Kingston tenants call on city: “Clean up our housing!”

By Jacob Wynperle 

Kingston’s rental properties are in crisis, and not just in terms of cost.

Due to years of landlord-friendly governments, limited regulations and austerity programs, landlords have kept their properties in disrepair while jacking up rental prices at every opportunity. As a result, people who struggle with the cost of living are forced to live with bedbugs, cockroaches, rodents or other unsanitary and unsafe pests. This has been documented in the mainstream press, but the publicity has made no difference. As far as landlords are concerned, if the rent cheques keep rolling in, they could care less about their tenants’ quality of life.

Living with bed bugs, cockroaches and other pests is extremely stressful, but it isn’t just a mental strain. These pests are transmitters of disease and bacteria and can spread dangerous illnesses to those exposed. What’s even worse is that the worst buildings tend to house the most vulnerable tenant populations – including elderly people, single parents, newly immigrated families, people with disabilities and people living with addiction, trauma and unaddressed mental health problems.

Pests are most often associated with publicly owned housing as a way to stigmatize public housing and those who live in it. But pest infestations are not inherent to public housing; rather, they come as a result of underfunding and a lack of democratic oversight.

In considering the stigma around public housing – which is propagated by all those who benefit from soaring rental costs – it is important to note that the conditions of many private rental units are equally bad, if not worse, than public housing. Tenants of the largest corporate landlords like Homestead Land Holdings can easily corroborate these claims.

Homestead is a major player in the rental market in Kingston and elsewhere in Ontario. It owns just under one third of all the primary rental units in Kingston, giving it immense power over key questions such as who gets housing, for what price and in what condition.

It doesn’t take much research to figure out Homestead’s answer to these questions. I myself witnessed firsthand the dilapidated quality of Homestead buildings when campaigning for the 2022 municipal election. In one of my first conversations with a Homestead tenant, they recommended I tuck my pants into my socks so as to not bring any insects home with me.

When landlords actually address a tenant’s request to exterminate pests (which is rare), they typically do so in piecemeal ways which allow them to spend the least amount of money. This includes what is known as unit-by-unit extermination. This is exactly what it sounds like: a multi-unit building attempting to exterminate pests one unit at a time.

You might ask, “Wouldn’t pests just move to units not being treated, through vents, gaps in doors, etc.?” Yes, that is exactly what happens. But from the landlord’s perspective, further degrading another tenant’s quality of life is better than paying for the extermination of the entire building.

This all begs the question, how did the lack of maintenance in rental housing get so bad?

Part of the answer, as mentioned above, is that large corporate landlords like Homestead have far too much power and are therefore able to dictate their own terms. But what about those of us with so-called “mom and pop” landlords who have similar issues? The answer to this question lies in the view that Kingston’s municipal government takes of these problems, based on their policies and actions when it comes to landlord-tenant relations.

One of the most glaring examples of disregard for tenants is the extreme cuts to public services which have been made over the last several years, culminating in the remaining property standards officers being laid off during the pandemic. This has resulted in the property standards department as a whole being effectively paralyzed, allowing landlords to go unpunished while their tenants are tormented by pests.

Many tenants have lost hope that their living situation will ever improve, and they cannot afford the suggested alternatives such legal battles or moving to a new building. Furthermore, gangster-like corporate landlords like those at Homestead use homelessness as an implicit threat against tenants speaking out about their horrific living conditions. Several tenants have voiced concerns that airing their property standards issues will only lead to Homestead tearing their buildings down or engaging in “renovictions” rather than paying to clean up the pests.

Tenant union campaign

On May 30, the Katarokwi (Kingston) Union of Tenants launched a campaign to clean up rental housing. This campaign includes petitions, policy proposals and public demonstrations aimed at forcing our municipal government to finally take action and defend tenants against negligent landlords. Only a strong coalition of workers, tenants and otherwise oppressed peoples can solve the problems facing us today and tomorrow.

The KUT kicked off this campaign by issuing a petition with the following demands:

  1. Bolster and expand the property standards department by rehiring former property standards officers who were laid off and hiring enough new staff to meet the needs of tenants in Kingston.
  2. Ensure that landlords are financially responsible for the temporary relocation of tenants during fumigation, so that tenants are safe and housed while their units are being treated.
  3. Amend the pest prevention by-law to include a more specific definition of what qualifies as a “pest free dwelling” and which prevents unit-by-unit extermination.
  4. Hire pest control workers as municipally employed public maintenance employees who can be dispatched to systematically exterminate pests, bugs and rodents, at the landlord’s expense.
  5. Raise the fines and punishments – up to and including expropriation of property – for landlords who are neglecting their properties.

When demanding justice, it is not uncommon for those who have vested interests in the current state of affairs to offer up shallow critiques of demands like these, perhaps most notably, “how are you going to pay for all this?” From the perspective of the KUT, if individuals and corporations are keen on making money off housing, then they must be forced to accept any and all costs associated with keeping this housing in livable conditions.

So, all costs associated with extermination must be paid for by the owners of the affected buildings. Failure to comply must result in heavy fines or expropriation of property – which can then be used to further fund rent-geared-to-income, social housing projects.

Click here for more information on the KUT campaign.

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