An account on a conflict between two factions within an apartment complex headed towards co-operative ownership.
By Ulli Diemer
When you first happen upon the Bain Avenue Apartments in Toronto’s Riverdale, a working-class area some two miles east of downtown, you get the sensation that they belong to a different time and place. There is something about them that holds the flavour of an earlier, quieter, more sensible era (even though such an era probably existed only in the clouded reminiscences of our grandparents), something about them that seems to stir the memory or the imagination. Built just before the First World War, the 260 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments at Bain are clustered around several tree-lined courtyards, each with its own name, which even the Post Office is compelled to recognize ("The Maples, The Lindens, The Oaks. . ."). There is a sense of scale here which is lacking in most larger developments, and a certain quiet charm which partly compensates for the genteel shabbiness that has overtaken the project over the years.
We can surely assume that for the working-class tenants who moved into the newly-completed project in the summer of 1914, this setting must have held forth the promise of a peaceful, prosperous, and stable future.
But it was never quite like that, of course, not then, and not now, and the last few years have been no exception. For several years, Bain has been the scene of constant battles, the latest of which, occurring in the early months of 1977, is the subject of this article. At issue was the future of the complex and its tenants; the struggle, marked by a rent strike, furious door-to-door organizing, stormy general meetings, and a large-scale referendum, pitted residents against each other in acrimonious dispute. This struggle, however, can only be understood against the background of the project.
History of Bain
The Bain Avenue Apartments were built by a group of Toronto philanthropists who described themselves as "not a company, but a cause" bringing about "a solution of a problem that vitally concerns both the community and the nation: better housing for working people." And if that praiseworthy ambition in no way conflicted with the continued enrichment of these corporate benefactors, whose wealth could after all be traced back to the labours of this same class of working people, then at least Bain did provide, over the years, somewhat higher-than-usual quality housing at lower-than-usual prices.
But the apartments changed owners, and grew noticeably older. By the 1970’s, little of the original concept survived.
In the fall of 1972, the Bain Avenue Tenants’ Association was formed to demand repairs and necessary maintenance. The association applied pressure to the owner, and started getting results, bit by bit. For example, by a remarkable piece of coincidence, two of the leaders of the tenants’ organization finally had long overdue repairs done in their apartments a few days after the organization was formed; other minor repairs followed. A visit by city inspectors, pressured in turn into noticing Bain Avenue, produced a substantial sheaf of work orders and a more systematic approach to the upkeep of the place, including repairs and the hiring of additional maintenance staff. The current landlord even made an excursion of his own into philanthropy in an effort to boost his sagging reputation: he brought Santa Claus to visit the children just before Christmas.
But any adults who might have been inclined to be swayed by this display of Christian beneficence soon found it was Scrooge who was lurking behind Santa’s beard. Suddenly, the employers of several Tenants’ Association members began receiving phone calls from the landlord, saying the activists had been "causing considerable management problems in the apartments" and were "bothering tenants". Simultaneously, all tenants received notices of a rent hike. Finally, after a year of acrimony, the owner began to issue eviction notices to tenants as their leases expired - with the idea of turning the development into a high-priced condominium.
Tenants responded by looking for alternatives to eviction: co-operative ownership, or city ownership. Eventually, an agreement was worked out whereby the City of Toronto took over the project as non-profit housing with $6-million CMHC funding, agreeing to transfer ownership to the tenants’ co-operative when it was satisfied that tenants could afford and manage the project independently.
If there had been initial doubt as to which alternative, co-operative or city ownership, was better, that doubt was gradually removed in the minds of most tenants as the City proceeded to demonstrate that it, at any rate, could not manage the project on its own. The single key event was the carrying out of renovations, which the city bungled so badly that the total cost of the mess is still unclear, although it is certain that between improperly done work, work not done, and contractors skipping town, tens of thousands of dollars were thrown away. Naturally, it all came out of the rent.
Meanwhile property taxes on the project leapt up because, as a city-owned enterprise, Bain was taxed at a commercial rate, $20,000 a year higher than the residential rate it would have to pay as a co-op. As if this weren’t bad enough, the city corporation actually forgot to pay Bain’s municipal tax bill on time, so that Bain had to pay a tax penalty - to the city! The City of Toronto Non-Profit Housing Corporation, one resident said accurately, "has the bankruptcy touch."
In this way less-than-delighted residents found themselves paying for the ’advantages’ of city ownership with rapidly rising rents. Rents went up 21 per cent, then 10 per cent. In October 1976 the third increase in a little over two years was announced effective February 1977; it was to be 18 per cent. To add insult to injury, Bain people found they weren’t protected by Ontario’s rent control legislation: marvelously, it doesn’t apply to non-profit housing.
With each new increase, tenants voted to go along: refusal would have meant giving up their plans for co-operative ownership and eventual escape from the city’s clutches and the accompanying cycle of rising costs. The battle wasn’t all negative by any means: it succeeded in producing a fairly cohesive community at Bain, well-organized, with clear goals, impatient at the city’s foot-dragging on the transfer of ownership, angry at the continued mismanagement.
For one group of tenants. however, the latest rent hike was the final straw which caused them to break decisively with the previously-shared goals. This group, consisting primarily of members and supporters of the Wages for Housework Group, began to organize for a rent freeze in the complex. Their position was that low-income tenants simply could not afford the new rents. (The latest increase put rents up to $193 for a one-bedroom apartment, $253 for a lower two-bedroom, and $266 for a lower three-bedroom. Uppers cost an extra $20.)
The freeze group advocated that tenants refuse the increase and continue to pay their rents at the old rate. They canvassed their position door to door, and then put it forward at a general meeting of tenants in December, solemnly promising to abide by the decision of the majority.
The general meeting left no doubt. With 142 of 400 adult residents in attendance - the best turnout at any general meeting ever held at the project - the vote went 120 to 16 against the idea of a rent freeze. Anger about the increase was widespread at the meeting, but most tenants felt that it was better to pay up now, to make some short-term sacrifices, in order not to jeopardize the long-term benefits they saw in co-operative ownership. It was generally accepted that the city would use a rent strike as evidence of "irresponsibility" and thus as grounds for refusing to go ahead with the ownership transfer.
With the defeat of their proposal at the general meeting, the freeze group rapidly changed tactics. They could not, they said, sacrifice themselves to the idea of future ownership for anyone’s sake, not when they faced immediate hardship. They turned out more literature, produced and printed by the Toronto Wages for Housework group, and resumed door-to-door organizing. If they could sign up 70 of Bain’s 260 units in support, they said, the freeze would go ahead anyway, in defiance of the decision taken at the residents’ general meeting.
On February 1, claiming 55 units signed up for the freeze and support from another 35 subsidized units (half the units at Bain receive rent subsidy and thus were not affected by the increase) they went ahead, paying their rent cheques at the old level. When the smoke had cleared and the rent cheques had been counted, however, their claims of support turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Only 26 units participated in the freeze.
Still, their action and accompanying media offensive did win them a good deal of sympathetic press coverage, including a strongly favourable front-page story in the Clarion, a newly-formed left-wing paper in Toronto.
The Residents’ Council, the elected executive at Bain, countered by setting up an emergency internal subsidy program to help those hardest hit by the rent hike, and by criticizing the tactics of the rent freezers as divisive and likely to fail. They argued that a rent freeze would pit the tenants against each other and against three levels of government simultaneously - a battle they couldn’t win.
Spokespeople for the freeze group, however, maintained that through united action it would be possible to hold off the governments and keep rents where they were. They pointed to a housing project in Montreal which, they said, had recently fought a similar battle and won. Increasingly, too, they criticized the concept of co-operative ownership itself. It served only to make tenants their own landlords, they said, leaving the basic problems of low-income housing unsolved. As an alternative, they now supported the status quo - city ownership - coupled with a strong tenants’ organization to protect tenants.
Supporters of the co-op idea responded by pointing to the long-term advantages. Co-ops in Toronto, they pointed out, were faring significantly better in terms of rent than non-profit housing or the private sector. To achieve this was worth some short-term sacrifices, they said.
Co-op supporters, meanwhile, were also organizing door-to-door, against the freeze. The freeze, they said, jeopardized the whole project, since it meant that the rent bill could not be paid in full. The freeze, they said, was tantamount to deliberate sabotage of the will of the majority. Even more infuriating to them than the issue of money ("They’re ripping off all the other tenants" was a frequent comment) was the fact that the freeze group had sent letters to the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) asking them to hold up the transfer of ownership to the tenants, claiming that tenants did not really support co-operative ownership, and that the appearance of support for a co-op was due to "intimidation" by a "small clique" that controlled the Residents Council. Similar letters were sent to the City and Mayor.
The by now thoroughly acrimonious dispute came head at another very well-attended general meeting which voted by a large majority to issue eviction notices to those who continued to freeze their rents, with a two-week period of grace in which to pay up. The notices duly went out to the ten units still remaining on the freeze; all immediately paid up, and no one was evicted. The strike was over.
The freeze group, by now reduced to its original core of Wages for Housework people, still had another card to play, however. If they couldn’t bring down the rents, then they’d try to bring down the co-op. A delegation to City Hall was mobilized which persuaded the City to hold a referendum at Bain to see whether co-op ownership was really supported by the residents. The City was only too happy to oblige.
Another round of organizing by both sides ensued; Wages for Housework predicted that a solid majority would reject the co-op.
No such luck. In an 87 per cent turnout, the vote went 2-1 in favour of co-op ownership. And at elections for Residents’ Council, co-op supporters were once again voted into office.
Predictably, the results didn’t convince Wages for Housework. The group issued a press release claiming victory, then proceeded to demand that the City or CMHC overturn the results of the referendum they themselves had asked for. The City refused, CMHC has yet to reply. Few people doubt, however, that the transfer of ownership will go ahead as scheduled later this summer.
Co-op vs City Ownership
To my mind, there are two questions on which the events at Bain Ave. shed some light.
The first is the issue of city-owned vs. co-operative housing. There are a number of residential projects in the City of Toronto which for one reason or another find themselves in a similar situation to that faced by Bain tenants in 1974. Each of these has in turn debated the question of whether it is better to attempt to convert the project into a co-operative, or whether it is better to have the City take over as landlord under its non-profit housing program. The Bain experience is worth studying for answers, but it is not at all clear that the evidence points conclusively in the one direction or the other. On the one hand, City ownership seems to offer benefits and protection not available to those renting from a private landlord; on the other hand, city mismanagement can drive rents up even faster than the market does - at least as long as the market is held in check by Ontario’s rent control program, (due to expire next year). Co-operatives have a somewhat better track record for keeping costs down, but this can vary: in older developments, maintenance costs can be quite high. Co-operatives also offer greater opportunities for residents to make decisions about their project themselves, but ultimately residents’ control is greatly restricted by the fact that urban land continues to be controlled by the forces of the capitalist market, and by the fact that the co-op comes up at every turn against the totality of relations that dominate life and impose choices in this society.
On balance, the evidence appears to indicate that it is probably better to be in an already-existing co-op rather than in city-owned housing, but this does not necessarily mean that it is best to pursue the co-op route in a project where the alternatives have just been posed, and where the final objective is still years off. The reason is that the process of becoming a co-op is an extremely difficult one, laden with pitfalls and problems, as the people at Bain discovered. Becoming a co-op requires a great deal of time and energy from the organizers, mountains of legal work and endless financial planning. It requires, in short, that tenants form themselves into a disciplined corporate entity capable of dealing with the government bureaucracies which provide the necessary capital, and even, in a sense, that tenants become their own landlord. One of the main drawbacks of the process of becoming a co-operative as it took place at Bain was the way it channelled the energies of a significant number of active and politically aware residents into legal and bureaucratic activities, and in so doing helped to dissipate the political consciousness and energy that had been focussed by the battle with the former landlord. At Bain, the battle seems to have been worth it all now that the goal has almost been achieved, but the problems encountered along the way should be enough to make other projects think carefully before embarking on the same journey. A co-op is a strategy, but it’s not the strategy. It’s no sure-fire way to change the world.
It is ironic that one of the things counteracting the trend to depoliticization at Bain has been precisely the opposition to the co-op mounted by the Wages for Housework Group and their supporters, which drew many residents back into increased involvement with the affairs of the project, and made people think very hard about the goals they wanted to pursue.
The Role of Wages for Housework
The role of Wages for Housework in the struggle at Bain is the main question I want to pursue here, and it is one that appears to me to offer much more definite conclusions than the co-op vs city ownership debate.
I should make it clear at the outset that I am not attempting an evaluation of Wages for Housework per se, or of their general political demands. I am dealing here with the political role of the group in one particular struggle, a struggle, to be sure, which seems to say a great deal about the political perspectives and tactics of the group in general.
Prior to my becoming involved in the Bain situation, as a reporter covering the events there for a local newspaper, my attitude to Wages for Housework had been that the group had some valid ideas to contribute to the socialist movement, and that the payment of wages for housework would be a good thing if you can get them, (which seemed unlikely), but I disagreed with what I saw as the dogmatic narrowness of their political perspective. I had not, however, had any particular opportunity to observe Wages for Housework in action and had not formed any opinion one way or the other about their political practice. Nor would I have thought it appropriate, as a man, to deliver judgements in print on the strategies of a part of the women’s movement. But struggle at Bain involved men just as much as women - in fact, one of the main spokesmen of the rent freeze group was a man who actively works to support Wages for Housework, while some of the key people on the other side were women. And of course the issues concerned male and female residents equally.
I should also say that when I initially began covering the rent freeze at Bain, I was basically sympathetic to position of the rent freeze group.1 After hearing arguments from both sides, I was for a time a more or less neutral observer, and only gradually, after following events, reading literature, attending meetings, and interviewing people on both sides did I become increasingly critical of the actions of Wages for Housework and of the attittudes that seemed to underlie those actions.
The reason I became critical of the Wages for Housework Group at Bain was not primarily because of the stands they took on co-operative ownership and rents per se, although I did ultimately disagree with them. But it is possible for a reasonable person to believe that it would have been wiser for Bain residents not to have followed the co-op route, and to have rejected rather than accepted the rent increase. But that is not the issue.
The key point is that these questions were considered thoroughly by the residents of this working-class community; that both sides were presented to everyone living in the complex through leaflets, newsletters, door-to-door canvassing, and general meetings, and that after this lengthy and quite democratic process, the tenants came overwhelmingly to a decision in favour of the co-op option and against the rent freeze. Yet the Wages for Housework Group, which had earlier promised to accept whatever decision was made, chose to ignore the decision, to label it the result of "manipulation" and "intimidation" by a "tiny clique", to lie about events that had occurred and about their own support, and to attempt to use every means up to and including deliberate sabotage of the entire project, to get their way.
A number of points should be made:
First of all, the claim made by the Wages for Housework Group, and repeated elsewhere, that the struggle was between a group of poor tenants, especially women on social assistance struggling to keep their heads above water, and a group aspiring to become "middle-class homeowners" is false. In fact, fully half the tenants at Bain are poor enough to receive governmental rent supplements; nearly all the rest are working-class as well. A substantial majority of both groups of tenants were opposed to the rent freeze and in favour of the co-op. The dozen members of the Residents’ Council, the elected executive at Bain, (the "tiny clique") were drawn about equally from each group. Nine of the twelve were women, three of them single mothers.
Nor is it true, by and large, that the poorest residents were hardest hit. In fact, those residents whose income was low enough to qualify them for subsidies were not affected by the increase at all. Their rents remained the same; the increase was covered by an increase in their subsidy. Furthermore, those who didn’t qualify for subsidies, but who were hard hit by the increase, were offered and received an internal subsidy from the operating expenses of the co-op itself.
This is not to deny that the 18% rent increase was an unpleasant blow. But it was something that tenants walked into with their eyes open, a burden they deliberately chose to shoulder. The reason they did so was their decision to accept some reduction in their standard of living now in order to achieve co-operative ownership, which would reduce their costs in the long run, and bring them greater control over their living environment. (It should also be pointed out that rents at Bain after the increase are still equivalent to or lower than rents in Toronto generally.) Incidentally, the fact that 26 units out of 260 went on a rent strike on their own when all the other tenants had decided not to, meant that the other tenants had to pay more rent than they otherwise would have, in order to make up the difference in the total rent bill payable to the City. This caused some tenants to remark bitterly that it was a case of the middle class feeding off working people.
However, for many people at Bain, the key issue was not the economic one. It was rather that of control. Residents were of course interested in paying as little rent as possible, no doubt about that. And they thought a co-op would be the best way of achieving that goal. But through five years of doing battle with private and public landlords, and putting up with constant mismanagement, they had arrived at a very firm commitment to controlling their living environment collectively, even if it meant making some short-term financial sacrifices.
They didn’t want a landlord - they wanted to run the place themselves. It is only in the light of this determination that the struggle at Bain can be understood at all. Other issues were subsidiary, tactical questions. The thing that divided the majority of residents from the Wages for Housework Group was their diametrically opposed views on who should control the place.
While the majority were prepared to take on the risks and burdens that residents’ control might entail, the Wages for Housework group rejected the goal of controlling the place out of hand, characterizing it alternately as irrelevant to people’s real needs or as a utopian pipe-dream. They didn’t care who ran the place, as long as their rents didn’t go up: a short-sighted position even in its own terms, since most co-ops do have a better track record on rents in the long run. In making their case against the co-op, they deliberately and cynically played to people’s fears of taking over responsibility themselves by suggesting all sorts of problems that might arise2 - as if there had not been an incredible number of problems for as long as people could remember with both the private landlord and the city.
The Wages for Housework people seemed to have but one solution to every problem: ask the government to take care of things, whether by providing more subsidies, taking management of the project back from the tenants, or paying them wages for doing housework. And when they couldn’t convince residents to support their proposals, they actually turned to the various government bodies to ask them to overrule the decisions tenants had democratically arrived at. To people who wanted to take on responsibility for their community, they said the state should take care of things, like it or not.
Perhaps the most obvious contradiction the group landed itself in was on the question of the rent increase itself. The majority was in favour of putting up with the increase because it would allow them to proceed with the transfer of ownership, and thus in a few months rid themselves of the City housing corporation, which was causing the increase through its mismanagement. The Wages for Housework people wanted to fight the increase by rejecting the co-op goal, thus permanently leaving the control of the project in the hands of the same city corporation that was imposing the increases in the first place.
Because of their commitment to continued city control of the project, the Wages for Housework group had no qualms about ignoring any decisions that residents arrived at, or about attacking the decision-making process that produced these decisions, or about asking the government to ignore the residents’ decisions and impose solutions on them from the outside.
Thus, for example, the Wages for Housework people consistently denigrated the general meetings at which decisions were made at Bain, alleging that these decisions were imposed by the Council (executive). People who took part in general meetings were characterized as dupes of the Council. This, of course, was after a general meeting rejected their strategy by a 120-16 vote. Before that, they had had no criticisms of the meetings, which any of Bain’s 400 adult residents can attend, speak at, and vote at. Even after the general meetings were dismissed as charades by them, however, they continued to turn out for them and put their case, and then dismiss their defeats at them as the result of manipulation. It may well be that these meetings are not perfect examples of pure democracy, but the turnout at the crucial meetings was higher, for example, than the voter turnout for Toronto’s municipal elections, which took place around the same time. When you see that many working people, who have to get up for work the next morning, spending several hours - their entire evening - on several different occasions, in face-to-face discussion about the future of their homes, you can be fairly sure that you’re seeing a form of democracy that’s a cut above what is usually considered democratic in this society.
And indeed people at Bain are justly proud of the way they make decisions, of the way major issues are raised in literature put out before meetings, and through intensive discussion at meetings. Not surprisingly, many of them were indignant at the demand from Wages for Housework that decisions be made by referendum instead of at general meetings. They saw it as a step backward from the level of involvement and democracy they had achieved.
But of course Wages for Housework’s advocacy of making decisions by referendum only lasted as long as it took them to lose decisively in the referendum the city imposed on Bain after the group’s lobbying at City Hall. (The so-called ’delegations from Bain’ which were sent to City Hall included such luminaries as Selma James and Judy Ramirez, two leaders of the International Wages for Housework Committee, neither of them Bain residents.) Once they had lost the referendum, by a decisive margin, they were back off to City Hall and CMHC, this time with demands that the referendum results be ignored. In their most recent literature, the Wages for Housework people don’t suggest any kind of decision-making process at all - they simply demand that some government body - any government body - impose their will on what even they have to admit is the majority of Bain residents. (Ludicrously, they are now reduced to saying that "the outcome would have been different" if only more of their supporters, and fewer of their opponents, were living at Bain!)
Their refusal to make any concessions at all to the goals of democracy and residents’ control that most of the people at Bain have shown they care about a great deal seems to be traceable to the political theory that underlines their actions. The entire perspective of the Wages for Housework group apparently centres on a particularly vulgar form of economic determinism: the theory that people will only respond, and can only be organized around, issues that have to do with putting more money in their pockets. The theory says that people can’t be interested in something as abstract as controlling their own community so, therefore, they aren’t interested, and if they think they are, they’re just being duped. The Wages for Housework philosophy is well captured in the symbol they have themselves chosen, and which they used widely during their campaign at Bain: a hand clutching a wad of money.
The implications of their approach became very clear at Bain Avenue, where their campaign was based on exploiting people’s passivity and fears and on the latent demoralization born of the long, drawn-out struggles at Bain, rather than building on people’s strengths. At crucial moments, their appeal was always to the state to help them out. To the extent that their organizing produced any results, it succeeded only in pitting working class people against a few people on social assistance and a group of middle class activists. It was only their failure to win any significant support that kept them from destroying the solidarity that existed among the people of the Bain Co-op. In the process of trying, they showed themselves to be the epitome of the narrow political sect that is interested in nothing except its own dogma and self-aggrandizement. It is to the credit of the Bain community that they rejected the politics Wages for Housework offered them and in so doing developed a heightened sense of their own purpose and power.
- 1The rent freeze group, in fact, distributed the first article I wrote on the struggle (for Seven News, the local newspaper) with their own literature.
- 2For example. their literature played up the suggestion that if the old boiler for the apartments were to explode, residents would have to pay over $100,000 for a new one out of their own pockets. In fact, the boiler is covered by insurance.