Canada: Tenants confront the housing crisis

OTA Chair Joan Kuyek and Alderman John Sewell at panel on Tenant Control, Toronto.

First published at Life on the Left.

Nothing illustrates the post-pandemic austerity more clearly than the sharp inflation in housing costs as reflected in the escalating rates of mortgage interest[1] and residential rents.

Most immediate are the rent increases. Average rents across Canada have risen by 20 percent since the onset of the pandemic, and by even more in major cities.[2]

Not surprisingly, Ricardo Tranjan’s book on what he terms “The Tenant Class,” published in May, has attracted wide interest and sympathy from housing activists and advocates.[3] A senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Tranjan takes aim at the conventional approach, which treats the “housing crisis” as a temporary problem requiring a technical solution: build more housing to bring supply into balance with demand and thereby limit prices through competition. Critics on the left, he notes, emphasize the need to remove housing as much as possible from market forces through promoting and building social and community housing, regulating the remaining market provision, and organizing tenants to ensure quality and access.

How can this be done? Tranjan sees tenants as the vehicle for change. His concern is with agency, and tenants alone in his view have the interest and capacity to force the debate onto the political agenda. And he describes some major tenant struggles in Canada. “Organizers may find these stories helpful,” he says, “when calling other tenants to join the historical struggle against the landlord class, which includes many inspiring victories.” The stories he cites include a struggle by 19th century settlers in Prince Edward Island against absentee British landlords for the right to buy their land as freehold tenure; Nova Scotia struggles for social housing construction; Montréal battles for tenants control of social housing; and struggles in Vancouver for the right to collective bargaining by tenants.

A separate chapter on tenant organizing today features rent strikes and political action initiatives in Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver as well as community organizing aimed at strengthening tenant input in battles for adequate housing.

Important omission

It is a useful, if rather disparate, inventory. But I – as a tenant activist in the late 1960s – was surprised to find only a fleeting (and inaccurate) mention of the major struggle in which we won legal security of tenure in Ontario. Here is what Tranjan says, in toto:

“Ontario had revised its residential tenancy act in 1968, drawing on a law reform commission that reviewed the matter in detail. In particular, the Ontario commission argued that tenants should have the right to collective bargaining as the asymmetric power relations between tenants and landlords would prevent fair outcomes in grievance cases and other negotiations….” (page 79)

In fact, until 1970 Ontario had no legislation specifically addressed to residential tenancies; these were subsumed under a general Landlord and Tenant Act that covered all tenancies, commercial and residential, the latter being based on feudal estates law that failed to address residential tenants’ needs for protection against exorbitant rent increases and restrictions against children, or for the right to individual and collective negotiation and adjudication of evictions and other conflicts with landlords. Tenant agitation in the 1960s prompted a law reform study, published in December 1968, that urged adoption of special legislation governing residential tenancies. Among its recommendations, it called for abolition of security deposits and distraint; an end to arbitrary or unreasonable refusal by landlords to allow tenants to assign, sublet or quit their leaseholds; imposing a legal duty of landlords to deliver and maintain premises in a good state of repair and fit for habitation; giving tenants a statutory right to apply to a court for enforcement of the landlord’s repair obligations, etc.

The Law Reform Commission report urged municipalities to establish Tenant Advisory Bureaus for provision of information, conciliation and rent review, using rent review officers to obtain “fair and just settlements of disputes concerning the payment or increasing of rent… and of disputes over evictions” – and, if this proved insufficient, “the introduction of a more stringent and compulsory system” of rent control. Although the report mentioned the issue of collective bargaining rights for tenants, it did not recommend that this be provided in law.

Ontario Tenants’ Association formed

While the Commission’s report, which was based on extensive consultation and hearings, was being publicly debated, a call for formation of an Ontario-wide tenants’ association was issued by the Association for Tenants’ Action in Kingston. ATAK had recently elected a member, Joan Kuyek, to Kingston’s City Council. I was among the delegates who met in response to the call in Kingston June 28-29, 1969 to found the Ontario Tenants’ Association. We represented tenants’ associations in Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, Brampton, Hamilton and Peterborough.

We heard stirring presentations by tenant activists – including Frances Goldin from the Metropolitan Council on Housing in New York City, who pointed out that Canadians were paying a far higher percentage of rent to income than their neighbors in the United States, while possessing a much smaller stock of housing. Included in her advice to the new OTA: “Use demonstrations to break through the morass of the bureaucratic mind.”

The conference adopted some preliminary objectives, which were followed by a more complete definition of policy at the OTA’s October 1969 convention. They are worth quoting:

1. Membership in the Association shall be restricted to tenants and tenants’ associations.

2. The OTA will work for legal recognition of collective bargaining for tenants.

3. The OTA shall remain independent of any political party.

4. One immediate goal of the Association shall be to achieve the reform of the Landlord and Tenant Act, and to support the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission as a first step.

5. The OTA will work for tenant control of the management of the buildings in which they live.

6. The OTA will work towards the creation of a new Rent Regulation Act….”

The OTA’s detailed suggestions for the proposed Act emphasized that “The tenant is to have security of tenure, with eviction only for illegal non-payment of rent, undue damage, or criminal activities. Eviction is to be only by court order….” And they were preceded by the statement that “Rent regulation is a temporary solution to a long-standing problem that can only really be solved by more public and co-operative housing.”

On October 8, 1969, about 500 OTA members and supporters demonstrated at the Ontario legislature in Queen’s Park, Toronto, to protest the provincial government’s failure to enact tenant protection legislation. According to the news release I issued on behalf of the OTA,

“Their demands were moderate, but the tenants were angry. At Queen’s Park they heard speeches by NDP deputy leader Jim Renwick and Liberal opposition leader Robert Nixon. But they booed lustily when Trade and Development Minister Stanley Randall, representing the cabinet [of Tory Premier John Robarts], took the microphone. Randall was constantly heckled as he plowed through a 15-minute prepared speech that made no attempt to meet the tenants’ demands.”

At a conference on the following day, close to 100 delegates met to debate and adopt the OTA’s principles and policies. Again, some excerpts are worth quoting. We began with the Statement of Principles:

“Two classes of people are interested in housing - those who live in it, and those who live off it. The latter comprise developers, real estate speculators, lending institutions, landlords’ lobbies, and the governments which are all too ready to heed their wishes. It is these institutions which are responsible for the housing crisis, and they alone who benefit from it.

“The Ontario Tenants Association seeks to represent a growing part of the first group — that is, those who rent the homes they occupy. OTA bases all its policies and actions upon the following premises, that:

1. Everyone has a right to a decent home at a price that he or she can afford.

2. It is the responsibility of governments to ensure that this housing is provided.

3. Because tenants, through their rent, pay for the financing, operations and maintenance of their homes, they should be entitled to bargain collectively over the terms of their rents and over the quantity and quality of services provided.”

In addition to detailed proposals for enactment of a new rent regulation act, we adopted resolutions on public housing that reflected input from affiliated Ontario Housing Corporation (OHC) tenant associations.[4] One called on the Ontario government to “increase the public stock of housing so that the average rent of all housing not exceed 20% of a household’s net income.” Another demanded that OHC “establish the principle of tenants’ control of the management of their buildings” and that public housing tenants be guaranteed access to the OHC’s files on them with the right to challenge misinformation before “a Review Board comprised equally of civil servants and tenants.”

Still another resolution addressed the need for collective bargaining rights:

“BE IT RESOLVED that the principles of collective bargaining be established by law as a method of resolving disputes between landlords and tenants, and that the Provincial Government be asked to introduce legislation to compel landlords by law to recognize any association, organization or union that represents 50% or more of the tenants in the leased premises under dispute, as the sole spokesman and bargaining agent for all the tenants in the leased premises under dispute.”

“And further, that the parties be compelled by law to bargain in good faith,

“And further, if the tenants choose to enhance their bargaining position by withholding rent, they, like unions, shall not individually or collectively be subject to the law of conspiracy.”

Law reform

Throughout 1969, tenants’ associations throughout southern and eastern Ontario organized and joined with the OTA in marching and lobbying for these objectives. And in December 1969 the Ontario government finally tabled its Bill 234 adding a Part IV to the Landlord and Tenant Act to govern residential tenancies. At the legislative committee hearing on the Bill, we were unsuccessful in winning agreement on our major criticisms as outlined in a five-page brief submitted by OTA chair Joan Kuyek along with representatives of the Metro Toronto Tenants Association. Nevertheless, as the OTA Newsletter reported, “the Bill does represent a recognition of the rights of Ontario tenants and it does take a step toward granting us some measure of security of tenure.”

The Newsletter outlined the major changes in the Act:

1. The right of distress has been abolished. Landlords can no longer seize tenants’ property to cover arrears in rent….

2. Security deposits have been abolished on all leases signed or renewed after January 1 [1970]. On leases signed before that date, you will get six percent interest on the deposit [an amendment to the Bill obtained by the OTA]….

3. Tenants cannot be evicted for exercising their human rights, legal rights, or reporting their landlord violations under any government statutes.

4. For the first time, landlords are put on the same footing as any other business by requiring that they live up to their side of the bargain before they can legally demand rent.”…

5. The landlord’s right of entry is severely limited…

Most importantly, procedures for termination of tenancies were “spelled out in detail, in sections 97-108. They are long, so you should look at the Act for answers to specific questions.”

In the Summer 1970 issue of the OTA Newsletter (now a print tabloid, myself listed as editor), we pointed to major defects still in the revised Act. Singled out was the failure to address “the critical problem of rent increases.” Only two cities (Burlington and Windsor) had set up Leasehold Advisory Bureaus, an option under the Act. Furthermore, there were still no guarantees that a lease, once expired, could be renewed.

In the following years, these and some other problems were addressed in law and regulations. In 1975 the Act was amended to convert leases into indeterminate contracts; a landlord now needed a court order to evict a tenant. Also in 1975, residential premises rent review was established in Ontario, and rent controls were tightened under successive Liberal and NDP governments in the 1980s and 1990s.

Most reforms governing landlord and tenant duties established in Part IV of the Landlord and Tenant Act remain in force in today’s legislation. When I worked at Toronto’s Parkdale Community Legal Services in the early 1980s as a student lawyer representing tenants, I was often reminded of how critically important these reforms were to enforcing the rights and interests of low-income tenants.

Since then, however, there have been major setbacks.

Governments throttle key reforms

In 1997, the Conservative government of Mike Harris enacted a new Tenant Protection Act (TPA) which removed the dispute resolution process under the previous law, including evictions and rent increases, from the Ontario court system and assigned jurisdiction to a newly created quasi-judicial body, the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, staffed by politically appointed adjudicators. The TPA also eliminated rent control on vacant units between tenants, increasing the financial incentive for landlords to evict tenants through what is known as vacancy decontrol. Among the results is a massive increase in “no fault” eviction cases, such as evictions for extensive renovations, a frequent pretext claimed by landlords.

Later Liberal governments retained vacancy decontrol while replacing the TPA by separate laws governing residential tenancies and rent review.

The Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), the body responsible for adjudicating landlord and tenant disputes under the new Residential Tenancies Act, is now overwhelmed by the volume of eviction cases landlords file against tenants. In 2021-2022, 88% of all applications received by the LTB were filed by landlords against tenants.[5]

Although in 2017 rent control was expanded to all units, including those built after 1991 (previously exempt), one of the first acts of the newly-elected Conservative government of Doug Ford was to exempt all rental units created or occupied after November 15, 2018 from rent control. Rent increases on existing tenancies are limited by decree: 2.5% annually at present. But landlords may apply to the Board for “above guideline increases,” as many do.

A provisional conclusion 

These retreats from the reforms initiated in 1969-70 underscore the fragility of any progressive reforms – especially those restraining private property rights – achieved under capitalist governments. Nevertheless, the reforms themselves, as outlined here, were major gains for the working class in Ontario.

The Ontario Tenants Association played an important role in publicizing tenant interests and actions and in providing political leadership to the movement for reform.

Tenant struggles, a constant reality under market-based housing conditions, need to find ways to go beyond the inevitable defensive struggles against the power and privileges of individual corporate and financial landlords – important as these are – and to seek political solutions at the level of government housing policy and programs.

Lessons learned from the struggle in Ontario can illuminate issues to be discussed in a later article, a critical review of Ricardo Tranjan’s The Tenant Class.


[1] “Mortgage borrowers to see payments increase by 20-40% at renewal: Bank of Canada,” Canadian Mortgage Trends, May 19, 2023.

[2] May 2023 Rent Report.

[3] Loretta Fisher, “The housing market and tenant organizing,” Spring Maganzine, May 12, 2023. Sahar Raza, “This is a class struggle, not housing crisis – and it’s time to pick a side,” CCPA Monitor, May-June 2023.

[4] The OHC, now the Housing Services Corporation, is the province’s public social-housing corporation for moderate and low-income households.

[5] “A More ‘Efficient’ Landlord And Tenant Board Will Mainly Hurt Renters,” The Maple, May 15, 2023.