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Tenant organizing in Canada's most expensive city

Image: Modified from an image used with permission of the Vancouver Tenants Union.

Kell Gerlings and Neil Vokey of the Vancouver Tenants Union talk to Scott Neigh on this edition of Talking Radical Radio. Kell is an organizer with an anti-poverty group called Raise the Rates and is a member of the steering committee of the Vancouver Tenants Union, while Neil is an independent filmmaker and one of the founding members of the group. They talk about the harsh realities facing tenants in Vancouver and about what the tenants union is doing to fight back.

It's true in lots of places: Housing is getting more and more expensive, and finding a place that is decent and affordable, and where the landlord isn't awful, is getting harder and harder. Yet, as true as this is in communities from coast to coast, nowhere are tenants facing a tighter squeeze than in the cities of Toronto and – of particular relevance to this episode – Vancouver.

Last spring, a broad cross-section of activists and organizers in Vancouver started talking about what they could do about this. They wanted to find ways to bridge the gap between the amazing organizing by low-income people happening in the city's Downtown East Side with grassroots efforts in the rest of the city. They wanted to find ways to help tenants fight back in their day-to-day struggles around repairs, discrimination, bed bugs, rent increases, evictions, and so on. And they wanted to find a way to build political power among tenants across Vancouver that was strong enough that the city administration and the provincial government would have to stop ignoring them, and begin taking action in the form of immediate reforms to make conditions more liveable for tenants and in the form of long-term investments in social housing that would start to get at the roots of the housing crisis.

After many conversations among those who first came together, and with people involved in similar organizing in other cities across the continent, they decided that the best organizational model for Vancouver would be a tenants union.

Today's guests are very clear that they see the roots of today's housing crisis in the forced dislocation of Indigenous peoples from their homelands in what is now called British Columbia and across Turtle Island, in the commodification of land and housing that puts profits before people, and in the histories of gentrification and displacement of poor, working-class, and racialized communities in Vancouver and in cities across the continent.

Even though they see the Vancouver Tenants Union's work as being very much in its early stages, and clearly identify that they are still learning a great deal even as they do that work, the union has already accomplished a lot. They have already been part of a couple of major collective fights by tenants at the level of specific buildings. They have been very involved in working with individual tenants, both through various kinds of tenant education work to help people know what their rights are and how to get their rights enforced, and also through working with individuals facing eviction or other sorts of conflict with landlords. They have established a high enough profile in the community that they regularly receive phone calls and emails from tenants looking for support. Between last May and the end of 2017, they have signed up over 800 members.

They have also been very carefully guiding the group through a process to figure out those kinds of boring but vital details that are necessary to establish the union as a formal organization. In November, they had a founding AGM at which they passed a constitution and by-laws that had been developed collectively over the course of the previous six months. They also hosted workshops by tenant organizers from across North America to build capacity and skills.

What exactly the organization will look like on the ground in another year will depend on what the members want moving forward. But Kell and Neil are clear that their vision includes building the group's capacity to engage in more bread-and-butter fights at the level of individual buildings, mobilizing the membership to put pressure on city hall and on the provincial legislature to enact reforms. Ultimately they want to lay the groundwork for the more audacious kinds of direct action interventions that have been so powerful for tenants in other jursidictions in recent years, whether that is the major rent strike won by tenants in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto in 2017, or the use of direct action to block evictions in various cities in the United States.

Image: Modified from an image used with permission of the Vancouver Tenants Union.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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