Ottawa: Midpoint Reflections on the Pandemic

Submitted by the Herongate Tenant Coalition

Since March, several possibilities have opened up in this city for tenants to work together in our interests against landlords. While Herongate Tenant Coalition was formed in May 2018 by tenants across our neighbourhood in the south end of so-called Ottawa to defend against Timbercreek’s massive demoviction campaign, this pandemic has created another urgency; this time for working class people across the city to unite to proactively address our suffering under these specific conditions we share. Hence why the Keep Your Rent strategy rang so powerfully here as it did in other cities.

A COVID-19 Ottawa Rent Strike Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/KeepYourRentOttawa) was launched quickly once lockdown started. At the beginning, this group was toeing the leftist line of petitions and appeals to government. Some important discussions were had and the online group quickly shifted to act as a tool for mass organization across the city. This was not an initiative of Herongate Tenant Coalition. Rather, HTC, as an established tenant committee with some form of infrastructure in place, has acted as a medium through which to disseminate materials and information. With a website already set up, mailing lists compiled, active social media accounts, and—most importantly—networks with tenants already established, we were not left scrambling to organize ourselves from scratch during a situation where it became a public health risk to communicate face-to-face. Established, radical independent organizations built on trust and commitment are essential in a class society. There is already more than enough to learn during a pandemic.

We’ve improvised working through this pandemic. We were pretty adamant in the beginning about relying on postering and talking to neighbours as we happened to bump into them (in laundry rooms, elevators, etc.). But nothing can replace direct contact with people, so flyers under doors were one of our best options. Tenants also got in touch by reaching out to our phone line. Some of these tenants were either already connected and organizing with their neighbours on some level or were eager to take on tasks like postering and flyer distribution.

Tenants in our neighbourhood have lost hours or entire jobs. They’ve gone without food. They’ve faced increased expenses and have lost loved ones to the virus. Yet, landlords have expected rent as usual and have escalated the situation by flat out demanding rent, threatening tenants with eviction and issuing bogus notices in an attempt to shake tenants down. One smaller landlord in the neighbourhood even responded to a tenant’s flyers and posters by distributing a notice throughout the building stating the tenant was spreading “fake news.”

We know tenants have paid rent with their credit cards, have dipped into their meagre savings, and have had family members pool money together, all to pay a $10-billion financialized landlord. But we also know tenants have come together with a commitment to keep their rent and to respond collectively to landlords.

This is our fourth organizing campaign since May 2018, when Herongate Tenant Coalition formed on the basis of refusing the demovictions imposed on tenants of over 100 townhouses in our neighbourhood.

Our second campaign was based on fighting an Above Guideline Increase that Timbercreek had applied for. As AGIs always are, this was another of the landlord’s tactics to jack up rent and intensify the daily struggles and stresses of the working class. We held lobby meetings, organized carpools to bring tenants to their Landlord and Tenant Board hearings downtown and successfully turned down Timbercreek’s “settlement” of a pathetically lower rent increase. After requesting the landlord’s full rent increase application—which included supporting documents and invoices justifying the rent increase—a tenant discovered Timbercreek had even thrown in an invoice for their office A/C.

Our third campaign involved a tenant who was dealing with bedbugs and rightly wanted the whole tower treated. After doing research online on how to deal with the pests (bedbugs and Timbercreek), this tenant came across HTC and reached out. We developed a form for tenants to sign and door-knocked throughout the building to find those who had had bugs. This gave us firm documentation of how many people in the building shared the problem. The strategy was to get Timbercreek to do block treatments of either entire floors or the entire building rather than individual unit treatments which, even when repeated, don’t accomplish anything.

For all three of these campaigns, we weren’t successful at getting high numbers of tenants on board with the agreement that any victory was contingent on their ability to pressure Timbercreek directly through extra-legal tactics. We can’t say we’ve had a clearcut victory in any of these campaigns (the third is still before the LTB). While we have several legal cases currently on the go (most connected with the 2018 demovictions) which were only able to be developed after forming connections and trust with neighbours, we never set out to take the legal route. This only became an option once the dust had settled; after Timbercreek had won and tenants suffered and were displaced, then the courts became our pie in the sky option at restitution. We will realize our power as working class people once we have shifted from picking through the rubble after getting blitzed to defending from attacks in the first place.

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