Organizing Vancouver renters under one roof

Q&A with Vancouver Tenants Union’s Kell Gerlings

Since its April 29 launch, the Vancouver Tenants Union, which is advocates for renters’ rights, has attracted more than 500 members. Ultimately, the VTU hopes to have a representative in every rental building in Vancouver. Membership dues are $1 a year to ensure it’s accessible to everyone, although the suggested fee formula is $1 per $1,000 of annual income.

The union is planning to hold a convention this fall when it will ratify a constitution to guide its future.

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Kell Gerlings, one of its spokespeople, talked to the Courier recently about the organization’s objectives.

“What we really want is everybody to organize and be able to advocate for themselves,” Gerlings said. “The biggest thing that drew us together when we started to create the tenants union was not wanting people to feel isolated anymore — [we] especially wanted to reach the people living in the individual suites and in the backyard sheds — have them come together and know that there’s a place where [they] can share and maybe get some help or feel a sense of community.”

What have people told you at neighbourhood meetings? Do people have common stories or do they vary widely?

You’ve got the renovictions, you’ve got the rent increases and then you have the threats, intimidation and bribes, essentially, from landlords who are trying to keep people quiet or trying to kick people out. They’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ll give you one month’s rent if you leave by this time,” which is a lot of what we see. It’s the stories you hear over and over again: “I didn’t know what to do” or “I was alone, this landlord’s been picking on me” or “I didn’t know how to speak up. I didn’t know who to talk to.” 

Do you think tenants are afraid to voice concerns in case they get kicked out and have to start over?

For sure. We run into that a lot of the time, especially when we’re thinking about media coming out to our events. It’s making sure that people who do choose to share their story are aware of what might happen if they do that. But also wanting to be able to provide support for folks if that does happen. There’s definitely the fear of speaking out. There’s even the fear of organizing their building or talking to their neighbours. They’re not sure who’s getting some kind of deal from the landlord. I’ve done a lot of door knocking in SROs. One of the most prominent things is that people are afraid to talk because literally the buddy next door could be doing maintenance or whatever for the manager or the landlord and repercussions come back. They get beat up, kicked out… all these things. Time and time again you just see the landlord has too much power.

Is there a particularly egregious tenant story you’ve heard that even surprised you?

Having done a lot of organizing in the Downtown Eastside and in a lot of the SRO hotels there, especially the privately owned ones, [it’s] been absolutely horrifying to hear and know that people are living in those conditions and under such stress. Managers of buildings sexually assaulting female tenants or requiring sexual services before they can even go up to their room — that kind of violence. You get managers calling in people to beat up somebody up because they’ve said something or tried to make a complaint about their building or tried to make it more liveable — those kinds of horror stories. But one that particularly struck me, and one that’s got a bit of news coverage is a tenant who got an eviction notice for smudging. Are you kidding me? We’re living on unceded land. Even the conversation around homeownership and commodifying land is complicated and incredibly colonial. And then someone’s getting an eviction notice for smudging? That, for me, is kind of the epitome of entitlement.

People facing the affordability crisis range from the poor and the homeless to people with relatively well paying jobs. How will the VTU meet the needs of that broad group?

We’ve been in conversation with a group in the States called a Right to the City — their Homes for All campaign. They talk a lot about wanting to get the DNA right. There’s huge capacity to grow incredibly widely but if that means the people who are going to be benefitting from this work are people who have values and opinions and political beliefs that are going to be harmful towards the most vulnerable populations we’re dealing with… then [it’s a] no-go. So, yeah, there’s a huge range of people affected by this, but what we most want to make sure we’re doing is focusing on the people who the crisis is hitting hardest — how we can support those people. Because if we build a better baseline and build a better foundation, and we’re taking care of the people who are most harmed, that has effects that go up… When we fight for the most vulnerable that’s better for everybody.  What we’re really asking for is solidarity. Class solidarity — middle income people and lower income people and homeless people. We know that people in the Downtown Eastside are fighting and standing up for themselves and that’s the biggest possible battle and so we’re asking people to stand with us and to be able to stand together.

What are the tenant union’s overall goals or priorities?

Real rent control. That’s rent control tied to the unit and not to the tenant so that when a tenant moves out, the landlords can’t just jack the prices. And better eviction protection [such as] mandatory hearings so somebody gets some notice. Having more advocates widely available, opening up the Residential Tenancy Act and Residential Tenancy Board to look at where the laws are weighted towards landlords and not towards tenants and how can we close that. Better incomes and more housing for all. By that we mean raising the welfare rates, raising minimum wage, raising disability [rates]. And more housing — not getting into a debate about more supply but more real affordable social housing… That also includes the demand of 10,000 units of social housing built every year until the deficit is filled. [And we want to] end housing discrimination because of all these horrifying stories of people not being rented to because of their partner, because of their skin colour, because of their practice — because of who they are.

How will this movement maintain momentum over a long period of time?

It’s not just going to be symbolically representing tenants. It will actually be on the ground winning battles — picking fights and going out and winning some. We’re really looking not to just be talking heads about what we want to do, but actually organizing and taking landlords to court, winning small cases, winning bigger cases, putting forward campaigns.

Does the group blame the municipal or provincial government for the bulk of the problem?

We haven’t come out with a hard position yet… But essentially all three levels of government because everyone seems to be pointing the finger somewhere else…

When you go to the city, the city is, well, we need more provincial money. When you go to the province, it’s, well, we don’t have a federal housing strategy. And you can’t get to the federal government. So [it’s] definitely wanting the pressure to be on all three levels of government, but also we don’t want to have to rely on the state all the time. That’s the other thing with the tenants union, it’s about people power and people coming together with a plan and demanding something happen — making it happen that way instead of having to go and ask nicely.

Do you think a new provincial government, whatever that government might be, will improve the situation?

Can you be cynically optimistic? I don’t know. Obviously, it will mean something if the Liberals are out and Christy Clark is no longer in power and NDP and Greens do come together. But they also have a massive mess that they’re stepping into and they’re newly forming. Things take a long time. Hopefully, because it’s new ears to listen [to us], that will be good to advance some different points. Hopefully, a new government will mean something new. But we know the fight continues no matter what.

The Vancouver Tenants Union’s next meeting is July 22.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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