Parkdale tenants keep their rent over building upkeep
The tenants are withholding partial rent from their corporate landlord in response to what they call unfair living conditions
By Julia Mastroianni
Mar 2, 2021
Google Street View of 55 Triller Avenue in Parkdale.
Tenants in a Parkdale building are withholding a third of their rent in an effort to send a message to a corporate landlord over what they call unfair living conditions.
The building, located at 55 Triller and managed by DMS Property Management Ltd, was bought by Starlight Investments a year ago.
Starlight filed the highest number of applications for above-guideline rent increases in Toronto between 2012 to 2019, according to a recent report by RenovictionsTO.
When Starlight took over the property, tenants say they started noticing everything from a lack of water, heat and even emergency lights in stairwells.
After months of attempts to communicate with the landlord, complaints to the city, calls to 311 and having individual tenants take Starlight to the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) to settle grievances, the tenants say nothing changed, prompting them to organize a partial rent strike.
Withholding rent has become more common in tenant organizing in Toronto after the Keep Your Rent campaign sparked last April by renters who lost income and their jobs during the pandemic.
While many people who can’t afford to pay rent have continued to withhold payments to landlords – prompting the fast-tracking of evictions across the province – rent strikes have also been used as an organizing tactic for tenants to get the attention of landlords who refuse to communicate or cooperate on their concerns.
Tenants felt they had “no other choice”
Katie Lloyd, a single mother who has been living at 55 Triller for six years, says that while she doesn’t feel like her housing is in jeopardy – as someone who pays her rent on time and feels comfortable emailing management whenever there is an issue – she is joining the rent strike for the sake of other tenants.
“There are so many people who don’t feel comfortable doing that or don’t have the ability to advocate for themselves, and they shouldn’t have to remind a landlord of their rights,” she says.
Lloyd says the building was “at its best” in the months before Starlight took ownership – and once they did, she says things went downhill.
She says Starlight removed the debit machine everybody used to pay rent without notifying anybody, and then forced tenants to use an online portal to pay rent that charged a fee. She alleges the landlord removed on-site staff (they’ve been recently replaced) making them difficult to reach during regular hours. Lloyd says major heating and repair issues started once Starlight took over.
“They stopped doing pest treatments, and then they started up again unannounced,” she says.
Dora Correia, a newer tenant, says she was immediately faced with infestations of mice, cockroaches and other bugs shortly after she moved in about a year ago. When she complained to DMS, she says management told her it was impossible because no one else had mice.
“I bought products to get rid of them and management refused to pay for the products because they kept saying the building doesn’t have any pests.”
The building’s management has rejected tenants’ claims, saying that the allegations of neglect and lack of communication are “without merit.”
Danny Roth, a spokesperson for DMS Property, said in an email statement in response to questions from NOW that it is “unreasonable” to expect that apartment buildings could be immune from emergencies or operational issues.
“As to criticism of our management efforts at the property or perceived lack of communication with tenants, we simply disagree. We continue to seek dialogue with residents and attend quickly to any maintenance issues or tenant concerns brought to our attention,” he says.
Roth admits that tenants “recently experienced challenges including a temporary loss of hydro power and a failure of the boiler system.” But he says that “both situations were dealt with quickly, professionally and fully resolved.
“Faced with these building challenges, management’s efforts included the installation of an emergency generator, the provision of additional security and site staff throughout the building, and bottled water was made available,” he continues.
But Lloyd says that for most tenants holding back rent has become “the only option” to get a response. “I’m a single mom so I didn’t want to risk my housing in any way, but I’ve tried everything else.”
Rent strikes as a tactic against evictions
Bryan Doherty, a tenant organizer with Parkdale Organize, has been keeping his rent for a year now.
“The process of coming together and even doing something like a rent strike or a rent reduction, all of that requires you to build deeper connections with people in your neighbourhood and especially in your building,” he says.
Like the residents 55 Triller, tenants are often told to try calling 311, the LTB or other options instead of organizing.
But Doherty says that’s to the benefit of landlords, who have much more power and success in these more “official” channels.
“It’s frankly not even acceptable that tenants would be expected to exhaust every single other avenue and dead ends that people insist tenants pursue before they actually do things that have proven to be successful,” he says.
He says that rent strikes have made a marked difference in eviction rates in Parkdale over the past year, and he credits that to tenant organizing.
“It would be safe to conclude that [the lower eviction rate] actually has a lot to do with the potential for pressure and pushback from people in this neighbourhood,” he says.
Dania Majid, a Toronto-based staff lawyer at Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, says tenants also pursue rent strikes because landlord applications for evictions or arrears are heard much faster by the LTB than tenant applications. That gives tenants an opportunity to raise other issues they may be facing.
“When a landlord brings an arrears application against a tenant, the tenant has the right at the hearing to raise all their issues at the same time,” she says.
Majid adds that if a tenant is thinking of a rent strike, they should ensure they’re still keeping the money aside, just in case.
“You don’t want to find yourself in a position where you have to pay something back and you don’t have anything to pay,” she says.
Roth says most tenants in the building will continue paying their full rent.
“We will not speculate on proposed actions by a handful of residents regarding their tenancies at 55 Triller, but note that we are confident that the vast majority of tenants will continue to abide by the terms of their lease agreements,” he says. “For those who choose to do otherwise, we will follow the protocols set by the Residentials Tenancies Act, as well as the Landlord and Tenant Board.”
Julia Mastroianni’s first attempt at writing resulted in the first 20 pages of a novel that she promptly abandoned, a year after starting, at age nine, because she couldn't bear to read her own work. Since then, she’s completed assignments at various publications, including Post City Magazines and the National Post.