October marks the sixth month of the East Hamilton Rent Strike, where tenants from Stoney Creek Towers are fighting ongoing attempts by their landord, CLV and InterRent Group, to defeat the rent strikers. These tenants, who have been withholding their rent since May 1, are doing so in protest of the landlord’s plan to increase rent by 10% over the next two years, through an Above Guideline Increase (AGI).
You say rent hike, we say rent strike
Striking tenants have been organizing around the buildings state of disrepair, such as the lack of air and heating, broken elevators, ignored maintenance requests, and bug infestations. Syed Yazdani, a tenant who has lived in the Stoney Creek Towers for five years, got involved in March after seeing older tenants ignored by the landlords.
“We’re being pushed out. They don’t want us here, they want the new people,” said Yazdani. That’s why our repairs are being ignored.”
In Hamilton, much like Toronto, rent has increased dramatically in recent years, with many renters being forcibly priced out of their homes. While the proposed AGI can only be used for addressing structural problems, tenants have argued that CLV and InterRent Group are increasing the rent to make cosmetic improvements to attract new renters, rather than addressing current tenants concerns.
“This is the area that we’ve been trying as a community to fix for so long. Fighting for the GO station, building the community, making it safe for the children,” Yazdani noted. “Now this company is coming in with these investors behind them, and they’re trying to take this all away from us. Things that we’ve been working for, for decades.”
Support for the rent strike from the Hamilton labour movement and community has been widespread, with financial support, benefit concerts, movie nights, BBQ’s and carwashes all contributing to the rent strike’s Legal Defence Fund, which has raised thousands of dollars of support.
At this year’s Labour Day Parade in Hamilton rent strikers were invited as guests to the march. Anthony Marco, President of the Hamilton District Labour Council, sees supporting the rent strike as being crucial to labour’s role within the community.
“When any group of workers is embroiled in a class struggle against property owners, it’s incumbent upon the rest of the working class to support them. Organized labour needs to respect this act of defiance and offer solidarity,” said Marco. “While we can’t expect all working class people to understand the nuance of a pension or benefits fight, we often encourage public support of our issues. Such solidarity has to go both ways if the working class stands a chance to fight against the growing gaps between affluence and poverty.”
The Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network (HTSN) a grassroots collective that has been organizing with the rent strikers, has been door knocking, holding tenants rights workshops, and supporting the Stoney Creek Towers tenants since before the strike began.
Strikers, the HTSN and their labour allies have been organizing to put pressure on CLV and InterRent to come to the negotiating table and speak with the tenants. Sarah Wahab, an organizer with HTSN, said “I understand that that’s not my rent specifically because I don’t live in those buildings. But that increase will affect the rest of the city. So raising the rent above the provincial guideline, people can’t afford it.“
Wahab got involved in part because she sees the rent strike as a part of reproductive justice. “The rent strike is a fight for justice, for mothers, for parents and children,” said Wahab. “Working class parents who have three or four jobs. They deserve to have homes that are safe for their children to live in.”
Jolly Augusthy is one of the many parents involved in the rent strike. She got involved after experiencing a lack of respect for tenants issues in her building. She saw collective action as the only hope of making CLV negotiate. Between caring for her two young children, taking care of family, and teaching Malayalam in the community, she still feels it is important to continue to stay involved in the rent strike.
“I’m still invested in it. It’s a good thing to do for our community, it’s not only for me – it’s for other tenants who are renting. They have rights. For me, I’m really invested. I think it’s a good idea to get involved with it,” explained Augusthy.
Repairs have slowly started occurring in the Stoney Creek Towers, which is due to the collective action of the tenants.
Retaliation against the rent strikers
There have been several tactics that the landlords have used in order to prevent organizing. Tenants and the HTSN have been holding organizing meetings in the lobbies of two of the buildings in Stoney Creek Towers since the strike began. Most recently, landlords have walled off the doorways to these common areas with drywall.
Cass Roach, an organizer with HTSN explained that, “in the residential and tenancy act, it’s clearly laid out that tenants are allowed to organize. Anyone that tries to stop tenants from organizing or from starting a tenant association can face a hefty fine up to 100,000 dollars. But they’re still doing it.” Roach says that this has only further galvanized the rent strikers.
In addition to the walls, ‘No Loitering’ signs have also been put up in the lobbies, with many HTSN organizers facing trespassing notices. CLV and InterRent has told the tenants that meeting in the lobbies poses a ‘safety and security risk’, and that the organizers presence was “interfering with tenants enjoyment of the common area.”
Psy Phommavong is one of the many tenants who has been issued an N5 eviction notice following a recent rent strike meeting. After a security guard tried to remove an organizer from the lobby, tenants got involved.
“I told the security guy, you can’t touch him because I’ve done nothing wrong. If you want to remove me, call the police,” said Phommavong. “I told the manager, you know something? I come from a Communist country. I came to this country, looking for a better life for myself. This is Canada, this is my apartment building, and in this common area I have every right to be here.”
Winning with solidarity
Phommavong and Yazdani are just two of the hundreds of tenants in Stoney Creek Towers fighting the rent hike. “I’m a retiree on fixed income. If there’s a $700 increase, I can’t afford that. They have that fancy word, gentrification, but when you really look at it, it’s not gentle at all,” said Phommavong.
As Marco explains, “the best partner that labour can have during a working class struggle is an informed, activist working class who has tasted the victory through solidarity. Such victories are infectious and help to build a working class movement, where unions will be an important part but only a minority.”
Tenants of Stoney Creek Towers have begun to see this victory in their long sustained fight against CLV and InterRent, with tenant’s issues now beginning to be addressed by the landlord. As the cost of rent continues to rise across the country, trade unionists are needed to aid in the support of housing justice rights, and take action in the broader fight against displacement. To support the East Hamilton rent strike, people can donate to the strikes Go Fund Me, host a solidarity action, and attend future events, including the Above Guideline Increase hearings happening November 1 and 2.
“No matter what happens with the rent strike, we’ve won. Because tenants have found this power within themselves and within each other to work together and fight against this landlord. That can never be taken away from them,” said Roach.