The Limits of “Tenant’s Rights” Based Advocacy

By Catherine Jeffery

cw: bureaucracy, ableism, classism, racism, gentrification, capitalism, neoliberalism, tenant-landlord power dynamics, state brutality

What do tenants’ rights even entail? How do tenants assert their rights without fear? And how is this dilemma accentuated for marginalized people? These are a few questions I’ve been asking lately, and these are my thoughts on them so far.

In my exploration of the city and my investigation of housing rights and gentrification, I’ve heard my fair share of rights-based campaign talk. A particularly interesting intersection of tenants rights and gentrification is Section G of a Montréal lease, where it states the old rent rate and asks the new tenant to consent to a given increase. A fairly “easy” way of resisting gentrification, at least in a small way, is to always refuse your rent increase. This is because landlords, while entitled to a rent adjustment for building repairs, inflation, and taxes, often exaggerate these costs and try to get away with raising rents every year, therefore bringing rents up overall and driving out lower-income residents. However, using this Section G trick (and, for that matter, asserting any other tenant right) means that a tenant has to be comfortable asserting that right to the landlord, which puts the labour back on the individual and, as I’ll be discussing, can have some serious restrictions.

Of course, it’s not that tenants’ rights aren’t worthwhile or that everyone is hy- per-conscious of their rights and therefore these campaigns don’t have value. The inverse is true: these community projects are crucial for the city. However, what’s
lacking from the conversation is a critical analysis of the limitations of these sorts of advocacy methods.

In my short journey so far, I’ve learned a lot about my rights as a tenant, and have been connected with several resources. In fact, a lot of tenants have almost no idea of their rights, and organizations which spread awareness are vital, especially for students. However, when you keep digging, it becomes obvious that even this kind of advocacy doesn’t go far enough.

In contrast to legal papers and experts, where everything is black and white, personal experience and basic critical thinking reveal the challenges of asserting your rights as a tenant, especially if you’re marginalized.

The legal approach to tenants rights is fine– as long as you’re not scared of conflict. For people whose landlords are less-than-ideal (aka most landlords), it gets complicated. What if you are a person of colour and your landlord is a Quebecois nationalist? What if your landlord has a problem with your gender expression, or intentionally misgenders you? What if you’re a young femme person and your landlord has already made you feel physically unsafe?

Because of the constraints of systemic oppression, marginalized people are less likely from the beginning to confront their landlords; I interviewed a young woman of colour who expressed distress at the fact that although she knew her rights, she didn’t feel safe insisting on them. But even when we do assert our rights the consequences can be harsh. Despite the fact that it is illegal to discriminate against a tenant, experiences of marginalized people demonstrate that it happens. Furthermore, many marginalized groups have oppression-ridden relationships with the legal system anyway, and are unlikely to turn to them if having challenges with their landlords. And even in the most perfect scenario, where a young marginalized person actually does want to go to the courts to sort out the problem, isn’t it fair to assume that their case is differently judged because of institutional racism?

Besides social barriers, there are also physical ones. Are all conversations being had with landlords accessible for all tenants? Is the setting for the tribunal physically accessible? Are there cheap, comfortable and accessible methods of getting there? I doubt it. Another barrier is one which is created by Canada’s laws in the first place: for undocumented immigrants, the risk isn’t just prejudice, but could be deportation. And finally, apart from specific identity-driven barriers, taking the time to file a dispute and appear at a tribunal is a huge transaction cost and one that is far too expensive for many people.

These numerous barriers all make it harder for marginalized people to actually assert their rights, and in the case that they do, these same barriers prevent them from succeeding.

Overall, we can’t possibly argue that filing complaints against a landlord is in any way accessible. There are a million and one overwhelming and valid reasons why someone would not want to even begin to embark on that task.

I’ve heard great stories about some tenants habitually filing rent-fixing requests every year like clockwork, and it not affecting their landlord-tenant relationship, but I refuse to believe this is always the case. In a power dynamic that is asymmetrical by nature, the stakes are high and the law is arbitrary.

It’s clear that there are costs and barriers involved in getting your rights respected. Thus, expecting tenants to keep their landlords in line is not only unrealistic, but also unethical.

If tenants are taking all this trouble to keep landlords in line, we should be paying them a wage for that labour. Tenants shouldn’t be our city’s legal check on landlords. And if they are, they should be getting paid for that work and it should be recognized as labour that is directly combating systems of oppression which work against them.

So: while it is really important for tenants to know their rights, because in some situations they’ll be comfortable enough to confront their landlord, it’s also important to acknowledge that in many scenarios this won’t be the case. How can we enhance the system to actually work for marginalized people, and prevent tenants from having to do all the labour just to have their rights respected?

That’s a question I’m still asking.