People may have trouble remembering what ACORN stands for, but there’s no question that the housing-rights organization has taken stands that led to major gains for tenants across Canada through the work of its 24 neighbourhood chapters.
When Dartmouth resident Kim Rankin received a monthly $300 rent increase notice from her landlord, she reached out to Nova Scotia’s Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Canada to report the unreasonable rent hike, as well as existing building issues. Rankin was then invited to a tenant’s rights workshop on minimum standards of maintenance: that was the catalyst to the beginning of her advocacy.
Rankin not only won better conditions in her own building, but the rent increase was voided when Nova Scotia ACORN won the strongest protections for tenants, in the form of rent controls, the province has seen in the previous 20 years.
“There are a lot of people out there that maybe are apathetic,” says Judy Duncan, executive director and head organizer of ACORN Canada.
“But there’s also a lot of people [out there] who want to get involved. I think some people [just] don’t know how. And I think sometimes it feels [overwhelming] to think ‘how am I going to do all of this by myself,’ but when given the chance to get involved …”
A widespread education and engagement campaign on housing affordability and rent control resulted in the province establishing a temporary 2% rent increase limit and ban on renovictions in November 2020, and an Affordable Housing Commission tasked with creating a set of recommendations to improve access to housing in Nova Scotia. A $48,000 grant from the Community Housing Transformation Centre was critical to making it happen, Duncan says.
“[The grant] really helped us keep doing the work through the pandemic,” says Duncan. “It gave us the resources necessary to focus on engaging new tenants and seeking out opportunities to develop their leadership skills. It helped us build new leaders and get more people involved—which is ultimately what is needed to win. There are some really great people that have become community leaders.”
Organizing during a pandemic
ACORN Canada is a non-profit organization dealing with tenant empowerment and education. As its website describes it, ACORN is “volunteer led, with community members training other community members on leadership skills, with support by staff.”
Having previously worked for an ACORN chapter in the United States, Duncan received seed money to start the Canadian chapter in 2003, applying the same organizing methodology—one that has proven successful over the years.
“These are the kind of strategies [we use] when we organize,” says Duncan. “You know, lots of door knocking, lots of leadership visits, lots of house visits, a lot of action in the streets.”
The developments in Nova Scotia are just one of the many successes reported by ACORN Canada. The Centre has awarded a total of $275,000 in grants from the Community-Based Tenant Initiative Fund to support projects across the country.
But the pandemic has put a damper on the usual organization methods, forcing the non-profit to adapt its strategies for a low-contact world, such as moving meetings online or outdoors, while adhering to strict health protocols.
“When the pandemic hit, it was kind of like […], how are we going to deal with this? Because tenants are having even more issues and we can’t do house visits. Luckily, we had a big existing contact list, so we could call people and find out what’s going on,” says Duncan.
“And then we started doing a lot of like Zoom [meetings], targeting landlords and targeting politicians, getting buildings fixed up or trying to [promote] better cleaning protocols.”
The pandemic did not, however, dampen spirits. And in Toronto, as in Nova Scotia, the wins have been significant.
Duncan says, “[the people] needed rent forgiveness.”
Toronto ACORN won improvements to the RentSafeTO program—which ensures apartment building owners comply with building maintenance standards—by adding mandatory cleaning policies for private apartment buildings. Also, they won $5 million in new funds for the city’s rent bank, and the establishment of a pilot program where grants will be offered to tenants in rent arrears—a progressive solution to an age-old issue.
“I was able to stop my eviction due to rent arrears,” says Kiri Vadivelu, a tenant living in Scarborough Centre. “I was able to learn about my rights as a tenant. The workshops have been very helpful in building my knowledge and confidence, I am motivated to fight for my community.”
In British Columbia, where evictions saw a steep rise during the pandemic, having a home became the strongest public-health measure. There are now two official chapters in Surrey, and BC ACORN members fought back to prevent the eviction of the VanVlack family by Metro Vancouver Housing.
The VanVlacks have four children—two with special needs. Due to BC ACORN’s campaign, a human rights lawyer and non-profit housing providers stepped in to help the family.
On the heels of a successful year, ACORN Canada shows no signs of slowing down until every tenant is empowered.
“If you really want to get right down to it, housing shouldn’t be a market good. Right? It [just] doesn’t work [when you are] housing people. [The government] should be doing everything to get as much of it off the market. Social housing, not-for-profit housing and co-ops really should be where people are housed,” adds Duncan.