This is the first in a series of dispatches documenting tenant organizing in the Downtown Eastside.
The newly-formed Portland Tenants Union (PTU) in the Downtown Eastside was started by tenants of a nine-storey supportive housing building managed by non-profit landlord and property owner PHS Community Services Society. The formation of the PTU was sparked by multiple deaths of community members following the breakdown of their elevator.
You can support the new Portland Tenants Union by donating to their gofundme here.
On Wednesday, January 25th, 40 tenants packed into the back of a crowded bar off Hastings to discuss the dismal conditions in their building. Most pressing, their elevator has been down for 8 months (on and off for five months, completely broken for three months). This is an especially urgent issue given that many, if not most, of the tenants have mobility disabilities. This was the first time the tenants had gathered in such numbers.
The bar was loud – tenants and organizers didn’t realize it was karaoke night when we chose the venue for the meeting – but their voices rose above the music. “Not another one of us dead!” yelled a tenant. She was referring to the five tenants who died since the elevator initially broke down. Three of the five who passed did so because of apparent heart failure; both staff and residents allege that climbing so many flights of stairs each day contributed to their deaths.
The elevator is not the only problem tenants face, but it was the catalyst for the meeting that night. Over the course of the 2-hour meeting we made a list of tenant demands. In addition to the immediate replacement of the faulty 21-year old elevator, the tenants demand:
- Accessible washrooms on the ground floor;
- Porta-potties in the courtyard & regular courtyard cleanings;
- Tenant-led building maintenance & community development programming;
- Cleaning of the concrete staircase that has not been power washed in 18 years;
- A grocery delivery program & an extra staff member to help tenants up and down the stairs until the elevator is replaced;
- A bike room so that safe storage of bikes does not rely on staff storing and retrieving them from staff-only areas, or the resident carrying them up numerous flights of stairs;
- That all tenants who were relocated to other buildings be granted right of return to their former suites; and
- To secure a binding agreement with the landlord for proactive replacement of future elevators after 20 years of operation (the average life expectancy of an elevator is 20-25 years).
A group vote was called to formally create an organization to submit the demands to the landlord. “Portland Tenants’ Association” garnered modest support as the name of the organization. Then, someone suggested replacing “Association” with “Union,” provoking a wave of excitement through the crowd. The vote was called and the group voted unanimously in favor of the latter: the Portland Tenants’ Union was formed, and applause erupted.
The meeting ended with the announcement of a second meeting date, and a chant led by an organizer with the Vancouver Tenants Union & Our Homes Can’t Wait:
“Who’s got the power?”
“We’ve got the power!”
“What kind of power?”
One week later, tenants and organizers gathered for their second meeting; their first together under the PTU banner. We had learned our lesson from the crowded bar and instead reached out to a local restaurant to host us. We had the restaurant to ourselves and food was provided free of charge. Both long-term and newer tenants started to arrive in small groups. Restaurant staff handed out bowls of beef stew as the tenants settled into the booths, while organizers circulated letters focussed on what tenants deemed their most urgent demand: fixing the broken elevator. By the time the meeting started, the room was packed.
After opening with introductions and a recap of the previous meeting, the group began to discuss our first major action. Tenants drew up a comprehensive list of tactics that might force management to act, ranking each on a scale of intensity. The collective voted unanimously to approve a staged approach, with multiple different and escalating tactics. The first step would be a delegation of tenants to the PHS head offices to deliver the letters putting forward the group’s demands that tenants had been signing. From the floor, members elected a few tenant delegates to hand the signed documents to management.
Further, the group expanded the demands list to include the following items:
- Consult with tenants regarding a safe and dignified guest policy. This policy must take into account the increased risk of harm caused by barriers to accessing government issued identification
- Demands related to fire safety, including:
- Stock each floor with additional fire extinguishers; and
- Repair the sprinkler system, which the City has flagged as being in violation of their Standards of Maintenance By-Law;
- Formally recognize the Portland Tenants’ Union. Commit to regular meetings with the Union. Provide a wheelchair accessible meeting space within a one-block radius of the building for tenants’ union membership meetings to take place.
The first of the new demands was echoed by many tenants in the room. One tenant in the crowd described the conditions in the building as being “like jail.” The comparison resonated—there were murmurs of agreement throughout the room. Another tenant said the stringent guest policy—with limited visiting hours, ID requirements for guests, and limits on overnight visits—has made it impossible to maintain and develop new relationships. Living at the Portland, he said, entailed “a complete loss of freedom, independence, and the ability to live a life.”
Another tenant urged caution, noting the delicate balance required to ensure safety when contemplating changes to the guest policy. Nonetheless, everyone agreed that management’s current policy is undignified, jail-like, and most importantly, puts tenants at increased risk of fatal overdose from using alone. Tenants are clear: they would do a better job if they were in charge.
Once more, the meeting ends with a chant:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want them?”
At 11:00am on Monday, February 6th, tenants began gathering outside The Portland Hotel to prepare for the delegation. In less than two weeks of organizing 82% of Portland tenants had signed the letter, with many adding details regarding the length of their tenure in the building and the nature of the harms they had suffered. One tenant leader was nominated to present all of the letters to the Director of Housing.
At 11:30, dozens of tenants marched down the block holding banners that read “Tenant Power! We Lift Us Up!” and “This is a Stair-Down.” Other tenants made signs decrying the PHS’s refusal to pay for elevator repairs when, according to PHS’s most recent tax filing, thirteen of their staff boast salaries of over $200,000 per year.
Several media outlets and supporting volunteers accompanied the tenants to the PHS headquarters. In between chants of Shame on PHS! No more deaths! and Union strong!, tenants shared stories of hardship, loss, and defiance in the face of PHS’s neglect. “We know it can be done.”
After the crowd arrived outside PHS headquarters, delegates demanded that senior management come down to meet the tenants. When two senior managers emerged a short while later, the tone was set by one tenant’s first question: “How many renters can you kill before you go to jail?”
Tenants delivered letters signed by 82% of their neighbours in the building. They put the PHS on notice that they would take further action if their demands were not met. Organizers then followed up the signed tenant letters with another letter, directed to PHS’s Director of Housing, Tanya Fader, clarifying legal precedent, stating the full list of demands, and requested a response by a certain date.
On the march back to their building, spirits were high, and it wasn’t long before we got word from inside sources that management was “losing their shit.” The action even prompted a response from the Housing Minister himself, Ravi Kohlan, not only elating residents of the building, but also demonstrating the threat that organized SRO tenants pose to the powers that be.
Where We’re At & What’s Next
The very next day, the elevator was fixed. 4 months ahead of schedule.
Tenants stood up to their landlords and the government (BC Housing) and were victorious! Media stories began trickling out with details of their struggle, and organizers quickly drew up a public letter declaring a victory. The mood in the building was palpable, as tenants woke up in a new world they had helped create. PHS released a statement saying that a broken wire was found and replaced by sheer coincidence, but it was clear that the tenants had forced PHS’s hand, and everyone knew it.
The elevator has been fixed as of the date of publication, yet it is likely to fail again any day. The Minister himself admitted as much, publicly declaring the elevator to be in such poor repair that they must “redo the entire shaft.”
Management has still not responded to tenants, nor agreed to recognize or meet with the Portland Tenants’ Union. “Just start listening to us,” said Mark Tobiason, Portland tenant and PTU member. Further escalation will undoubtedly be needed for tenants’ most basic demands, beyond the elevator, to be met.
This article was written by an organizer with the Vancouver Tenants Union and the Our Homes Can’t Wait coalition. Most names of tenants have been removed to prevent targeted harassment by PHS.
None of this work would have been possible without the organizing that was done by giants before us. In particular, both the tenants and organizers paid close attention to the Solheim tenant’s struggle to get their elevator repaired. Similarly to The Portland, Solheim Place was managed by a non-profit landlord, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., and their high paid executives also stood by as multiple tenants died as a result of their negligence. Nat Lowe, a former organizer with the late Chinatown Action Group who worked on that campaign, helped lay out a possible roadmap to victory for tenants.