As rental rates soar, tenants who are threatened with evictions for renovations are turning to increasingly bold demonstrations to put pressure on landlords and governments to ban use of the controversial legal tool.
In one tense conflict involving more than a dozen notices of eviction at a Toronto rental building, both the landlord and tenants are accusing each other of trying to use intimidation and bullying to achieve their ends.
Kyle Pulis, CEO of real estate investment company Pulis Investments (which claims to own more than 450 apartments and have more than $100-million under management) said tenants have pushed too far with protests at his office, his home and finally a charity he has personal and financial connections with. Tenants say Mr. Pulis is refusing to negotiate with them over renovictions that could thrust them into an unaffordable rental market, and they blame ongoing changes to the building for water shortages, flooding and disruptions to building services such as the laundry room.
Mr. Pulis said his breaking point came on Aug. 16, when a group of tenants visited the Brampton Wellspring Chinguacousy centre (a cancer support charity in Mr. Pulis’s hometown of Brampton, Ont.) to demand that he rescind the eviction notices or resign from the charity’s board. The group of about 10 tenants from 1570 Lawrence Ave. W. in Toronto, a Pulis-owned and managed building, say they went in person after attempts to contact the centre via phone or e-mail went unreturned.
“When they realize they can’t shame me or force me to make a decision or rescind the applications now they are trying to go around and hurt and frighten and intimidate and bully the people around me,” said Mr. Pulis, who said he needs to evict all the tenants on the ground floor to complete plumbing upgrades.
Tenants say they were blind-sided by the eviction notices, slipped under doors in some cases, and say Mr. Pulis has not been willing to find ways to help them stay in the building as the work proceeds.
“When you’re a board director of a charity you want to help, what he’s doing it’s not going with the values of the charity,” said Ayysleth Bonilla, 27, who is facing eviction from the apartment she has lived in with her parents for 14 years, ever since the family moved to Canada from Mexico.
Ms. Bonilla said that with the latest rental rates almost double her family’s current rent they have no idea where they could live while the plumbing work is done, which is slated to take between 8 and 10 months. And neighbours in the 87-unit rental building fear they might be next. “One of our neighbours getting evicted is going through cancer. We have people with disabilities too. Do your renovation, but don’t evict these people,” she said.
Larry Zacker, president of Wellspring Chinguacousy board and father-in-law to Mr. Pulis, did not witness the events at Wellspring but said the tenants were “loud and demanding.” Wellspring provides workshops to support families and individuals struggling with a cancer diagnosis.
“They should take the fight where the fight should be – where they are being evicted or a housing authority – take it there, that’s where it belongs … not at a cancer support centre for Christ’s sake,” Mr. Zacker said. He added that, while he has no intention of raising the protests against his son-in-law with the rest of the board, he may recuse himself from the matter because of the family connection. (Mr. Zacker’s wife, Gael Miles, a former Brampton municipal politician, also sits on the board).
Tenants in attendance deny they were disruptive and say it wasn’t a protest: there were no signs, no raised voices and the media was not called to attend.
However, in the days following, the tenants acknowledge they did seek to disrupt Wellspring’s work with a digital protest – announced on the RenovictionsTO Twitter account – and on Aug. 24 performed a so-called “phone-zap” where they flooded the centre’s main phone line with phone calls demanding to speak to staff or directors.
Mr. Zacker posted on Twitter that the tenants should be ashamed of the phone-zap. He said the centre had to turn off the phones and send all the calls to voice mail. He expressed concern that cancer patients looking for support might not have been able to get through.
For Phil Zigman, a housing researcher and activist who runs the RenovictionsTO website and social media accounts, said there are good reasons for tenants to target Wellspring Chinguacousy.
“Wellspring benefits financially from its relationship with Pulis,” said Mr. Zigman, who has been helping the 1570 Lawrence Ave. W., tenants spread the word of their effort to keep their homes. “[Wellspring] seems unconcerned about someone closely associated with them causing the harm Kyle’s causing.”
Mr. Pulis has made financial donations to Wellspring, and was a key sponsor for a golf tournament fundraiser earlier this spring that Mr. Pulis said was a personal initiative of his.
The 1570 Lawrence Ave. W., tenants are the only group to target Wellspring thus far, but Mr. Pulis’s business faces pushback from tenants in multiple buildings across southern Ontario. Housing activist group Acorn has tenant-led organizing efforts under way at Mr. Pulis’s buildings in Hamilton, Mississauga and Brampton. Multiple tenants contacted by The Globe alleged a similar set of complaints: lack of maintenance, changes to the building that disrupt water service, limiting or blocking laundry room access, offers to buy out long-time tenants and efforts to rapidly raise rents.
Dawn Barger, a meat department manager at a Food Basics, said she received an N13 eviction notice after rejecting a buyout offer from the Pulis-owned Drake Property Management. The offer was for $15,000 to end her eight-year tenancy at 143 Main St. S. in Brampton within a month, but Ms. Barger’s 16-year-old son is on the autism spectrum and she has worked for years to build supports around him at his school and even customized his bedroom to help with his sensory needs.
“My whole thing was for him to finish his last year of high school, that’s why I didn’t want to move,” she said. With rents in Brampton now double what she currently pays Ms. Barger might be forced to move back to Northern Ontario to afford rent. “I moved to Brampton because they have excellent [autism spectrum disorder] services. … They don’t have ASD classes up north.”
On Sept. 1, Acorn Peel, organized tenants from 143 Main St. S., to picket outside Brampton City Hall and the Pulis Investment office (about a block away) where about a dozen supporters sought to deliver letters demanding Pulis rescind eviction notice to Ms. Barger and other tenants.
Acorn’s Tanya Burkart, who is helping organize the tenants at 143 Main, hadn’t heard of the actions against Wellspring but doesn’t oppose them.
“Acorn’s strategy is to expose and to name the landlord and hold them accountable for the harassment of tenants in buildings,” she said. “It’s encouraging that tenants are getting together … organizing and speaking out, and it is not going too far. … If nobody speaks out then no change will come.”
Mr. Pulis said he feels empathy for the challenges evicted tenants will face, but was only willing to enter into one-on-one discussions with the 1570 tenants with a key caveat: “Frankly at this point for us to go above and beyond what’s required of us, we’d want them to condemn the practice they used with RenovictionsTO,” he said.
The deadline for the renovictions has already passed, and some tenants reported getting notices to appear at the Landlord Tenant Board, a necessary step for Pulis if it wants to obtain an order to evict that can be enforced by a sheriff. While LTB hearings could take months, Mr. Zigman said he believes the tenants will continue to support each other against a system he argues is stacked against them.
“Tenants know it is in their best interest to organize collectively and stick together in these situations,” Mr. Zigman said. “[Pulis] are a huge company with a lot of resources and it’s normal that people will feel intimidated or threatened if the landlord’s trying to deal with them individually.”
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