Real Estate

Why this Toronto tenant is staging a rent strike

Their landlords have proposed a nearly 10 per cent rent increase in the past two years
Courtney Shea

Sameer Beyan was one of more than 100 residents at a Thorncliffe Park apartment complex who recently launched a rent strike, withholding payment to protest increases—both implemented and proposed—over the last two years. In January of 2022, tenants at his three-building complex first received notice from their landlord, Starlight Investments, informing them of a proposed 4.2 per cent increase for 2022. An additional 5.5 per cent hike was proposed for 2023. “This is the only home my family has known in this country,” says Beyan, a 32-year-old U of T graduate and sales professional who emigrated from Saudi Arabia with his elderly parents in 2016. “Striking was a last resort, but we have been left with no options,” Beyan says. (In a statement to Maclean’s, Starlight said it takes a reasonable, careful and conscientious approach to applications for above-guideline increases, or AGIs, and that when these increases are pursued, third-party managers are encouraged to offer financial support and assistance to those residents, including rent relief or rent forgiveness where appropriate.) Here, Beyan talks about the strike and his fears for the future.

You’re one of the organizers of the Thorncliffe Park rent strike. How did you get involved?

This all started about a year and a half ago when I received a notice from our landlord, Starlight Investments, about a proposed 4.2 per cent rent increase. I was pretty alarmed: nobody in the buildings had been expecting it. I reached out to a few of my neighbours, who were also concerned. We decided to take the conversation to the tenants’ WhatsApp group. People were really freaked out, and we decided it was time to take action. 

One member of our group reached out to RenovictionsTO, a group of lawyers who volunteer to help people in situations like ours. They said we had a legitimate complaint and advised us on how to push back. They said it was important to raise awareness, so we started hosting meetings in the lobby of my building. Some friends and I knocked on doors to let people know. A lot of the tenants in our buildings are elderly, and some don’t speak very much English, so we did our best to keep those people informed. 

Did you consider options other than striking? 

A rent strike was not the first action we took. Last year, we started with an email campaign where we reached out to directors at PSP Investments, the Crown corporation that is an owner of the buildings. [Starlight, also an owner of the buildings, is the asset manager and oversees day-to-day operations.] We requested meetings and even showed up at their homes, but nobody was willing to talk with us. One director said to “take it up with Starlight,” which, of course, we had already tried. Last year we staged two protests with signs and chants, but nothing we did made any difference. There was a certain amount of desperation—particularly when we received notice of a second proposed increase for 2023, this one an additional 5.5 per cent.

When my parents and I first moved here in 2016, the rent was $1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment, plus a parking space. The standard increases over the last five years have brought that to $1,300, but if the proposed hikes go through, it will be more like $1,450. The reality is that even with me working full time and with my parents receiving ODSP, we cannot afford to pay an extra $2,000 a year. And we shouldn’t have to. 

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In Ontario rent increases are controlled by the province, more or less in step with the rate of inflation. The maximum hike in 2023 was 2.5 per cent. How are these increases even possible?

The proposed hikes in our case are what’s known as above-guideline rent increases, or AGIs. This is when a landlord is able to apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board to raise the rent above the provincially set maximum in order to cover renovations and repairs. Starlight took over building management in 2019, and there have been renovations ever since. We didn’t get a heads up, we weren’t consulted and we have had to deal with dust and noise. It’s been really disruptive. 

It doesn’t make sense for tenants to finance repairs and renovations in the first place. The owner of the asset is the one who makes all of the profits. Why should the cost of upkeep be passed along to the tenants? Meanwhile, many of us are just trying to make better lives for ourselves and our families, which is difficult when every extra dollar we earn has to go to our housing costs. 

How did you end up living in the Thorncliffe Park apartments? 

I came to Canada eight years ago with my parents as migrants from Saudi Arabia. My uncle recommended that we look at this neighbourhood because it is very community- and family-oriented. My parents were both in their 70s at the time, and they’re in their 80s now. They don’t speak English, so it was important to be somewhere with other Arabic speakers. They have a real community here—they go to the East York Town Centre with friends and spend time in the park. They can find their favourite foods from home. 

I like living among so many people who come from similar backgrounds and have similar life experiences as me. My friends and I hang out in the neighbourhood, we go to the local pool and we play soccer. Thorncliffe Park is the only home we have known in this country, and having to leave would be horrible. Particularly for my parents, who can’t drive and deal with mobility issues. I worry about how isolated they could become if we have to find somewhere else to live. Who knows how far we would have to go to afford something these days?

Starlight has called your action “poorly timed and misguided,” given that the proposed hikes haven’t even gone through yet. How do you respond? 

We are demanding that Starlight withdraw their applications for AGI increases. I don’t know how much good it would do to strike after the increases have gone through, which happens almost 100 per cent of the time, according to the experts we have consulted. Once it does go through, we will be forced to pay retroactively for the increases over the last two years, which we are trying to avoid.  

READ: The End of Homeownership 

Have you heard from Starlight? 

We have been asking to meet with them for a year and a half, but so far, the only responses we have gotten to our rent strike are N5 notices, which are the first step in the eviction process. 

Does that scare you? 

I understand why it can seem scary, and I have heard that from a lot of tenants who are worried after receiving an N5. What I have told them is that this is the first step in a very lengthy process, and that it is likely being used to scare us into submission. If Starlight does plan to evict us, they would need to apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board, and I think the timeline is five or six months. 

And you will continue to withhold rent until that time comes?

I will continue to withhold rent until Starlight withdraws their application for the AGIs. We think this is the fair and reasonable way forward, and my hope is that they will realize the same. I think evicting 150 tenants would be pretty damaging for their brand. 

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Thorncliffe is not the only group of tenants currently staging a rent strike. Is this a coordinated effort?

It is not. I think the multiple strikes are a reflection of how crazy rent has become in this city, and how many people are worried about being pushed out because they cannot afford to stay where they are. It’s not like anyone wants to participate in a rent strike. If they’re doing that it’s because they feel like there is no other option. 

When you look at the community in these buildings, a lot of them are living paycheque to paycheque or on a fixed income, like my parents. If my two-bedroom was to go back on the market today, the rent would be $2,900, which is just staggering. 

You obviously have a knack for community organizing. Any chance you would consider a career in politics?

That is definitely something I am interested in. I did my degree in poli sci and international relations at U of T. Currently I work as an office supervisor for a sales company. Eventually I would love to get a chance to represent communities like my own. A lot of these people do not often have a voice, but together we can stand up and say, “Enough is enough.” We are fighting back and we will be heard.