The city of Paul York

His fights for tenants' rights spark resentment among older activists

EYE, February 10, 2000

By Bruce Livesey

It's a bitter pill for Paul York to swallow. York is chief organizer for the Greater Toronto Tenants Association (GTTA). Last fall, he was instrumental in convincing city council to approve the Tenant Defence Fund, a $300,000 kitty to help tenants fight excessive rent increases. But last week the tenant activist discovered that the Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations (FMTA) -- which did not campaign vigorously for the fund -- will control how most of the money is spent.

York appears to be cut out of the picture. "I spent hundreds of hours lobbying for this thing. We did a massive phone campaign, encouraging tenants to call councillors," he says bitterly. "I don't know what to make of it -- it's too bizarre."

The Tenant Defence Fund is the brainchild of North Toronto city councillor Michael Walker, whose constituents have been hit hard by the Harris government's regressive landlord-tenant and rent control laws. "With the above-guideline increases and the vacancy rent decontrol, rents have been going up by an average of 20 per cent," says Walker. "I thought we could do something about it and so we came up with the fund."

Part of the fund is earmarked for tenant education and organizing. The rest will help tenants pay for representation at the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal to argue against above-guideline rent increases. These are rent hikes that exceed the basic 2.6 per cent allowed for inflation and ordinary upkeep -- since mid-1998, landlords have made 1,073 applications to the tribunal for these kinds of increases.

When the fund came before council last November, York and the GTTA lobbied city councilors hard to support it. That's because York has made above-guideline increases his central cause. "That was our issue and we're experts on the issue," says York. "We were the only group that lobbied for the fund."

According to Walker, York's lobbying was critical in the battle to get the necessary votes in the face of opposition from Mayor Mel Lastman and the powerful landlords lobby. As it was, the fund passed by one vote. "Paul is more effective at organizing tenants than anyone I've ever seen," says Walker.

Unfortunately, the bad blood within the tenants movement then became evident. York met two representatives from the FMTA in December to discuss a joint FMTA-GTTA proposal to access $150,000 of the fund's money. (The FMTA is Toronto's oldest and most established tenants group.) This joint proposal would contain both an organizing and educational component to fight landlords' above-guideline applications. York was eager to work with the FMTA because of how divided the tenants movement has become. "Tenants groups in Toronto are sectarian and fractured to an appalling degree," he notes.

On Jan. 11, the FMTA's board voted against working with York and the GTTA, and made a separate proposal to the Tenant Defence Fund. York scrambled to cobble together his own bid. But last week he got the bad news: only the FMTA's bid was being recommended for approval to city council.

FMTA chair Bob Bezanson says his board decided against working with York because they felt he organizes too many tenants associations without the necessary follow-up and that he works with disreputable paralegals. "It's not a personal thing by far," says Bezanson. "Where the FMTA is coming from is the preservation of the fund and the importance of it. If it's not done right and has shadows, it will fall flat on its face."

Bezanson is incensed about the perception that the FMTA is profiting from York's lobbying efforts. "While I am new to the board, I know we were not complacent through this whole process," he says. "Maybe [the GTTA] did more of the front-line lobbying, but we were not quiet." Bezanson points out that the FMTA has no control over which proposal the city chooses, adding that their bid "is not a foregone conclusion."

York says he always conducts follow-up meetings with tenants associations. "I don't just do a meeting and abandon the tenants," he asserts. Of the paralegals he's dealt with, he says some are disreputable and others are not. "The fact that I'm organizing means I have to work with people in the field. If [the FMTA] were in the field they would go to meetings where tenant agents have been invited by tenants. I don't have any control over that." York dismisses his critics by noting, "They don't want a radical tenant activist working within the system.... I am actually out there fighting in the trenches. I am not a bureaucrat."


Pauline Hutchings can attest to York's organizing effectiveness. The Ontario civil servant lives at 33 Davisville, a 266-unit apartment building. Last year, the tenants received notices of an above-guideline increase, although Hutchings says cosmetic repairs were being favoured over necessary repairs.

When the tenants began discussing fighting the increase, they asked York to help them out. Hutchings says he urged them to challenge the application, form an association and get involved in the tenants movement. "Any question we have had, he's been there to answer," says Hutchings. "He's a tireless organizer."

The dispute between York and the FMTA appears rooted in differing philosophies and old grudges. York worked briefly for the FMTA in 1997 and even sat on its board. He left after concluding that the federation's organizing approach was too passive and didn't address tenants' needs. Indeed, FMTA will only organize tenants who call them up. "We don't go door-to-door," says FMTA executive director Howard Tessler.

The FMTA's influence has waned in recent years, probably because of cuts to its core government funding, but perhaps also because of its passive organizing style.

York is considerably more aggressive. He works full-time as a tenant activist and is not shy about going to apartment buildings unsolicited and organizing tenants, confronting landlords and superintendents, and representing people at the tribunal. Last year, he founded the GTTA, signing up 79 tenants associations and 6,000 members within a matter of months.

But while tenants appreciate his efforts, some within the tenants movement regularly demonize him. eye has received anonymous character-assassination emails about York. The tenant activist has even been attacked in the alternative press. Last year, an anonymous letter was sent to the Toronto police's anti-terrorist squad with the spurious claim that York and other anti-poverty activists posed a danger to defence ministers at a NATO meeting, prompting the police and RCMP to spy on York.

York says the FMTA won't join with him because "they perceive our group as a competitor and don't want to grant it legitimacy." Now the question is whether the FMTA will use some of the Tenant Defence Fund money to subcontract work to York. Last week, York and the FMTA began discussing this.

Councillor Michael Walker is one person who would like to see the two tenants organizations working together. "I'm disappointed the federation wouldn't enter into an alliance with Paul York," says Walker. "They will have to rise above personal pettiness on both sides and get the best people to get the value for this money -- which is taxpayers' money. You can get more mileage from Paul York than anyone else. To him this is a cause."

Go back to the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations Story