Here is a story that I did (slightly edited) that appeared in a recent edition of Sherman Hub News.
Hamilton Community Legal Clinic/Clinque juridique communautaire de Hamilton is a community based not for profit agency. We provide legal services to low income individuals and communities.
Our goal is to promote access to justice and to improve quality of life. We’ve been asked to make a regular contribution to the Sherman Hub News. This will be our first piece.
At the Clinic we practice what is referred to as poverty law. Put simply, our work is in those areas which disproportionately impact on low-income individuals or disadvantaged communities.
As you can imagine one of the busiest areas of our practice is landlord and tenant law.
We offer information, advice and representation to low income tenants. If a tenant is having a problem with their landlord or rental unit, we can help explain rights and obligations under the law. We can also advise tenants when to get help from another service and how to take legal action to deal with issues. In some cases we will represent tenants at a hearing.
Another part of the clinic’s mandate is to provide community development, law reform and public legal education. Here case work intersects with advocacy. Over the years we’ve been actively involved in tenant advocacy initiatives. We’ve worked with groups like the Solutions to Housing Action Committee (SHAC), the Tenant Outreach Education and Information Committee and others.
There have been times when tenant work has been relatively well resourced. This is not one of those times. Some of you will remember a group called the United Tenants of Ontario. Many years ago UTOO, as they were known, provided a strong voice for tenants. The group faded away in the nineties. In Hamilton tenant advocacy projects have come and gone over the years.
Left off the List
But that work is important. A recent article in the Citizens at City Hall (CATCH) newsletter hints at why it is.
According to the CATCH story, “(t)housands of Hamilton adults are missing from the city voters’ list and the main cause appears to be long-suspected discrimination against tenants.” (See http://www.hamiltoncatch.org/view_article.php?id=1213)
In Ward 3, where about half of all the housing is apartment or duplex, nearly a fifth (20%) of residents are left off the list.
The omission of tenants is becoming more of a problem. No one comes knocking at your door to put your name on the list of electors any more. Since 1999 enumeration has been taken over by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC). MPAC’s mandate is more about determining property values for taxation purposes than maintaining accurate and updated voters’ lists.
It is not news that tenants need to step up to the plate to represent their own interests. One way to do this is by participation in municipal elections. Historically, municipal politics has been about property and protecting householder’s property values. However, about twenty percent of the average rent payment goes to city hall in the form of property taxes. In addition, much of what gets debated and decided upon at City Hall impacts tenants.
In the 2006 election, the Clinic was involved with an outreach effort called I’m a Tenant and I Vote. We distributed flyers and had a media campaign pointing out to tenants the importance of voting. We had some success when we argued that tenants needed to know how much of their rent went to pay property taxes. Now, the city notifies renters how much they are paying in taxes based on their building’s tax totals. Tom Cooper, who worked at the Clinic at the time, remembers that a tenant in a $700/month unit paid equivalent tax to somebody who owns a $150,000 home.
Another issue we pushed in 2006 was the need to establish appropriate and fair municipal tax rates. We did this because the current system is not fair. Multi-residential taxpayers pay nearly three times the rate of residential (single unit) taxpayers. Tom Cooper, now with the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, documented that reality in a story in Raise the Hammer. (http://www.raisethehammer.org/article/577/tenants_and_taxes)
A city committee looked into this but nothing has changed. With the municipal elections less than a year we’re concerned that tenant voices won’t be heard.
What can be done?
Some municipalities are taking the issue seriously.
As the CATCH story points out:
“Toronto has recognized the voter participation shortfall among tenants and taken specific steps to tackle it, including locating nearly half their polling stations inside or within 800 feet of an apartment building. That was partly in response to a campaign calling for a polling booth in every apartment building that has more than 100 units.”
A campaign like that needs to happen here. Perhaps the neigbourhood hubs can take a leadership role in addressing the voter participation shortfall. The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic will help.