'They can live with dignity': Community groups work to make sure tenants know, and exercise, their rights
Tenants program that started in North End has expanded to rest of Winnipeg due to demand for services
Frustrated tenants packed into a room at the headquarters of the West Broadway Community Organization for a recent meeting all came with stories of landlords dragging their feet on repairs, fears about safety in their buildings and indifference from property owners when they complained.
They're problems that are widespread in Winnipeg, according to a person who advocates for better relationships between the city's renters and property owners.
"People just don't seem to know what to do," said Caitlin Ferry, intake co-ordinator with the Tenant-Landlord Cooperation program, who was at the November meeting.
"A lot of low-income clients, because there's so many systemic barriers, they really don't know or are aware that they have rights and they can live with dignity."
Organizers of the meeting hoped to convince the tenants to file requests for repairs with the provincial regulator for tenants, the Residential Tenancies Branch, but some people in attendance said that approach would at best be ineffective — and at worst, could possibly lead to them losing their housing.
Ferry says the non-profit North End Community Renewal Corporation created her tenant-landlord program five years ago with one person and a "light-handed" approach to trying to help both sides in rental agreements hold up their ends of the deal.
It became quickly apparent that there were a lot of gaps in the system and "deep advocacy" was needed, she said.
Navigating the labyrinth
The program began taking referrals from other community organizations — tenants faced with a daunting labyrinth of systems and a power imbalance between them and their landlords.
"Trying to connect a lot of those dots together and get communication between all of those agencies is where we come into play," Ferry said.
Even for a tenant who fully understands their rights and who's going through a process with an advocate, it can be a pretty difficult system.- Stefan Hodges , West Broadway Community Organization
In the last year, the program has taken on about 250 cases, and case workers usually juggle around 80 and 100 files per month.
Most of the program's clients are low-income, and between 70 and 80 per cent are Indigenous, Ferry said.
The program has now expanded to four staff members. They directly advocate for tenants in hearings with the province's Residential Tenancies Branch, as well as their interactions with other agencies such as Employment and Income Assistance, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, and Manitoba Housing.
They help to push landlords to make repairs, restore withdrawn services included in leases and deal with health and safety issues, among a wide range of others.
Don't withhold rent, advocate says
Some people at the November West Broadway meeting proposed a rent strike, in which tenants would refuse to pay their rent until their demands were met. Ferry immediately warned against the idea.
"It's a very logical human response to say, 'Well, I'm not getting what I'm paying for. So I'm just going to not pay for it,'" she said. In order to hold landlords legally accountable, however, tenants need to be caught up on their payments, said Ferry.
Stefan Hodges, housing co-ordinator for the West Broadway Community Organization, also attended the meeting in November. He has spent the last several months trying to support tenants of a Furby Street apartment block who were forced to vacate their suites while their landlord conducts renovations.
The tenants complained they hadn't received proper notice or a list of renovations the landlord planned to make. Despite Hodges's attempts to get them to stay in their suites and file complaints through the Residential Tenancies Branch, many of the tenants chose to leave.
"Even for a tenant who fully understands their rights and who's going through a process with an advocate, it can be a pretty difficult system," said Hodges.
The Residential Tenancies Branch is a complaint-driven system, and unless landlords and tenants use it, there is little that can be done, Hodges said.
It's that fear and uncertainty which Ferry and her program hope to combat.
"I know people are scared to come forward but … this is our job," she said. "Without those complaints, we can't improve upon the lowest-income housing stock in our current system."
The West Broadway area has witnessed a significant loss of affordable housing in recent years as property values have gone up, Hodges said.
As the supply of affordable housing shrinks, low-income renters can become more vulnerable to abuse from landlords looking to maximize profits, said Shauna MacKinnon, a professor in the urban and inner-city studies department at the University of Winnipeg.
"This is what happens when housing is so commodified," MacKinnon said. "Where there's not sufficient housing for low-income people, landlords can take advantage of the market."
As the tenants filed out of the room at the end of the meeting in November, some people stayed behind to fill out papers and approached Ferry to register with the Tenant-Landlord Cooperation. One tenant had mouldy mushrooms growing from his ceiling, a problem he believes was caused by a leaky pipe.
It really shouldn't be a system where people are placed in insecure housing just because they're paying a low price.- Caitlin Ferry, of Tenant-Landlord Cooperation program
Advocates like Ferry hope they can tip the scale back in the favour of these tenants.
"It really shouldn't be a system where people are placed in insecure housing just because they're paying a low price."