A Landlord’s Nonprofit Disguise

ACORN International Canada Unions

Toronto           As an interesting twist in the ACORN Canada head and lead organizers’ meeting, Judy Duncan, the head organizer, brought over one of the local organizers to brainstorm about the issues confronting one of our emerging tenants’ unions in a mid-sized building in the city.  Ostensibly, the building was owned and run by a nonprofit, but its actions were lining up with what most would normally expect from the most avaricious apartment block run by an absentee REIT or private equity investor.

These were early days in this campaign, so we didn’t know every small detail about the building or its ownership, but what we did know was very interesting.  The nonprofit had originally been organized by the garment industry and their name was still attached to the complex, all of which spoke to a history in Toronto and Montreal when they used to be clothing manufacturing centers and housed the joint boards of the big garment unions the ILGWU, the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers.  It would be a pretty safe bet, once we dig deeper, that this apartment block was built under a joint agreement between the garment industry employers and the unions to provide near-plant affordable housing for workers and was likely built partially or wholly with government financing.  Certainly, there were also many projects like this in New York City and even San Antonio, constructed under similar terms.

That might be the history, but in the here and now, tenants were getting unexplained $400 rent increases and threatening letters from management indicating these add-on fees had to be paid, or they might be evicted.  Not only were these so-called “fees” not explained, but they seemed to be administered arbitrarily, with some tenants getting the notices and some not.  In some cases, these management strategies were working.  Lower income tenants reckoning they couldn’t pay were being forced out.  New tenants gentrifying the complex weren’t complaining because in this hot housing market, some saw the rents, even with the fees, as lower than they might have paid elsewhere.  ACORN came into the picture because a bunch of tenants wanted to stand their ground, organize, and fight.

The organizer indicated many were confused.  The threats and even in some cases the eviction notices simply came on the organization’s letterhead, rather than the normal city procedure, since nonprofits were allowed some leeway.  Nonetheless, the organizers in the room were clear that eviction was unlikely.  A real eviction would still have to go before the mandated landlord-tenant board, nonprofit or not, and since these were fees, the likely result would be an ordered payment plan.

The biggest obstacle seemed to be that the landlord’s divide-and-conquer strategy was having some success and giving the member’s organizing committee fits in trying to get to a critical mass.  Early actions had been decent, but had not attracted press or public attention.  There were a number of recommendations from the group and by the time the meeting moved back to the agenda, the a list of sorts had been developed on next steps with the organizer, and it felt like progress.

It was an interesting situation.  Certainly not the worst landlord in Toronto or likely the strongest organization that ACORN will help build, so that’s not what got me scratching my head.  It’s more how warped what might have been a noble mission and a great cause over the years becomes just the same ol’, same ol’ situation, following the dominant predatory models while rationalizing their own interests and survival over their mission of serving their constituency, in this case their tenants.  This is less mission drift, than a hijacking of a nonprofit structure, like many cooperatives, tax-exempt hospitals, and others do as well, in a sort of business as usual” that is disguised in sheep’s clothing.  Coupled with anger, there’s a sad tragedy to all of this.