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Tenants Association Organizing Guide

Toronto Tenants Associations

Educate, organize, resist.

First learn what your tenants rights are, otherwise how will you know when you have been wronged! Then further educate yourself about the greater issues and why tenants rights need to be expanded. After that, tenants need to organize themselves, both because it is easier to educate groups of people rather than individual-by-individual, and for the great power there is in numbers. And finally, tenants need to stand up for their human rights, make their demands, and fight for social justice.

This guide to creating a tenants' association contains only suggestions; there are no hard-and-fast rules to creating an organization. Your tenant organization and its nature will depend upon its members and your goals. It can be a group whose only goal is to fight a huge above guideline rent increase, or a very activist group that decides not just to fight for your building but one that helps to organize your community and fight for broader issues, or one that believes it should work to solve lighting and security problems in your building and improve your relationship with the landlord. As long are you are working to improve the lives of tenants, there is no one way things must be done.

The situation is bad and there aren't enought supports for tenants. We need as many people and groups organizing, educating and helping tenants as possible. I hope this guide is a help towards that goal.

Why organize tenants into associations?

There are many reasons why it is advantageous to have a tenants' association for your building or your community. These include:

  • To improve yours and your neighbours' living conditions, whether your concerns are about maintenance, safety, or improper actions by the landlord or their employees;

  • You and your neighbours are having trouble dealing with the landlord, property manager or superintendent and are looking for a strategy to deal with it;

  • There is strength in numbers. It is more difficult for bad landlords to pick on a group than on individual tenants;

  • To get moral support from others and so you don't feel alone and isolated in your fight;

  • To share the work and resources. The more of you there are, the more work that can be accomplished, and the less work for each of you;

  • For the diversity of skills and opinions available. New people may bring in new good ideas not considered before;

  • For continuity. It is very useful to keep a history of the landlord as they are likely to repeat past strategies and habits. With tenants moving in and out, a long-term association can keep records on the landlord over many years.

  • To get involved in bigger issues in your community or beyond, whether it be fighting to save a community pool, creating a community garden or organizing to bring back real rent controls

  • It is your legal right to have a tenants association. That is the law! Under Ontario's Residential Tenancies Act, Section 23:

    A landlord shall not harass, obstruct, coerce, threaten or interfere with a tenant.

    The fine for individuals guity of such an offense (including the landlord, superintendent, and other employees and agents of the landlord or property management,) are liable for fines of up to $25,000, and for corporations up to $100,000, under sections 238 (1) and 238 (2) of the Residential Tenancies Act.

Setting up your tenants association

Don't forget: you need to be responsible for your organization and setting it up. If you rely upon outsiders to "organize you" there will be no longevity to your group. While there are very useful groups in the community whom you may want to invite in to assist you and provide information and even advice, don't let them set your agenda or priorities, or your group will have no sense of ownership in itself and is doomed to be short-lived.

So how do you get people involved?

  • First talk to the people you know. Find out what problems and concerns do you have in common? And have a meeting amongst yourselves to get it going.

  • With your small informal group do some preliminary investigations. What resources are available to help you, such as this website. Get a copy of your landlord's corporate registration from the Companies and Personal Property Security Branch (CPPSB) of the Ministry of Government Services (MGS)

  • Start to get other people interested. Strike up a conversation with fellow tenants. Mention the lack of heat or the recent breakins to vehicles in the underground parking. See their reaction. Tell them about the plans for an association.

  • Organize an initial meeting for tenants to strike up either your steering committee or your more formal association.

Your first official meeting

  • Get a list of the tenants attending and how to contact them, (ie. apartment number, telephone and e-mail.) A note of caution: guard your sign-in and membership lists closely. There have been reports of bad landlords sending in their staff from other buildings to steal these lists.

  • Set a specific time for your meeting. It will go over the alotted time, so set it at 90 minutes and expect it to go 120.

  • Set a scheduled agenda. It can be very simple and don't expect to keep to it. It can be as simple as:

    1. 7:00 p.m. Sign-in and Introductions (allow some time for the latecomers). If there is a small enough crowd getting everyone to stand up and say their names will help people get to know one another.
    2. 7:30 p.m. Ask people to very quickly describe a concern or problem. Get someone to write them down. These will likely be things like: a rent increase, reduced services, a lack of maintenance, security concerns, key money, etc. You must put limits on how much time people take and remind them there are still lots more people to speak or one or two people could take up the whole time.
    3. 8:15 p.m. Talk about the benefits of having an association. Get people who want to volunteer. Ask if people are part of any organizations, either unions, professional or other associations who might be able to provide photocopying.
    4. 8:30 p.m should be the end but it will likely be later. Don't let it go beyond 9:00 p.m. or it might discourage some people from coming to the next meeting.

Tenants association duties

Your tenants association can be as passive or as activist as you and its members want it to be. This may change as conditions in the building changes, eg. If the landlord files an application with the Landlord and Tenant Board, Ontario, for a large above guideline rent increase, and also as membership changes over time.

Duties can and in some case should include:

  • Tenant organizing, to get more residents involved:

  • Tenant meetings, to keep in contact with the tenants and/or for educational purposes;

  • Hold at lease one annual meeting of all members to stay accountable to them;

  • Investigating the landlord's background, like obtaining their corporation's record, and possibly tracking down other buildings they own;

  • Monitoring disrepair in the building (which could include getting members to give copies of all their requests and especially repeat requests for repairs in their apartments,) and even taking pictures of disrepair throughout the building both in units and in common areas. This is useful to show a bad building maintenance history on the landlords part;

  • Monitoring with the members assistance, their requests to city buildings department (municipal licensing and standards) for inspections to be done, and the results or lack of results (which is useful to prove any lack of response from the city);

  • Distribute a regular newsletter, which could be as infrequent as twice a year, to keep tenants aware of the association, of the annual general meeting of the group, and for other purposes as deemed desirable, informing them of additional meetings, list useful community resources and events, etc.

  • To dispute the landlords applications for above guideline rent increases, reductions in services to the tenants, illegal actvities by the landlord, etc;

Tenant association membership

Be inclusive! That means let it be an association for all tenants. Don't make it an association officially affiliated with a political party, or in some way try to limit membership by whatever criterion.

The one exception to this rule are agents and employees of the landlord and their immediate family. Superintendents, maintenance and caretaking staff may claim to also be tenants, but they have a vested interest in seeing the landlord's interests are carried out as they derive all or some of their income from the landlord.

Organization Structure

Extremely few tenants associations feel the need to incorporate themselves as a non-profit corporation.

So what should the organization look like?

  • If you find that everybody is working along well then no hierarchy is needed and everything can be done as an informal steering committee

  • The steering committee model works well if there are no real finances to worry about. This would be the situation where there is no bank account because there is no need for a lawyer such as to fight a major rent increase, and you have either had the photocopying donated, or decide to "pass the hat" around to collect money to pay for copying.

  • When an association of any model is formed, there can be some real difficulties with having an election as usually nobody has a track record in these sorts of issues, and people would often be voting for people they know little if anything about. This is avoided with an informal steering committee.

  • It is best to get organized before there is a dire need with a deadline such as a rent increase hearing

  • A formal structure could be as simple as having an annual election for a Board to discuss and work on the issues, and a President, Vice-president or Treasurer, and a Secretary handling day-to-day decisions.

    If you want a very formal draft Tenant Association Constitution click on the link. But my personal opinion is that it is much better to have a group of people working together well for a common cause, than to get bogged down in constitutions. Also, I have seen procedure and constitutions abused for control purposes.

How to keep in touch with tenants

How to contact you

Tenants will need to contact members of the association to: join, inform them about going-ons in the building (such as construction, new employees, changes in the landlord's policies,) events, disrepair problems, and so forth.

  • One of the easiest ways is if the building has mail slots in individual doors, or gaps under doors, to make one member's apartment the place to leave such information, (of course making sure any papers go all the way into the apartment).

  • E-mail is convenient and the most anonymous, but some tenants still do not have access to the Internet.

  • You can create your own tenant website,

  • The telephone is convenient but has the problems that if you use the phone all the time, tenants can't get through, do you want tenant calls interfering with friends and family trying to call you, and you can get the occasional call in the middle of the night if you can't turn off your telephone bell.

Write a tenant newsletter

This newsletter may only be one page distributed twice a year, or it could be more pages distributed quarterly or even monthly, but it is useful for reaching out to the tenants both to organize them and to educate them on issues.

What needs to be considered in an newsletter?

  • I believe tenant newsletters should be distributed to all tenants, members and non-members because new tenants are always moving in and this is a way to introduce the tenants association to them.

  • If you only want, need and have the resources for a minimal newsletter, try to make it at least twice a year.

  • For the new tenants, give a very short summary of your association, and how to join.

  • Keep the print a decent size. Not everyone can read fine print

  • Keep the writing short and to the point and the language simple. In some cases it may be the children who are reading this to parents for one reason or another.

  • Put useful information in the newsletter if you want people to read it. It can to alert tenants to changes in the building's ownership, community resources such as legal clinics, food banks, this website, and how to contact your local building inspector, fire department, city councillor, MPP and MP.

  • Use it to educate tenants on their rights. You can get that information from my Tenants Most Asked Questions about Ontario Landlord and Tenant law page. Feel free to paraphrase material from that document. You may even want to use a few questions from that document verbatim, and I give permission to all individual building tenant associations to do so if they use no more than four questions and answers per newsletter from that document, give me credit for my work and list the address of this web site.

  • One fit person can put newsletters or notices in the doors of all units in an average-sized building in under an hour. But it is best to share the work, not just to prevent a few people doing all the work and getting exhausted, but so that people get more involved and feel apart of the association. One way to share the distribution of newsletters is by having "Floor Captains". You could have one person per floor but more usually it is two people who have volunteered to be responsible as a pair for fliering 4 to 6 floors, when needed.

Telephone Tree

A "telephone tree" is a way to get several people involved to do call-arounds when it is needed to contact people quickly. If the executive needed to call an emergency meeting, they could contact, for example 6 or 12 people, who could either be the Board members or "Floor Captains" each of whom has a partial membership list with telephone numbers so then those 6 or 12 then call all the rest of the members to quickly alert them to the meeting or other situaltion.

Hold tenant meetings

You should hold at least one meeting a year for the tenants to get together and meet each other, even if you don't have a formal board of directors. You definitely need at least this one meeting each year if you have elections to vote for the executive positions (eg. President, Vice-President, Treasurer, etc.) and a Board.

What issues should be considered?

  • Where do you have the meetings?

      You do have a legal right to hold meetings in the common areas of the building you live, for the tenants there, as long as you do not impede tenants from getting to the elevators or stairs, and are not in violation of fire standards by blocking exits/entrances. Of course doing it this way you can expect the landlord or his employees to try to listen in on your meeting.

      It is getting more difficult with most community centres and schools charging for space, to find a free place to hold meetings. Perhaps, your local city councillor, MPP or MP would be willing to help you find a place? One advantage of meetings outside of your rental apartment building is some measure of privacy, but it is never guaranteed.

  • How often do you need meetings?

      That depends on the amount of things to be discussed. If you only have one meeting a year, tenants may feel excluded from their own association and if you have it too often without a good reason, they will stop attending.

      Only your group can judge what is appropriate in your circumstances.

  • Why hold meetings? Both to discuss issues of concern and to educate your members. Issue may include:

    • Strategies for dealing with a bad landlord;

    • Deciding whether to, and if so, how to dispute a landlord's application to the Landlord Tenant Board, Ontario, such as for an above guideline rent increase;

    • Discuss security and safety concerns. You could invite your local fire prevention officer to speak to you.

    • Get feedback from the general membership on the issues they have serious concern with such as disrepair problems, or harassment.

    • You could invite a lawyer from the local community legal clinic to discuss tenants' legal rights under the law.

    • And of course you should have an annual general meeting to discuss the building, the activities of the tenants association the past year and what direction its members would like it to take in the upcoming year.

Other Events

Living in a complex of rental units is being part of a community in itself. Of course you are part of the bigger surrounding community too.

You may want to hold social events like picnics for people to get to know each other, or multi-household yards sales to help people make ends meet or even fund raising events for your organization.

The pitfalls of tenant organizing

Here are some of the things to cautious about:

  1. People who join the association and want to be on the executive as a stepping stone to run for political office;

  2. Politicians who rather than wanting to assist you such as with photocopying or finding places to hold meetings, want to use your group for their partisan benefit, for photo opportunities in the media. If tenants feel grateful for the assistance of a politician they can decide to assist them as individuals but endorsing political parties or politicians is a surefired way to lose members;

  3. Other organizations who rather than wanting to assist you, want to use you as a source of labour for their causes such as to distribute their literature, to use you as a source of income or to lobby governments for their funding or increased funding; Know who you are dealing with before your tenants' association become affiliated with any other group.

  4. There are times when it is legitimate for your group to pay out money. This would be if you are hiring a lawyer or paralegal to handle your case. But if it is to another group in thanks for the assistance they have provided to you, first make sure they have already provided the assistance, and also make sure they aren't "double-dipping" and are already getting paid by a level of government for any services they claim they are providing to you.

  5. Don't organize a second tenants association in your building. This is a technique that has occasionally been used by landlords to destroy associations by finding a tenant who wants to endear themselves to the landlord. Even one Toronto agency has been involved in this when a building tenant associations would not join their Federation or write letters of endorsement to support their increased funding;

  6. Tenant-to-tenant disputes can be quite a problem. It is best if you can find a mediation service to get conflicts worked out. It is best to stay away from being involved in getting tenants evicted. A common practice of unscrupulous landlords is to find two people in a building who are in conflict, fan the flames of that conflict and then get each of these people and their supporters to write letter of complaint about the other person, so the landlord can get them both evicted and get higher rents from the replacement tenants.

  7. Don't make the superintendent the target of your complaints unnecessarily. Try to complain about the problems, not the people, unless the person or persons are the problem. Is there no maintenance because there is a lazy superintendent, or because the landlord refuses to provide the supplies needed for the repairs? Bad landlords love to blame everything on either the superintendent or the tenants. There are three basic types of supers:

    1. Good superintendents, who do good work, don't harass the tenants and don't try to get illegal fees out of tenants;

    2. Bad superintendents, who don't maintain the building, harass the tenants, and/or pocket illegal fees out of tenants; and

    3. Afraid superintendents, who work for unscrupulous landlords and are afraid both for their jobs and for their housing (and most have families). Superintendents have practically no employment nor housing security under the law, and can lose both with only 7 day's notice in Ontario. Under these conditions some supers do things they are not comfortable with because they have been ordered to do so and feel they have no choice.

Other Tenants Associations Organization references

Here are a couple of good resources on creating your own tenants' association from the ultimate tenant web site in New York, Tenant Net. Of course the references to law do not apply here but the basics of organizing and the rest are the same and well written.

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