker, the YSWTU represents about 2,000 tenants in the area. It’s active, aggressive and popular. In the 2022 municipal election, Padovani ran against the local city councillor, Frances Nunziata, in a race focusing substantially on tenant issues—and came within 100 votes of unseating her.
On July 1, a month after the strike began, the King Street strikers were joined by 90 tenants at another building owned by Dream, less than a block away. That building, at 22 John Street, which Dream describes as a “resort-style” community, is a very different kind of highrise. Its sleek glass facade wouldn’t look out of place among Toronto’s waterfront condos, and the rents are correspondingly much higher. Crucially, while 33 King is rent-controlled, 22 John is not. It was completed in 2019, one year after Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government scrapped rent control for new buildings in a bid to stimulate more construction. Its tenants have experienced monthly rent increases of seven to nine per cent every year. As of this writing, the cheapest one-bedroom unit rents for $2,344 a month. The building’s residents are clearly of a wealthier demographic than the lower-income residents at 33 King, but the fact that they’ve joined forces shows how many people are affected by the rental crisis.
By August, Dream had started issuing eviction notices, as did Starlight in Thorncliffe Park. As with the AGIs, these disputes have to be resolved at the Landlord and Tenant Board, a process neither side is thrilled about. Cases are badly backlogged, with some tenant complaints against landlords now more than two years old. Some AGIs, including Dream’s, have sat around for years.
After months of lobbying, the Weston strikers at 33 King received an unexpected boost in September. Newly elected Toronto mayor Olivia Chow agreed to broker and attend a meeting between the tenants and Dream. To some activists, it was momentous to see the city’s highest elected official wade into the dispute, and more than that, demonstrate sympathy with their side. “What Olivia Chow did, I have never seen,” says Pierce Nettling, an urban geographer and member of the Victoria Tenants Union in British Columbia. “It’s the only time I recall a mayor recognizing a tenants’ union and saying, ‘They have political rights, and you should talk to them.’ ”
But Dream turned them down. Its legal counsel had advised the company not to engage elsewhere while its disputes were before the LTB. It was convened anyway, in the basement of the Weston King Neighbourhood Centre on September 14. The room was packed with tenants, many wearing the union’s T-shirts and buttons. Frances Nunziata sat next to Chow, looking uncomfortable. Chow talked about what she could do for renters at City Hall, including opening a tenant advocate office. After the meeting, Henry was cautiously optimistic. “She said she didn’t want anybody to lose their home,” Henry recalled. Ultimately, of course, that wouldn’t be up to her.
In his new book, The Tenant Class, political economist Ricardo Tranjan argues that for Canada’s property owners, the housing crisis is no crisis at all. The worse it gets, the more money they make. On one side of this brewing class conflict is a real-estate industry and a political system—and arguably, a majority of the population—who see housing as a commodity. On the other side are those who believe it’s a human right.
Tranjan’s perspective lies decidedly to the left of mainstream economists and housing wonks—he is skeptical, for example, that boosting housing supply will make a major dent in rental affordability. “Developers and landlords have convinced the public that the only cause, and the ultimate solution, for the so-called housing crisis is supply,” Tranjan told me. “They’ve managed to present themselves as the solution instead of the problem.”
Most economists and housing wonks disagree. Former Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who is now CEO of Markee Developments, a developer of rental housing, thinks things will shift as rental construction continues to grow from historic lows. “When there’s some competition for tenants, it changes the behaviour of landlords,” she says. “We saw that in the brief moment in the pandemic where landlords were suddenly offering breaks on rent.”
The idea of more aggressive tenant action is spreading, thanks in part to dissatisfaction with traditional avenues of change. Years ago, the Vancouver Tenants Union made City Hall its battleground, lobbying councillors for policies designed to protect tenants. But for all its effort, the union has been disappointed in what it’s been able to achieve, with ambitious motions on issues like renovictions failing to translate into concrete city policy. When the P.E.I. government was revising its residential tenancy act last year, it consulted with the activist group PEI Fight for Affordable Housing. But the government accepted only four of PFAH’s 27 recommendations. To Cory Pater, a P.E.I. organizer who lives near Charlottetown, the Toronto rent strikes are an inspiration. “People are being fleeced for units that are, on average, not well cared for,” he says. “Getting together and trying to find solutions among tenants is the natural response to that. Especially when you go through the regulator and the province and every route available, and nothing works.”
In Quebec, the Montreal Autonomous Tenants Union is also watching the Toronto strikes carefully. The group is planning a potentially massive strike to protest proposed provincial legislation that would allow landlords to do away with lease transfers, which allow renters to pass a low-rent lease over to a new tenant. In September, the union had persuaded 250 tenants to participate, but it’s planning to go ahead only after they have 5,000 committed.
There are now about 40 active tenants’ unions nationwide, with new ones recently formed in Victoria, Montreal and even small towns like Nelson, B.C. They hope that a growing population of renters facing sky-high prices will be more inclined to push back and reorient the terms of the debate, drawing power away from landlords. For them, the Toronto strikes herald the beginning of a new historical moment—in which the fast-growing class of Canadian tenants recognizes their mutual interests and fights for them.
The day after the Chow meeting, Sharlene Henry and a dozen tenants and organizers met in the lobby at 33 King for their weekly full-building canvass. Thanks to the meeting with the mayor, the update had some extra electricity. But first Henry had to go upstairs and prepare her two oldest kids, Xavier and Arielle, for a tae kwon do class. Other tenants were returning from work or school, and the lineup for the elevators was at least 20 deep. It took 15 minutes just to squeeze into one. Upstairs, Henry’s crowded apartment was filled with toys, clothing, diaper boxes and kid art. Chairs were perched on a dining table. Her balcony is still unusable due to a missing railing.
Xavier and Arielle chased each other around, fighting over a tae kwon do belt. Henry’s youngest, four-year-old Sophia-Belle, toddled around half-dressed. After several minutes and some parental cajoling, they piled into a crowded elevator. Another tenant got in, and Xavier whispered in French, “CP24.” Henry smiled. CP24—a Toronto news channel—is Xavier’s code name for a tenant opposed to the strike, who everyone suspects is relaying intel to the property manager and Dream.
That night, only a few people answered the door when Henry knocked. She asked about their health and their kids, offering help to those who’d received eviction notices. On one floor, she struck up a conversation with a young woman in a house dress and shower sandals. Henry asked if she’d joined the strike. The woman smiled sheepishly and said she was thinking about it. She supported the action, but already she’d had a hard time getting repairs done. She was tempted to move, but she discovered that the situation facing renters had changed since she was last apartment hunting: many landlords now required a guarantor on the lease, and asked prospective tenants if they made at least $75,000 a year.
Henry didn’t ask again about the strike, but suggested she stop going directly to the building manager and instead use Dream’s website to electronically file a maintenance request. She scribbled the URL down on a flyer that said, “I’m Fighting for Fair Rent.”
Chiara Padovani, of the York South-Weston Tenant Union, says there are still around 200 residents participating in the strike, based on its weekly canvassing. Dream continues to show a dramatically smaller number, only 45 as of October, down from the strike’s start. According to a statement provided by Dream, some tenants are paying rent quietly behind the scenes, but telling the union they’re participating. However, the company also says they only consider tenants who have not paid rent at all since the beginning of the strike to be participating, stating that any rent payment since the beginning “negates the idea” that they’re on strike. Padovani rejects that logic, and also points to the number of eviction proceedings under way. As of late October, according to numbers provided by the LTB, there are 76 active applications to evict tenants at 33 King for non-payment of rent. That number does not include all the strikers; Sharlene Henry, for example, has received no notice of an eviction hearing.
This October, the LTB held its first eviction hearing for any of the Toronto rent strikers, two tenants from Thorncliffe Park. It was held online, and at least a hundred observers logged on to watch as it unfolded with all the drama and swerve of an off-Broadway play. The adjudicator, vice-chair Sean Henry (no relation to Sharlene), spoke in disjointed but florid full paragraphs. The landlord counsel was older and brusque. The tenant counsel was young, earnest, well-meaning. She asked if the cases could be consolidated with the 74 other Thorncliffe Park tenants facing eviction—whom they were also representing—so they could be heard at the same date. Their argument was that the evidence and defence would be the same for all. The landlord counsel said it would delay things further. He added that if the tenants continued not paying rent, Starlight would be unable to maintain the buildings.
Henry, the adjudicator, ultimately sided with tenant counsel in the name of “judicial economy.” All 75 cases would be heard later this year, at a date still to be determined as of this writing.
Bruno Dobrusin, of the YSWTU, thought the hearing was a good step. “Landlords always want to deal with this in one-on-ones,” he says. This was the obvious heart of the matter, he believes: get more people on board, keep growing, stick together.
Throughout the fall, Sharlene Henry continued to do this—canvassing, running protests, talking to the media. She’s gearing up for eviction hearings for the Weston tenants, which she expects to occur early next year. The adjudicator in that case is also leaning toward consolidating them.
Recently, Henry has been leading classes on public speaking for women at the Unifor Family Education Centre, a union training facility in Port Elgin, a small town on the shores of Lake Huron, northwest of Toronto. She’s grown deeply fond of the place. It’s pretty, and she’s helping to train a whole new cadre of female workers. On one of her recent visits, she took Xavier with her. He loved it too. He could go to the beach and play video games, and they got to stay in the Cove, a townhouse much bigger than their apartment. After a couple of days, though, Henry was missing things in Toronto—her family, of course, but also things like Michael’s, the craft supply store, and the tumult of city life. She just wanted to get home.
Story by: Maclean’s