Around election time there are always tepid complaints about low voter turnout (though these are usually forgotten once those waxing concerned are elected and feel the need to start speaking of "mandates.")
But some actually shape their entire campaigns to lure new folks to the polls. That's what Anthony Perruzza, running for council in York West, believes he's doing by championing landlord licensing, a system that would work a lot like restaurant inspections. "It always seems that tenants don't get engaged in municipal democracy," he says.
Campaign volunteer Giselle Yanez is more blunt. "I've been around a while," she tells me, "and politicians are always saying, "Don't worry, tenants don't vote. '"
Look for changes this time around. In Ward 8 (which begins a short distance north of Sheppard and extends to Steeles in the north, Dufferin in the east and Jane in the west), 70 per cent of residents are renters. Most live in high-rise buildings, most of which are in disrepair. Whether in spite of this or more likely because of it, the ward has one of the lowest voter turnouts 8,872 voted municipally in 2003 out of a population of over 50,000.
While canvassing, Perruzza often speaks about rental issues, and learned about ACORN, a tenants' rights group dedicated to organizing voters in the area.
Ursula Valley, an ACORN member, says many in her building are wary of getting involved lest they face repercussions from landlords.
"But you're waiting a long time for things to get done," she says. "[Plaster chunks] from the walls are falling off. It's really unfair to tenants." She enunciates "tenants" with a pointed mixture of hurt and pride.
Through his dealings with the group, Perruzza has come to believe that the New City Of Toronto Act opens a "window of opportunity" for landlord licensing, which ACORN has pushed for successfully elsewhere and finds that proposing it is getting him into apartments.
"In other elections it was difficult to get a door open," says the former North York city councillor, who was also an NDP MPP in the Bob Rae government.
Perruzza lost to incumbent Peter LiPreti municipally by a mere 456 votes in 2003. "But the minute we talk about landlord licensing, immediately their attention perks up."
The proposal, which forms Perruzza's main plank, is based on a similar system in Los Angeles requiring landlords to register before they can rent, and rating them based on the physical state of their buildings.
Proponents say the weakness of our current system is that it's entirely complaint-based and puts the onus on tenants. Filing a complaint at the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal costs $45 many can't afford.
Perruzza's and ACORN's plan would have landlords pay a per-unit monthly fee for a licence. In theory, the money would go toward a renewed regime of municipal building inspectors, allowing more inspections and moving responsibility away from the province.
"What's happened in L.A. is that the level of [tenant] complaints has dropped dramatically," says Perruzza.
Moving away from an ineffective fine system would be the real strength of licensing, says ACORN board member Marva Burnett.
"The fines are, like, nothing," she tells me. "Landlords say, "Let's pay the fines rather pay for the work.'"
The registry would see rent owed to negligent landlords put instead into an escrow account held by the city, which would then fund the repairs directly.
Of course, you have to wonder if a better-funded licensing department would automatically be a more responsive licensing department. Tenant grievances, after all, aren't all reserved for landlords.
"The city has the rules; it just isn't enforcing them," says Burnett. She echoes the feeling of many tenant activists that the sensational firing of former licensing and building standards head Pam Coburn had little to do with impropriety and more to do with the fact that she was one of the few "doing her job." (Coburn, incidentally, favoured a similar registry system).
Ward councillor Peter LiPreti, Perruzza's opposition, says the proposal has "merit,' but he doesn't see it as an election issue. "The problems are more common in depressed areas,' he says.
"Rather than bring in a city-wide registry, we could accomplish more by focusing on known problems,' he says, referring to a proposed new bylaw creating spot teams of police and city staff. "Landlords will always find a way around whatever we put on them.'
Valley would probably agree, telling me of a neighbour who complained for months about a fridge that wasn't working. "[City staff] never paid the woman no mind," she says. "She had to go to the tribunal. She won the case, and [the landlord] just gave her some other second-hand fridge."
And in fact, one of the landlords most commonly complained about is the city itself specifically its wholly owned subsidiary the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.
I ask Burnett if the escrow account wouldn't simply require tenants to shift their grievances from one person or management company to a sprawling bureaucracy one many are already having trouble with.
How will they know their money is funding repairs and not bureaucracy? "We're the ones who will be paying the money, so you can be sure we'll be keeping an eye on it," she says.
So far, no one has suggested looking into whether the new act could simply allow tenants to stop paying negligent landlords. And realpolitik may mean no one ever does.
But Perruzza, for his part, says any local adaptation of the L.A. bylaw should be informed by tenant experiences. "It's about bringing in a meaningful and useful bylaw," he says.
That's not the same thing as meaningful and useful living conditions but it could very well be one step in that direction. Goodness knows, tenants are a patient lot, for better or worse.