Tenant Testimonial: VK & JB

Thanks to Anthony Haley for this portrait.

VK and her boyfriend JB lived in a mid-rise building on King Street East near Stirton Street. She was displaced from her home by Metrolinx. Her original landlord sent a letter to the tenants telling them to vacate as Metrolinx was planning to buy the building. The landlord did not follow a legal eviction process or provide any compensation. Some of VK’s neighbours were scared by the letter and felt they had to move. VK provided assurance to her neighbours and encouraged them to stay put. She and her neighbours attended King Street Tenants United meetings, learned their rights, and were supported in making demands and negotiating as a group with Metrolinx. VK and her neighbours agreed that not one person would sign a lease termination agreement with Metrolinx until everyone’s demands were met – this included extra supports for seniors and low-income tenants in the building. Metrolinx tried to isolate tenants and negotiate with each household one-by-one, but VK and her neighbours succeeded in acting as a group and applying collective pressure, to ensure the most vulnerable neighbours were not taken advantage of and were properly taken care of. VK and her neighbours won all of their demands: assistance finding new apartments, advanced priority for social housing, rental subsidy, moving costs covered, utility reconnection fees covered, bus tickets for a year.

VK feels for other King Street tenants who weren’t so fortunate. The people who got scared and left their homes upon receiving a notice from their landlord. The people who held out until Metrolinx bought the building, but were given only a couple hundred dollars in compensation for moving costs. The people who were a little better off – given a 12-month rent subsidy by Metrolinx, the difference between old and new rent – but may be at risk of eviction and homelessness now that the subsidy has expired. VK feels Metrolinx and the City of Hamilton treated people terribly through this process. Even though she depends on the HSR and would like to see improvements to public transit, she argues no train is worth uprooting so many people.

Read on for her full story.

When did you first hear that you would need to move for the LRT?

The first notice that we got came from our landlord and it said that our building had been sold – or was about to be sold – to Metrolinx and that we had to leave because of this. And they had given us a date…. And it turned out that everyone in my building had gotten it. So after the conversations with our neighbours and conversations with other people who had a little bit more knowledge about the legal process of evicting people and how that all works, we realized that this notice didn’t really mean anything. And we decided to ignore it….This was just something that the landlord had written up on a piece of paper. It wasn’t an official form of any kind. It just basically said ‘We are about to sell this building and you need to leave.’ One person was going to leave the building when we got that first notice, even though it wasn’t the official one, because they were worried and scared about what that meant and they really wanted to get ahead on finding apartments and they didn’t realize that this notice that we’d gotten had no legal basis whatever. After talking to them as a building [as a group of tenants], they decided that they would also stay there and they felt a little less worried because we passed on some information to them about their legal rights in that situation. So they ended up staying there with us.

What did Metrolinx offer you and your neighbours to leave your home?

They [Metrolinx representatives] would come over and try to talk to us individually about what they could do for us….I think they offered to pay for moving expenses and that’s about it. And they were willing to give us some time to try to find a place. And for everyone that we talked to, that just didn’t feel like it was enough. Like, we were asked to leave our house, where we lived. I hadn’t lived there for a very long time but other people in my building had lived there for a very long time. Two people were seniors. They were expecting to live the rest of their lives there. They had been there already for ten years, I think, and were paying rent that was a lot less than what apartments are going for now. And it worked for their budget, because they were on fairly limited budgets….Because I had moved into my apartment not that long before we got the notice, I knew how hard it was to find an apartment in Hamilton. I knew how much the prices had gone up. I knew how competitive it was. All the different things that landlords would ask you to do. The hoops that you had to jump through to even be considered a candidate. So I felt that I really needed to be compensated a lot more than just getting my moving expenses paid for, because I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

How did you get connected with King Street Tenants United?

Eventually I attended some King Street Tenants United meetings that were held in the neighbourhood where different people who were affected by this came together and we were brainstorming all the different things that we could ask for from Metrolinx. I brought some of those ideas back home with me to my neighbours. And we also brainstormed other things that we could ask from them. Most important for us was a subsidy that was the difference between our current rent and whatever future rent we would be paying. And for two of the women who lived in the building who were seniors who weren’t as computer savvy, and hadn’t looked for apartments for a long time, they also asked for more support in looking for apartments. We asked to get our moving expenses covered. And to get any fees that were associated with transferring over our utilities accounts, cable, and things like that – we asked for coverage for that. We asked for a year’s worth of bus tickets for public transportation. We made these demands.

How did you organize with your neighbours and negotiate collectively with Metrolinx?

Metrolinx insisted that we do this on an individual basis, unit per unit, which we did. But we all kept each other in the loop as to what Metrolinx was saying to each of us. We made sure that none of us would sign anything until everyone was getting what they needed…. Metrolinx did agree to all of this, but only after they realized that they weren’t going to get anywhere with us if they didn’t play nice with us. They did really try hard to individualize the issue and not let us work together. Because it was easier for them to isolate each unit. I don’t think they realized how close we were as neighbours. And this process had brought us closer together. We were checking in on each other on a daily basis or at least once a week to see how things were going. And over time, I think when they realized that we were not going to just do what they want us to do, they did meet all of our criteria. They also did it on a timeline that worked for us because they did want this to be done and over with as fast as they could. Even though I had found a suitable place to live, the two women in my building who were older and on more fixed incomes, they couldn’t find a place, so we all decided that we wouldn’t move until everyone had found their next place that they were going to live.

What has been your impression of Metrolinx and City of Hamilton planners and politicians through the LRT planning process?

Everyone, including myself and everyone who lived in my building, uses transit. They are people who ride the bus to get to their appointments and their jobs and all of that. It’s not that we were against having improved public transportation. We are actually the people who use it the most. But at what cost? We weren’t really treated with any respect. It was sort of like we were treated as people that just needed to be dealt with, pushed out of the way, so this project could go ahead. It didn’t really seem like the way Metrolinx and the city was going to deal with us was really thought out. I think that what they initially thought was that they would give these notices to landlords or to whoever, make some sort of agreement to have the buildings all emptied…. I don’t think that any project is worth uprooting so many different people in so many different communities, especially if there’s no plan as to where those people are going to go and who is going to live there after these projects are done too.

I read in the newspaper about someone who had gotten, I don’t even know, something like $100 for his moving expenses. And it was a big building. It had several units. It was very close to where we lived. I imagine in their situation, most people probably just vacated right away, as soon as they got the notices to do so, even though they weren’t legal notices…. They probably didn’t realize exactly that the minimum they could ask was probably a lot more than they had gotten. And that Metrolinx as giving them pennies in comparison with what they deserved or what they could afford to give. I imagine it was a very confusing process. Especially when you’re given legal documents and talking to people using very inaccessible language—and they are trying to intimidate you to leave your home.

What advice would you give to tenants in Hamilton, who are facing eviction by Metrolinx or at the hands of any other landlord?

You should aim high with their demands. That this is your home that they are trying to kick you out of and that is worth something. That they need to talk to their neighbours and talk to other people in their neighbourhoods and their communities who are affected by this…. Together they can fight to achieve some of these things and really set a precedent for how these companies treat people in these situations.

Hamilton is a city that working-class people have lived in for a long time – have built this city, have worked here, have raised their kids here, have made communities and neighbourhoods. People like us should be allowed to live and stay in the neighbourhoods that we helped shape and create.

Basically what we’re seeing now is there’s all sorts of people who are making money off the backs of working-class people, whether it be your landlords, or your bosses, or whoever. And there are speculators and bankers. And they are profiting, while people like us are struggling to have something even as basic as a house over our head.

This is not something that we should take. We need to come together, and together figure out creative solutions as to how we’re going to deal with this and how we’re going to push forward. And not just deal with this issue with the LRT and Metrolinx but also the general unaffordability in this city around housing. This is something that we can’t really do individually. We need to join all of our forces and experience and knowledge and figure something better out.

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