Housing group brings renters’ troubles with corporate landlords to review panel

By Michael Tutton in Halifax

A national housing advocacy group delivered about 400 stories of renters’ difficulties in dealing with large corporate landlords to federal offices in 10 Canadian cities on Monday.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, held rallies in cities including Toronto, Halifax, Vancouver and Ottawa as they provided the testimonials to Liberal MPs and to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

The testimonials describe how tenants faced higher rents and – in some cases – poor maintenance after their rental units were taken over by real estate investment trusts.

The group made the deliveries as their national spokesperson, Tanya Burkart, joined with other advocacy groups providing testimony to an online federal review panel that is examining the impact of rental housing being bought up by large investment firms.

“ACORN would like the federal government to stop financialized landlords from buying more affordable housing and instead create an acquisition fund to allow non-profit, co-operative, land trust and tenant groups to purchase at-risk buildings when they come on the market,” she told the panel.

The testimonials were also provided in August to the federal review panel, which will report to the federal housing minister next year.

In the document, one renter who lives in the Toronto suburb of North York wrote of dealing with “bed bugs, cockroaches, mice and peeling paint in the bathroom,” and called for rent control so “we have a choice to move.”

Another, living in New Westminster, B.C., wrote, “There no repairs unless it’s absolutely necessary, like when my ceiling caved in three times since I’ve been here.”

At a rally in Halifax, 65-year-old Heather Clark said she provided a testimonial hoping the federal review panel will make recommendations to the federal housing minister to address a lack of affordable housing for seniors and people with disabilities.

“The province is relying on private, corporate builders to provide affordable housing and it’s not working,” she said.

Lisa Hayhurst, who also attended the Halifax rally, said her building is “not in great shape” since a large real estate corporation took over six years ago.

“I wanted to come out to let them know they can’t get away with it,” the 43-year-old said. “They have to be able to fix up their buildings.”

According to a summary of reports prepared for the Federal Housing Advocate, which describes itself as an independent, non-partisan watchdog, financial firms began consolidating ownership of family housing in the late 1990s. Now, the largest financial firms in the country own an estimated 340,000 suites.

The report by Martine August, which was released last year, says institutions hold an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of multi-family rental units, “with consolidation increasing each year.”

Brian Doucet, a professor of planning at the University of Waterloo, said in an interview that for too long Canadian governments have focused on building new housing stock, while “losing sight of the housing that already is affordable.”

“This is mostly private housing being lost through demolition but also through evictions as corporations renovate the units and rent them out at higher rates,” he said.

“Having tenants present these testimonials is hugely important because in policy and government discussions, if you don’t have the numbers, it’s almost like the problem doesn’t exist,” he said.

During her testimony before the federal review panel, Burkart said the testimonials showed that many tenants no longer even know who their landlord is, and many are facing potential evictions as their building owners look to bring in renters willing to pay more. 

She gave the example of the rising rent at her own building in Brampton, Ont., which has been taken over by a real estate investment group.

“Lack of rent control gives massive incentives to evict long-term tenants,” she told the three-person review panel, which has a mandate to examine the “financialization of purpose-built rental housing.” 

The National Housing Strategy Act, passed in 2019 by the Liberal government, recognized housing as a human right and committed Ottawa to take steps to further that goal. Review panels can be created under the act to examine “systemic housing issues” that obstruct this underlying goal.

Burkart told the panelists that Ottawa needs to bring its financial leverage into play to “mandate full rent control in all provinces and territories.”

She also called for an immediate change to the Income Tax Act provisions that give real estate investment trusts exemptions, or else “require them to convert 20 per cent of each of their buildings to social housing.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2023

Banner image via The Canadian Press