ACORN Canada’s Leader, Mike Wood, is Front Page News

Mike Wood, a principal organizer with the tenants’ advocacy group, Hamilton ACORN – John Rennison/The Hamilton Spectator

Ahitara, New Zealand      The backbone of ACORN are members and leaders and that’s true of any solid, power-building community organization, tenants’ union or workers association.  It was great to see Mike Wood profiled on the front page of the Hamilton Spectator, the old blue-collar city in Ontario only hours away from Toronto.  I want to share Mike’s story and his work with everyone:

News Aug 07, 2018 by Teviah Moro The Hamilton Spectator

He’s fought his battles, now he’s helping others … and leading a slumlord tour of Hamilton.

As chair of Hamilton ACORN, Mike Wood spends hours taking calls from troubled tenants, organizing rallies and fighting for change.

A tour of Hamilton’s slumlords: Unfortunately, it’s an excursion Mike Wood is distinctively qualified to lead.

The 41-year-old has lived in a string of dives kept by bad landlords since he struck out on his own as a young man in the northeast city.

That’s why he started advocating for tenant rights in Hamilton a couple of years ago.

“I got involved because I went through it myself for many years being a renter.”

He is the chair of Hamilton ACORN, a chapter of the national organization that advocates for the interests of low- and moderate-income people. (ACORN stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.)

Wood can be seen downtown looking for people to sign a petition asking the city to pursue Rent Safe, a system adopted in Toronto whereby landlords enter a registry and pay fees that go toward bylaw enforcement.

Or leading a march of placard-carrying renters in red T-shirts down Melvin Avenue demanding landlords repair rundown buildings.

The slumlord tour is scheduled for Aug. 30. ACORN is renting a bus.

  • • •

The activism is a sign of the times. Renters are fighting back and getting organized in their struggle for decent homes in aging and deteriorating apartment buildings.

The advocacy also comes in an era of rapidly rising rates and plummeting vacancies as land values escalate with scant purpose-built rental stock built for many years.

Along with ACORN, the Hamilton Tenants’ Solidarity Network has waged its own battle against hikes, tenant displacement and poor living conditions.

For Wood, it seems an all-consuming task. He puts in long days — sometimes leaving early in the morning to meet with tenants wanting to organize and not coming home until 11 p.m.

Home is a modest one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife of 23 years, Tabitha, in a King William Street highrise. They pay $870 a month.

“I’ve had my own issues here,” he says. It’s freezing in the winter and the balconies are in rough shape. “You see this everywhere you rent.”

But the vast majority of his energy is focused on the grievances of others. Wood says he helps tenants learn about their rights.

Mike Wood, a principal organizer with the tenants’ advocacy group, Hamilton ACORN. | John Rennison , The Hamilton Spectator

“I’ll let them know that they shouldn’t have to live like this, that they don’t have to, that they could try to have a rally here, they could unite and try to push for things to be done.”

But Wood says tenants shouldn’t have to fight for the basics like adequate heating, pest-free units, and walls that aren’t crumbling and mouldy.

He’s critical of how the city’s property standards division responds to complaints; in some cases, landlords have failed to act on orders for repairs months after deadlines.

This has led to frustration among tenants, Wood says. “They’ve lost faith in the system itself, so they want to push and try something new.”

For him, one egregious example is 285 Melvin Ave., an aging highrise near Parkdale and Barton streets, that had been subject to a 20-item property standards order since late April with a completion deadline of May 28.

In late June, the city said the landlord had started working on the issues.

“Our officer will follow up to evaluate the work and anything not completed will be addressed by our contractors and costs added to the tax roll. Charges will then be laid for noncompliance,” Kim Coombs, manager of licensing and bylaw services, told The Spectator.

Around that time, longtime landlord Harold Keen blamed the delay in repairs on a contractor. “So I’m going to have someone else complete the work.”

Keen, 84, said he designed The Highlander in the 1960s, which he said was once one of the best buildings in the city. “But it will come back … It’s not that I cannot afford to do it. I’m going to do it.”

As of Thursday, city bylaw services said 16 files remained open at 285 Melvin.

Wood’s patience has worn thin. Others are fed up, as well, he says.

“There’s no real answer for the tenants where they can try and get things done and that’s why when it comes to uniting and having these rallies, they really do feel that it will give them some hope.”

The organization helps wage the individual battles but also the broader fight to effect change through government legislation.

Wood recalls how ACORN members mounted a rally outside the Lincoln Alexander Centre where Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford was making a campaign stop during the election.

Megaphone in hand, Wood called on Ford to address the rally, which ACORN organized to challenge his “pro-landlord and anti-rent-control track record.”

The former Toronto city councillor peered out of the window, but didn’t exit the building near Gore Park.

Some tenants living at 355 Melvin Ave. (The Highlander) listen from their balconies as ACORN marchers inform them of their tenants’ rights. | Gary Yokoyama , The Hamilton Spectator

“I don’t have much faith in Doug Ford … He’s not for the people like he claimed he was,” Wood said.

In Ontario, landlords can hike rent as high as they see fit once a tenant leaves a unit. However, they can only increase the rent of existing tenants to the annual provincial guideline, which is 1.8 per cent this year. Above-guideline increases, reserved for a limited set of major expenses, are exceptions.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told The Spectator affordable housing “is top of mind for many Ontarians and the issue of housing supply is one that the government wants to address.”

“During the election, Premier Ford stated that his government will preserve the existing rent control for existing tenants,” Rachel Widakdo wrote in an email. “In the coming months, our government will carefully consider what we heard as part of any future review of the Residential Tenancies Act.”

Last Friday, Hamilton ACORN issued a news release targeting Ford on another front: Cuts to planned social assistance increases and the end of Ontario’s basic-income pilot program.

A rally is planned for Thursday at 1 p.m. outside the provincial government offices at 119 King St. W. downtown.

  • • •

Sarah Jama, a member of ACORN for about a year and a half, holds Wood in high regard.

“I look up to Mike a lot. He’s done a lot of great work in the community.”

Jama, who worked in Coun. Matthew Green’s office and is now outreach co-ordinator at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, agrees tenant advocacy is intensifying.

“People are no longer organizing in silos; people are starting to work together,” said the recent McMaster social sciences graduate.

Sarah Jama says she became a member of Hamilton ACORN because she cares about affordable and dignified housing. | Cathie Coward , The Hamilton Spectator

Jama said she was drawn to ACORN in part because it’s led by people living in the situations they’re trying to improve.

Sarah Jama says she became a member of Hamilton ACORN because she cares about affordable and dignified housing. | Cathie Coward , The Hamilton Spectator

Wood, for instance, grew up in City Housing. His father was employed by the city doing a number of jobs including paving, sewer work and other maintenance.

One winter’s day, he had a heart attack while on the job on a Mountain access during a blizzard. Things deteriorated after a subsequent stroke, leaving Wood, then 11, to take care of him while his mom became the sole breadwinner.

“I basically became the man of the house at a young age,” he says in a soft voice.

He moved into his own place with Tabitha after high school. Their first apartment was the top floor of a triplex in the Barton Street East area.

Wood recalled how he came home one day to find the landlord sitting on his couch.

“He said basically that he owns the house; he can do what he wants,” Wood recalled. “I started looking up my rights as a tenant because I didn’t think it was suitable what he was doing.”

More grief, including a fire, bedbugs and dishonest building owners, followed, he says. These experiences are echoed in those he’s trying to help.

Many will simply stick out the duration of their lease despite problems because they don’t know their rights or can’t afford to make a stink, Wood says.

One of his latest files involves three people living in apartments carved out of an old brick home on Wentworth Street. The residents are reluctantly involved in a long-running and tense dispute with their landlord.

ACORN held a rally there to support them. That evening, when everyone had long left, Wood was back to support the tenants after the landlord uttered he’d called the police.

He’d already spent two hours on the phone with one tenant in case he needed to serve as a witness to any untoward behaviour.

“I was in their situation so I know how it felt to be alone.”

 

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Politicians Silence Advocates and Organizations

10816511New Orleans   There is no doubt by anybody anywhere that the Fight for $15 and in general the fight for living wages has been led by unions and community organizations in every country where the campaign has been fought: the United States, the United Kingdom, and, certainly Canada. No matter the tactics and strategy the targets have been moving corporations and public bodies and elected politicians to sign on and support the workers’ demands for living wages. As we have discussed, some public bodies, including city councils in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York in the United States as well as particularly Vancouver and Toronto in Canada and even the national government in the United Kingdome have moved substantially on these issues after sufficient organizational and popular pressure. This is how it should be. This is the work we do. Ostensibly, this is how countries subscribing to some level of democratic norms should work.

Well, think again, my friends, not in the age of state and corporate partnerships in the age of neo-liberalism.

The ACORN office in British Columbia received a message marked URGENT from the British Columbia Federation of Labor because we are an active member of course of the Minimum Wage Working Group. The message was pleading that all “Fight for $15” activities would have to be suspended until the mid-October federal elections, a period of almost 3 months since Prime Minister Harper had “dropped the writ,” or called for the election, unusually early in order to trigger the expenditure freezes for the election, favoring the incumbent party. Normally for ACORN the time to increase the pressure on our issues is during election periods when politicians and parties are most vulnerable and our leverage is at its highest! So, what the frick?

I’ll let the message speak for itself:

TO: MINIMUM WAGE WORKING GROUP

As you know Prime Minister Harper has called the election earlier than expected. Additionally new rules have come into place regarding the participation of third parties during an election.

As a result of these changes the BC Federation of Labour is very limited in how it may participate during the writ period, specifically related to advertising. Due to the similarity of our Fight for $15 campaign to the Federal NDP’s platform promise of a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, any traditional or on-line paid advertising that we engage in to support the campaign may be considered election advertising under the Elections Act.

This in itself wouldn’t present a problem. However, the BCFED and all other federations of labour and labour councils are considered by Elections Canada to be one entity under the Canadian Labour Congress. Therefore, we are not permitted to register separately as a third party. This means we are caught in the same spending cap as the CLC. There is no additional room within that cap.

Due to these restrictions we must limit our Fight for $15 campaign activities to those activities that are not considered to be election advertising. This means we are limited to on-line engagement without placement costs and direct communication with our members. We can also submit letters to the editor and op eds.

We are not permitted to petition, leaflet, hand out buttons, distribute t-shirts or participate in any activity that advertises this issue to the public until after the election period. That means we will need to postpone many of our upcoming activities until after the election in October. We are very disappointed by this news and will be developing a new strategy to mobilize the campaign in an on-line capacity that complies with the legislation.

We are asking you to not distribute any materials including petitions, buttons, signs or leaflets that were produced by the BCFED during the campaign period. You, of course, may use your own materials, but please be aware of the requirement to register as a third party advertiser should you incur more than $500 in costs.

You get it? One of the parties, the National Democratic Party, had succumbed to the pressure and made $15 a part of their platform, therefore continuing to organize, advocate, demonstrate, and agitate for $15 suddenly was reclassified as not only electioneering, but advertising rather than action. A similar perversity was recently part of the rules in the United Kingdom federal elections with about the same limitations except 5000 pounds per group rather than 5000 Canadian dollars. Not much doubt that the Canadian Conservative Party might have gotten the idea from the UK Conservative Party, eh? Of course in the United States where anything about money in elections is dysfunctional, the one effort by the IRS to reign in 501c4 social welfare organizations on their political activity, despite the fact that the 501c4 status curtails such activity, was immediately derailed by Congress and then postponed and pulled by the IRS until after the 2016 election, despite the fact that c4s as social welfare front groups and SuperPacs are already flooding campaigns with money, taking over their management, and flaunting every known rule.

But the perversity of organizations being prevented from advocating for change so that politicians can dupe voters into whatever is past the pale. If there were ever rules that were made to be ignored, which is to say, broken, here is a prime example. When government attempts to silence people, it is time to roar.

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