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Damage Control Illustration by Joel Kimmel

Damage Control

Co-opting the language of social and environmental justice can be a lucrative strategy for Canada’s biggest landlords.

In a neighbourhood bordering the Don Valley in Toronto’s east end sits a complex made up of three high-rise apartment buildings. It’s tucked away in a sparsely developed corner where older residential buildings spring up from the green valley terrain like brick-and-mortar dandelions. The three buildings, at 71, 75 and 79 Thorncliffe Park Drive, are the homes of a close-knit community of renters like Amina (a pseudonym to protect her from reprisal), who has lived in Thorncliffe Park for more than thirty years—her entire life. She’s grown up knowing and caring about her neighbours, other mostly low-income and Muslim immigrants who’ve raised families there for decades. It’s the kind of neighbourhood where children play together in groups, neighbours offer each other vegetables grown from a community garden behind the buildings and local organizations cook and deliver meals to struggling families.

Recently, the buildings have undergone a startling transformation. In 2019, the Toronto-based real estate company Starlight Investments acquired the complex. Since then, the buildings’ exteriors have received a major facelift, prompting the Canadian Federation of Apartment Associations to nominate Starlight for a Renovation of the Year award in 2021. The old white balcony balustrades were updated with black glass and the timeworn cladding was replaced, improving structural integrity and giving the buildings a sleeker modern look. Yet despite the attractive exterior renovations, Amina claims that tenants struggle to get repairs for things like leaking pipes and major ceiling damage. She and her neighbours have been withholding their rent since last May, in protest of having paid for building improvements that they believe weren’t done to improve the residences for the existing tenants.

Starlight, which manages around $28 billion worth of assets, including over sixty-six thousand residential units across Canada, the US and the UK, publicly shapes its brand around charity and inclusivity; its website describes the “Starlight Impact” as “giving back to the communities we serve,” listing a handful of charities and foundations it supports and sponsors. In 2023, Starlight donated more than $650,000 to the charitable organizations it works with; it also partners with social housing organizations to provide units for vulnerable and at-risk persons. “Social engagement is woven into our fabric,” its website states, claiming that the company is committed to “creating inclusive rental communities” and “building a greener future.” But, like how the Thorncliffe Park buildings’ new attractive exteriors hide the more contentious situation inside, Starlight’s generous, sustainable public face obscures a relationship of animosity between the company and the tenants of its buildings. 

Amina joined dozens of her neighbours in a rent strike against Starlight last spring after receiving notices that their rents would be increasing above the provincial guidelines for the second year in a row. While the guidelines limited annual rent increases to 1.2 percent in 2022 and 2.5 percent in 2023, Starlight submitted applications to Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) to increase Thorncliffe Park tenants’ rents by between 5.33 percent and 6.36 percent, depending on the building, with the increase split between 2022 and 2023.Landlords can bypass the guidelines in order to cover increased costs for security services and municipal taxes and charges, or for significant renovations or repairs, by applying for an above-guideline increase (AGI). Thorncliffe Park residents continue to strike as they await the LTB’s decision on the AGIs. While a tenant isn’t forced to comply until the LTB passes a judgement, they will be on the hook for the unpaid higher amounts of rent if the board approves the AGI.

Many families in the complex are already struggling to cover food and housing, forcing them to rely on outside support like food banks. That’s why Amina finds Starlight’s partnership with Daily Bread Food Bank, a Toronto-based charity dedicated to ending food insecurity, “almost insulting.” While with one hand supporting the food bank through volunteering and fundraising initiatives, with the other, Starlight hits marginalized tenants with above-guideline rent increases. 

Daily Bread Food Bank and North York Harvest Food Bank’s joint 2023 report indicated that one in ten Torontonians now rely on food banks, with the rising cost of housing being a major factor. According to the organizations’ data, nearly a quarter of food bank clients in 2023 were spending all of their income on housing. In that same year, the average cost of rent in the city went upby almost 10 percent; it has increased by over 60 percent since 2013. “I know entire families, I’m talking about grandparents and grandchildren and their parents,” says Amina, “all living within a two-bedroom unit just because that’s the only thing they can afford.”

After the 2015 adoption of the Paris Agreement, an international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in response to rising temperatures, the United Nations (UN) noted the rise of corporate greenwashing—companies using vague environmentally friendly language to obfuscate the realities of their less-than-sustainable practices. The term, as defined by the UN, refers to how companies will claim to adopt net-zero carbon emission strategies that are pretty questionable in practice, such as “emphasizing a single environmental attribute while ignoring other impacts.”

As the battle between Starlight and Thorncliffe Park tenants demonstrates, this pattern of corporate greenwashing has expanded to terms like equity and community as such words continue to grow in recognition and popularity. It isn’t just Starlight; other real estate investment trusts (REITs), companies that hold portfolios of real estate that investors can buy shares of, have just as quickly capitalized on the growing interest in social justice to provide cover for their often-poor reputations. Equiton, a prominent REIT, claims that its philosophy is to “uphold a standard of responsible investing,” noting that environmental and social factors “have an impact on the long-term risk and return of a given real estate investment.” Clearly, these companies realize that the language of social and environmental justice can mean big business in the housing industry. 

The goal of Canada’s new class of financialized landlords—landlords that have the financial power to operate on national and international scales, purchasing and trading housing as investments—isn’t so much to profit from rental income, but from the future returns of increased property values. Some of the largest landlords in the country, like Starlight and Hazelview Investments, a private real estate developer, boast to prospective and current investors about their net-zero carbon strategies, affordable housing initiatives and DEI policies—all campaigns rooted in “trust,” “community” and “accountability.” But these companies demonstrate a lack of these values in the material ways they operate, as the above-guideline rent increases or mass evictions they hit tenants with help turn housing into an unaffordable resource for many Canadians. 

In 2021, Dream Unlimited, a Toronto developer that manages over $24 billion in assets in North America, acquired two buildings in Toronto’s northwest end, near the Humber River at the intersection of Weston and Lawrence. The Residence at Weston, at 33 King Street, is an older thirty-storey rust-coloured brick building, while West22, built in 2019 at 22 John Street, sticks out from the older twentieth-century apartment buildings and Victorian-style homes with its modern grey geometric design. Since acquiring the two properties, Dream has received a $153 million insured loan from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and pledged to increase the number of affordable units at 33 King Street, as well as to decrease energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the building.

Dream’s 2022 sustainability reportstates that it is retrofitting the buildings in its portfolio with improved sustainability features which will “reduce operating costs over the life of the asset, lead to higher rents, and attract like-minded tenants.” Rather than benefitting the people who live in its properties, Dream’s commitment to reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions is about attracting a certain type of tenant with a passion for environmentalism—and the ability to afford the higher rents such goals entail. This follows a familiar pattern of environmentalism that’s undertaken for the benefit of the upper class and sticks the more marginalized with the costs: like when cobalt is mined by Congolese workers in dire conditions, so that wealthy Westerners can enjoy their expensive Teslas. 

In an email to Maisonneuve, Hero Mohtadi, Dream’s VP of residential operations and asset management, says the number of affordable units at 33 King Street now represent 40 percent of all units in the building. “We are not aware of a landlord who has tried to do more to increase affordability and reduce carbon emissions than we have,” she says.

Despite Dream’s stated interest in increasing affordability, tenants from the York South–Weston Tenant Union (YSW) say that rents at 33 King Street have been raised by 22 percent over the last five years. Since last June, members of the YSW, which unites tenants and tenant associations from across northwest Toronto—including in the two buildings Dream acquired in 2021—have been striking against AGIs and withholding their rent. Mohtadi says that the AGI applications were inherited from the previous owner for renovations completed before Dream acquired the two buildings. She says that costs for repairs and decarbonization initiatives that Dream has undertaken are not passed on to the tenants, and that Dream has not applied for any AGIs. But Bruno Dobrusin, a tenant from a neighbouring building that is also part of the YSW, argues that Dream is choosing to continue to pursue the AGI applications filed by the previous owners; if Dream was truly committed to affordability, it could withdraw them. 

Despite Dream’s insistence, local community organizations aren’t buying the company’s supposed passion for affordable housing or the community. When the Dream Community Foundation attempted to make a donation to the Weston King Neighbourhood Centreat the beginning of the rent strike, it was rejected in solidarity with the tenants. “If there’s fair rent and fair wages for everyone, then this type of charity or halfhearted charity isn’t necessary,” Bryan Douthwright, an advocate with the centre, told CityNews Toronto last summer.

But the federal and provincial governments aren’t willing to demonstrate the same solidarity. Every level of government supports financialized landlords like Dream and Starlight, both through economic means and through policies that do not adequately protect tenants—like Ontario premier Doug Ford’s government’s 2018 rollback of rent control in the province. Dream not only has the support of the CMHC, but also the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), a Crown corporation tasked with putting public dollars toward infrastructure projects that it perceives as within the realm of public interest. Dream received a $136 million investment from the CIB in 2022 to retrofit its commercial buildings across Toronto and Saskatoon to reduce carbon emissions. Directing public funds to the hands of multi-billion dollar companies, rather than to the people who need it most, shows how policymakers are prioritizing corporations over human lives; particularly when these corporations are involved in increasing the unaffordability of housing. 

Affordable housing strategies across the country, rather than lift burdens from tenants, make it easy for real estate corporations to access more funds or evade their responsibilities. In 2021, the Alberta Housing Act was amended to allow private corporations to purchase formerly public affordable housing. The change also opened up millions of dollars in capital grants for organizations to develop affordable housing, which was newly defined as anything that’s below market rate, instead of being tied to the income of tenants. “You’ll have real estate investment trusts, real estate operating companies, applying for funding that really just privilege and benefit shareholders and don’t actually reach tenants, who are in desperate need of housing,” Laura Murphy, a research coordinator at the University of Alberta’s Affordable Housing Solutions Lab, told the Tyee last April about the amendment. In Montreal, a 2021 bylaw was meant to force developers to dedicate 20 percent of larger projects’ units to affordable housing; but a loophole allowed companies to pay a fine instead, resulting in not a single affordable housing unit being created since the bylaw’s implementation. Strategies that don’t sufficiently compel real estate corporations to meet their responsibilities, or that end up putting more money in their hands, aren’t enough to protect tenants in an age of skyrocketing rents; they just give these corporations more opportunity to launder their reputations. 

Before 2016, Herongate was a community in Ottawa’s south end predominantly made up of visible minorities, including Somali and other Muslim immigrants. They’d come together over decades to create a supportive neighbourhood that could meet their cultural and social needs. There was a mosque in close proximity, and since many students at the local high school were Muslim, the school was able to offer Friday prayer services so students could participate without leaving the grounds. The neighbourhood had specialized businesses that catered to residents’ cultural needs, like ethnic hair salons and halal grocers, while local Somali women organized hagbads, initiatives where money is pooled together to be used to support one another. In 1991, the high concentration of Somali immigrants was leveraged to create the Somali Centre for Family Services just outside the neighbourhood, which offers support to Somali families in their language. 

According to Daniel Tucker-Simmons, a human rights lawyer at Avant Law, in 2016 Herongate’s population was 70 percent visible minorities and just over half were immigrants. Since the nineties, the neighbourhood has been an ethnic enclave—a concentrated area with a shared heritage, such as culture, language, customs or ethnicity. Because of the makeup of the community, Tucker-Simmons says the waves of evictions that have hit the neighbourhood since 2016 may actually constitute a human rights violation.

Over the past nine years, the Herongate Tenant Coalition (HTC) has been fighting mass demovictions—evictions done prior to demolishing a property—since Hazelview began redeveloping the neighbourhood. (Note: Hazelview is one of the parties named by the writer in a legal suit currently awaiting hearing. The suit is unrelated to the events described in this article.) Hazelview, known until 2020 as Timbercreek, is repositioning Herongate as an expansion of an adjacent neighbourhood called Alta Vista—a district that is 80 percent white and much more affluent than Herongate. In public consultations for the development in 2016, Timbercreek’s then-senior VP of development Greg Rogers explained that the company’s solution to concerns about crime in the neighbourhood was to rebrand the community as one for the wealthy. “[The apartments] will be offered at a premium price, reflective of their quality and size,” the now-defunct Ottawa Community News reports him as saying. “They will not meet any criteria for affordability.”

Tucker-Simmons was retained in 2018, by a group of former tenants who were evicted that year, to file a human rights complaint for the round of demovictions. He describes how one of his clients experienced such significant distress from her eviction that she was hospitalized and developed a heart condition; other clients developed anxiety and depression following their evictions. Ninety-three percent of tenants evicted during that round of demovictions were racialized.

The displacement of racialized people from neighbourhoods like Herongate is intentional, says Tucker-Simmons; done so that property values will rise from what he calls “hyper-gentrification.” The resulting higher returns for investors, as well as better access to more loans or higher-valued investments on the stock market, incentivizes financialized landlords to replace racialized tenants with wealthier white ones. He describes this phenomenon as “demographic engineering.” In 2019, Tucker-Simmons filed an application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against Timbercreek, the City of Ottawa and other corporate entities affiliated with the Herongate redevelopment for the displacement of residents from “a low-income, family-oriented, racialized and immigrant community.” He presented the case to the National Housing Council late last year, but a judgement has yet to be reached.

The HTC notes that in 2018, before getting evicted, many residents were paying approximately $1,450 per month for a four-bedroom townhouse. By 2023, the average rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Ottawa had risen to $2,530; there was only a 2.1 percent vacancy rate in the city as of  last January. Many of Herongate’s former residents have struggled to find new housing, with some being forced to rely on food banks.

Tucker-Simmons believes that the legal case he and the tenants are pushing forward played a role in pressuring the city to get involved. In 2021, Hazelview signed a controversial contract with the City of Ottawa that approved the redevelopment project with a promise that it would include 1,020 units of affordable housing. Tucker-Simmons says that pre-development, all three thousand units were affordable. While these new units may meet Ottawa’s standards of affordability, they will still be significantly more expensive than the previous rents that Herongate tenants had been paying. The affordability designations also only last between fifteen and twenty years per the agreement with the city, after which the rents no longer need to meet those standards.

Financialized landlords like Hazelview, Starlight and Dream attempt to sell themselves as solutions to the housing or climate crises through commitments to environmental initiatives or to creating or maintaining affordable units, but they do this through developments that actually decrease the affordability of the neighbourhoods they operate in. These are egregious examples of expanded greenwashing, or woke-washing, if you will—companies pretending their solutions to climate change and affordable housing aren’t actually some of the roots of the housing crisis. 

While Canada’s housing crisis continues to worsen, groups like the YSW, the HTC and the Thorncliffe Park tenants offer some hope for renters. In 2022, the YSW entered into mediations at the LTB with tenants and Dream, and helped negotiate a 48 percent reduction to the 2018 AGI application for 33 King Street—although the union says tenants are still waiting for Dream to follow through on repaying the higher rents that some have already paid. Last December, the YSW held a seventy-two-hour sit-in against Barney River, a real estate investment company that owns 1440 and 1442 Lawrence Avenue West, and was able to prevent an eviction. Amina saysthat maintenance issues have slightly improved since tenants began organizing last year. And in 2020, the HTC got Hazelview to promise not to evict low-income tenants unless they are offered a replacement unit with an equivalent rent.

These unions show that it is on our collective shoulders to take care of and protect each other; we cannot trust in governments or corporate entities to look out for us. The communities built in Thorncliffe Park, Herongate and York South–Weston prove that organizations built by the people they serve can do more for sustainability than any private corporation can—regardless of how deep its pockets are. 

Back in Thorncliffe Park, Amina and her neighbours are still waiting for the LTB to hear their case. She says organizing collective actions like participating in rent strikes is a scary but sometimes necessary choice: “We are not investments. We are people wanting to be able to survive, wanting to be able to come home.” ⁂

Dev Ramsawakh is an award-winning disabled, transmasculine and diasporic Indo-Caribbean storyteller and educator who often refers to themselves as a “living archive.” Their work combines reporting, personal reflection and imaginative dreams. Their non-fiction writing has been published by Vice, the Toronto Star, Chatelaine, the CBC, Them and Xtra, among other publications.