The tragedy of tenant organizing in Toronto

Our Toronto Free Press, February 28 - March 14 2000

By Tim Rourke

If there was ever a city where tenants have needed to put together a really tough lobbying organization to protect their interests, it is Toronto. Do you know why it hasn't happened? It is not because of some anti-tenant bias within city council, as some of my acquaintances are convinced.

City council has recently shown itself to be quite ready to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into programs to protect tenants from the effects of the Harris government's Tenant Protection Act. Most councillors want to prevent evictions. They do not want to have more people in the hostel system. The tragedy has been in the way they have chosen to dispense this money.

If the city merely throws money up in the air for programs to help tenants, every opportunist around who has set himself or herself up as a 'tenant organizer' will try to elbow aside more worthy recipients. It becomes a way for venal politicians to reward their supporters. It turns tenant organizers into tenant pimps, attacking other tenant's groups and raiding them for members so that they can claim to represent more tenants when applying for more funding.

This is how the Federation of Metro Tenant's Association (FMTA) became so dominant. And it seems that every freelance tenant opportunist started out at FMTA before striking out to grab some of this 'money to help tenants' for himself or herself. Legitimate tenant's groups get so tired of attempts to either force them to join FMTA or certain other groups, or else to destroy them, that they are largely forced underground and are ineffective at advocating for tenant's interests.

I am on my fourth year as a board member of FMTA. I was the board secretary last year. I worked with Paul York before he left FMTA to set up on his own as a tenant activist. So I know what I'm talking about. Now I have come to know enough that FMTA doesn't want me around anymore. They can't legitimately remove me as a board member so they are freezing me out; they won't even tell me when the board meetings are.

And so I have found that the FMTA is not reformable from within. But I don't think it started out as an organization dominated by tenant opportunists. The city's system of distributing piecemeal grants for tenant services has made this kind of unfair system inevitable.

Now it is an election year and city council is misguidedly giving tenant opportunists the funds with which to victimize tenants ever further. They have set up this new "Tenant Defense Fund" in the most destructive way possible. FMTA will have sole control over who can access this fund. Like lambs to the slaughter, any tenant's association needing the fund will be herded to FMTA and its attendant legal hacks.

Worse yet, it is rumoured that the bidding process for the funds to run the Tenant Hotline and to do 'outreach', will be "guaranteed" in favour of FMTA.

Toronto tenants aren't going to be able to get organized until the 'tenant organizers' go away and leave them alone. Why on earth can't the city administer programs for tenants directly? Nothing else will end this tragedy.

Tim Rourke is a board member of the Federation of Metro Tenant's Association.

Go back to the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations Story