Overlooking the houses of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood is a pair of incongruous 1960s apartment blocks known as the West Lodge complex. The two 18-storey buildings curve around opposite sides of a cul-de-sac decorated with a giant concrete mushroom. In satellite photos, they appear to merge together and form a ring, like an immense concrete tunnel leading into the earth.
Yet to the mostly working-class folks, pensioners, gig workers, new Canadians, and social-assistance recipients who occupy them, the towers are home and community.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw many of these people lose income for months at a time. Some found it hard to stock their fridges and cupboards. Others missed or were late to make rent payments. Vulnerable as they were, few felt empowered to advocate for themselves and their neighbours to Hazelview Investments, the multinational corporation that owns West Lodge.
As she watched the situation go from bad to worse in the early days of the pandemic, Paterson Hodgson began searching for ways to help. The freelance illustrator and West Lodge tenant connected with a neighbourhood tenant advocacy group called Parkdale Organize, which sought to redress the power imbalance between renters and landlords.
By the summer of 2020, Hodgson and a few other volunteers had begun hosting information sessions on the lawns of neighbourhood apartment buildings. Their goal was to gather information about the living conditions in those buildings and to educate renters about “Keep Your Rent,” a pandemic rent-strike campaign. They also brought food to share with curious neighbours: produce, pasta, beans, and other canned goods.
“The idea was that you just don’t know what’s going to happen, so you should keep your rent,” Hodgson told me when we spoke last spring. “The more of us that do so, the stronger we’ll be, and the harder it will be for landlords to target us and evict us.”
Emboldened by the success of these outreach sessions, Hodgson started to host gatherings in the courtyard outside West Lodge using the same formula: ask questions, dispense food, encourage tenant organizing.
The approach continued to bear fruit, and a community was slowly formed as neighbours got to know each other better. They came for the food, stayed for the conversations, and left Hodgson with their phone numbers.
With a few donated food items and a list of contacts, Hodgson had planted the seeds of a resistance movement that would culminate with the tenants at West Lodge expropriating an empty apartment and using it to launch a permanent food bank.
A tradition of advocacy
Food wasn’t always so scarce at West Lodge. The property was advertised as a high-end development when it opened in 1965. Many of its first residents were affluent. But West Lodge developed a reputation for neglect, disrepair, and pest infestations in the 1970s and has passed through a succession of landlords since then. Its current owner, Hazelview Properties, is a multinational corporation with $8.9 billion in real estate assets.
Over the years, residents have sought repeatedly to take back power from their landlords.
The building’s first rent strike took place in 1974, and in the 1990s tenants submitted an unsuccessful bid to buy the complex and convert it into co-operative housing. More recently, residents staged a rally outside the towers in 2016 to pressure then-landlord Wynn Properties to address many outstanding repairs.
By the time Hodgson hosted the first session of a biweekly food bank in the lobby of West Lodge’s south tower in November 2020, she had reason to feel that a fresh round of tenant activism could be successful. Other outreach sessions in the courtyard had been well-attended, and the reliability of a regular food bank offered a strong incentive to bring them together.
But rising COVID-19 numbers forced the next food-sharing event outside, into the cold. By then, Hodgson had gathered a small group of reliable volunteers, and they began to look for a permanent home for the food bank.
In mid-January 2021, a neighbour told Hodgson he planned to move out of his apartment two weeks before the end of his lease. “Can we have your key?” Hodgson asked him. He handed it over.
The food bank occupied the unit legally for two weeks. Once the lease was up, they decided to stay. They scheduled negotiations with Hazelview, and after six weeks, the company offered a different unit on the second floor of the south tower, rent-free. The food bank was still there when I sat down to write this story. In fact, it was growing.
Laundry and resistance
By the anniversary of the occupation in late 2021, demand for the food bank had doubled. Hodgson and her volunteers were serving 60 to 70 families each month. The people lining up represented every demographic of the building: food bank volunteers themselves, seniors, families, new Canadians, and members of Vietnamese, Tibetan, Korean, Chinese, Caribbean, Romanian, and eastern European diasporas.
Laura Hansch has lived at West Lodge for 11 years and has been a regular at the food bank since 2021. She’s used it from time to time, but mostly she volunteers: taking shifts at the bank, cooking and distributing hot meals, hand-writing flyers to advertise upcoming tenant meetings, and delivering supplies to sick and injured neighbours.
“I love it,” she said during one of her shifts at the bank. “The food bank is somewhere the tenants can get anything they want, anything they need. We talk to them about the tenant meetings and stuff.”
As interest in the food bank grew, so did attendance at the tenant advocacy meetings Hodgson held in the laundry room of the north tower. Hodgson started to win over people who had previously been skeptical or uninterested in organizing. “The food bank is why the organizing is where it’s at today,” she told me.
During these regular meetings, tenants share information about construction in the buildings, in-unit conditions, Hazelview’s policies, and disparities in the company’s treatment of residents. They often discuss ways to help neighbours facing eviction. And they talk about Parkdale — one of the few relatively affordable neighbourhoods in downtown Toronto — and the struggles and actions of tenants in other buildings.
Some of them plan their laundry around these meetings. They organize resistance and advocacy campaigns while their delicates tumble dry.
Jen Unbe sometimes joins these sessions. She’s lived in Parkdale for 20 years and at West Lodge for 12. Her parents came to Canada from Vietnam as refugees. She works as a shamanic healer and volunteers at the food bank. On a Sunday afternoon last spring, she explained how joining the cause made her feel more brave.
“COVID fucked us all,” Unbe said. “Nothing of this magnitude was ever needed [before], but I’m really happy. It really saved my sanity. It’s not the food bank that saved my sanity, but the tenant committee. Because of the tenant committee, the food bank exists.”
The power of organizing
Although Hazelview and the tenants at West Lodge have all voiced support for the food bank, it came close to being shut down several times within a year of opening.
Hazelview doesn’t technically oppose the food bank. Their official position is that it’s an asset to the building.
“We love that there is an initiative running out of this property that is tenants focused on helping each other,” said Colleen Krempulec, vice president of Brand Marketing.
However, Hodgson alleges the biggest threat to the food bank so far has been retaliation by Hazelview against her and other volunteers who also engage in tenant organizing.
Hodgson claims Hazelview tried to purge her and other central organizers from the building through eviction notices in the summer of 2021. Many residents in the buildings fell behind on rent during the first year of the pandemic. Some of the central tenant organizers were served with multiple eviction notices for both outstanding rent and late payment.
Samuel Mason is the sole housing rights lawyer at Parkdale Community Legal Services, a clinic that offers free legal services to low-income Parkdale residents. He’s been defending tenants in their eviction hearings and was able to have some of the notices dropped because Hazelview couldn’t demonstrate his clients were guilty of persistently late payment of rent.
After Hazelview’s allegations failed at the Landlord and Tenant Board, the company appealed to the Divisional Court, where again the allegations came to nothing. Undeterred, Hazelview has now taken their case to the Ontario Court of Appeal.
Mason says his group “will continue to argue that the landlord’s claims are baseless and their legal pursuits are without merit.” He’s convinced the ongoing litigation is an effort to discipline tenant organizers.
According to Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act, it’s an offence for a landlord to interfere with anyone participating in or attempting to organize a tenants’ association.
“It’s no secret this landlord has been hostile toward the tenant organizers,” Mason told me.
“Landlords recognize that organized tenants are powerful tenants and they have greater success in asserting their rights.”
As of writing this story, Hazelview has not been found guilty of obstructing tenant organizers. Krempulec said the company has “no interest” in interfering with tenants’ rights to organize, and that if current organizers were “no longer present to run it,” Hazelview would consider assuming control of the food bank. The company keeps a supply of non-perishable food in an events room on the first floor of the north tower. It’s there for anyone in the buildings who needs it.
Jen Unbe, for one, likes the food bank just the way it is: run by tenants and tied to their advocacy efforts. Because it’s not just about getting something to eat. People show up for the food, but it’s the connection, camaraderie, and empowerment they invest in.
“People here are vulnerable. That’s why they live here,” she said. “So coming here, everybody is starting to feel empowered.”
Megan DeLaire is a freelance journalist who likes to read and write about climate and social issues. In past lives, she worked as a staff writer for newspapers in Toronto and Ottawa. She runs on coffee and cheese, and uses her spare energy to hike, climb, bike, and produce an outdoor adventure podcast.