The United Nations’ Human Rights office has published accusations against Sweden-based Akelius Residential, which owns thousands of rental units in Toronto and Montreal.
The accusations are included in letters sent from Leilani Farha, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, to Akelius and the governments of Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom in April. They detail alleged incidents and practices designed to create hostile living conditions, force out tenants and drive up rent prices.
“The Akelius business model actually requires in many instances for units to be empty,” Farha says in a phone interview. “It’s when a unit is empty that they are able to rent it out at a higher cost. There’s a two-pronged approach they take. They buy buildings that they believe require upgrades. They create conditions through those upgrades that make it very hard to live in those locations.”
Farha is currently global director of The Shift, a housing rights advocacy organization. Before leaving her post at the UN, she detailed in the letters a business model that tramples over human rights and referred to a variety of tenant complaints.
The letters accuse Akelius of buying up apartment blocks in Toronto and Montreal, performing modernization renovations on empty flats or communal areas that the complainants argue are at times unnecessary, and then using such work as an excuse to raise rents above the acceptable increases.
She refers to complaints, many coming from tenants living in Akelius’s Parkdale properties, of back-to-back increases, sometimes amounting up to five times greater than provincial guidelines would normally allow.
Farha also cited complaints that Akelius would purchase a building, replace a superintendent with a phone line, halt unit improvements and limit basic services such as garbage removal, while also embarking on severely disruptive renovations that sometimes forces tenants to voluntarily leave their apartments. Other complaints involve water shutdowns and lack of heating.
Toronto-based Akelius Residential executive Shelly Lee has not responded to NOW’s request for comment.
In an interview with CBC News in May, she called Farha’s allegations “unfounded” and denied the company practices renovictions.
“Our business idea is to provide a better living. That comes with renovations, and also improved services,” she said. “Our policy is to not force anybody out, and only to renovate vacant units.”
In the April letter, Farha urged the Canadian government to develop a “human-rights based response team” to deal with renovictions and the rising cost of rent.
“Habitability is a key requirement of adequate housing under international law,” says Farha. “Affordability is a cornerstone of the right to housing under international law.”
The Canadian government chose not to respond within the 60-day window the UN allows before making the filings public. Farha is willing to give Ottawa the benefit of the doubt due to the coronavirus pandemic. But she says renovations have continued and the pandemic has exacerbated anxieties around housing.
“The threat of being pushed out in the current economic and health climate is different than it was three months ago,” says Farha. “There’s a real urgency to have these issues addressed. I think everyone needs to know they’re just going to have a safe space to stay.”