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Beautify and Organize : a proposal to break the link between the art scene and rent increases

by Mayday Staff Writer


When setting out to organize against gentrification in your neighbourhood, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Fancy organic coffee shops and art galleries are often associated with gentrification, but being opposed to the existence of a coffee shop itself is ridiculous. The reason gentrification is a problem is that as the rent goes up people who live in the downtown will be forced out.

Gentrification puts tenants in an impossible position. If we work to make our neighbourhoods safe and fun, we are displaced by our landlords once they realize they can charge more for our homes. The problem is not the coffee shops and artists – it's that our basic need for shelter is a commodity on the market.

The downtown core has long been a beautiful place full of interesting people. This has attracted lots of different folks who want to contribute their creative energy: galleries and venues along James St, community gardeners, community groups out of the Jamesville Community Centre, and progressive activists of all sorts, to name a few. But as long as our rent is subject to market forces, the work we do to further beautify our neighbourhoods is often self-defeating. It just makes space for our landlords to eke out a better return on their investment by evicting us.

This article is a proposal to everyone in the downtown – let's work to beautify our neighbourhood and at the same time organize to resist rent increases. To do the one without the other is to play into the hands of the developers. There is no solution to gentrification while our rent is subject to the market.

The first step in doing this is to come together around the issue of tenancy, and recognize that in a situation we all face, we are strongest when we work together. One form that this already takes in Hamilton is Tenants Associations. These associations exist in many high-rise buildings throughout the city and are protected by law – landlords can be heavily fined for interfering with a tenants association, and tenants are free to organize them in whatever way they see fit.

Typically, tenants associations work on day-to-day maintenance and management concerns, which is important work. However, it often means that the association simply develops a comfortable relationship with the landlord that does not challenge the landlord's power over them. But these associations can be valuable starting places for resisting the evictions and rent increases that come with gentrification.

One person has little ability to refuse a rent increase, but if a hundred tenants refuse it together, they stand a good chance of success. As people who care about the downtown, we should seek out these organizations and support them in their work, while emphasizing the importance of being combative rather than compliant with our landlords.

If we can challenge the landlord's control over the quality and cost of our accommodations, then we are in a position to resist the negative effects of gentrification. If our neighbourhood is going to be “improved” then let those improvements be for the people who already live there!

We can also work to form associations of different kinds among tenants. For instance, a group of roommates collectively renting a house can educate themselves about their rights as tenants. Some simple knowledge is an essential first step in protecting ourselves against abuse, and much is available through the Housing Help Centre. For instance, until the end of 2011, it is illegal for rent in Ontario to increase by more than 0.7 percent.

We can also familiarize ourselves with the Landlord-Tenant Board so that in the event of a serious problem we will already have access to the right forms and procedures. Simply demonstrating this knowledge is often enough to make a landlord back down from an unreasonable position. Practice getting all promises in writing – either from emails or in notes – or of tape-recording your conversations with your landlord.

Once a group of tenants has a grasp of their rights, they can then talk with their neighbours who have a common landlord and commit to supporting each other on any issues of maintenance. A broken stove, leaky plumbing, or insect problem can be an opportunity to build up our trust and capacity together as neighbours. If the landlord does not respond to the tenant's request for maintenance, then we can begin by having other members of the association call the landlord as well. If that does not work, we can visit the office as a group to insist on a meeting. If the landlord refuses to meet, we can refuse to leave.

As these associations multiply, they can begin to support each other in their struggles, forming a union of tenants capable of resisting the displacement of poor, working, and marginalized people that comes with gentrification.

Let's pair the desire to beautify and enliven our neighbourhoods with a serious commitment to resist the rent increases and evictions that push out our neighbours. After all, do we really want our scenes and communities to secure a return on some developer's investment?


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