Bain Ave. controversy

A reply to an account on a conflict between two factions within an apartment complex headed towards co-operative ownership.

Note: The last issue of [i]The Red Menace carried an article entitled Bain Co-op Meets Wages for Housework. The article was a report on the political polarization that took place at Bain Ave. apartments, involving groups of tenants with sharply differing views of the future of the project, and was strongly critical of the role played by the Wages for Housework rent freeze group in the dispute. Printed below is a response to that article written by the three principal organizers of the rent freeze group. It is followed by a reply from Ulli Diemer, the author of the original article. The Red Menace asked representatives of the Bain Ave. majority to respond to the submission from the rent freeze group as well, but their response was not ready as of press time.[/i]

To the editor,

After reading Ulli Diemer’s political thriller, "Bain Co-op Meets Wages for Housework", we must say it is a fine piece of fiction. However sometimes the truth is more exciting.

We apologize for being so busy during the struggle that we forgot to read the "Libertarian Handbook on Working Class Behaviour, sec. 4 — Tenants." The managers of the Bain Co-op are also angry that so many people ignored their circulars on "How to Pay Rent Increases". Your articles is useful however, for amplifying a number of misconceptions that the Co-op managers and assorted leftists here pushed, in order to stop the struggle. But you were able to out-do even them — for they knew, that they could never sell such a cornucopia of inaccuracies and distortions here at Bain. Since the points that we could take issue with are so numerous, it is best to isolate a few themes you chose to dwell on.

a) Perhaps the most amazing part of your analysis was the idea that the tenants were at fault for being interested in "putting more money in their pockets". You obviously feel that we would be better off trading in our standard of living for the Co-op’s offer of "community control". Maybe you think we should organize next for an even greater increase — that would really impress the government with the Co-op’s management capability! Ironically, that is exactly the track record of our Co-op leaders during the last two years. But as a fellow tenant said at one of the rent increase meetings, "What good is ownership if I can’t afford to live here". Records show that between January 1977 and October at least 50 units have been vacated at Bain, and more are still moving. And we will be getting another increase of between $11 and $32 in a few months, the 4th in only three years.

For you to tell us, as tenants and workers, that we should not care about money, or organize against an 18% rent increase because we ’’walked into it with our eyes open" is an incredible piece of arrogance. Exactly what kind of identification with tenants do you or your magazine claim to have? What do you think past struggles at Bain or by tenants elsewhere have been about? Do you think that tenants fought against evictions, for rent control, and for better maintenance so that we could pay through the nose in a Co-op? Where have you, as a so-called community reporter, been for the last 15 years? Why is it OK with you for workers in the factory to want more money, while here, in the community, money becomes a ’vulgar’ thing. You are asking us to subsidize the left’s ideal of "community control" with our free labour. The co-op like yourself feels that money and more work are no object whatsoever for tenants. If we want better maintenance, either we pay more or we live in a slum, unless we make up the difference with our own free labour, shovelling side walks, repairing leaky faucets, and building the "co-op spirit". And all the while, Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation pockets $350,000 a year in interest payments from Bain tenants. This is really what Co-op and government "Non-profit" housing are all about. We are sorry to inform you that money is still our only defence against more free work for the State. Shutting up and waiting to see if the co-op — after more than 2 years of stalling — was really going to stop skyrocketing rents here was something we damn well were not going to do. We wanted affordable housing, good maintenance, and to keep our hard-earned money in our pockets. If that’s asking too much, then there isn’t a bit of difference between you and Trudeau telling us we are "living too high off the hog" and to lower our expectations!

b) One of your main obsessions was the composition of the group of tenants who were organizationally active, and the role Wages for Housework played in the struggle. Spiced with comments like, ’this group consisting primarily of members and supporters of WFH...’ or ’now reduced to its original core of WFH people,’ etc, your objective presumably was to portray the tenants who were active in our struggle as small in numbers, and part of WFH only. Does it not seem odd to you that there was such a massive reaction from the Co-op governors, the City of To-ronto, and last but not least — yourself? Or perhaps you could explain how a handful of tenants could possibly keep a struggle going for 6 months? In any case, you personally watched 137 tenants vote against the Co-op at the May ’77 referendum on ownership here at Bain - a vote that was clearly against the control of our money and lives by either the Co-op or the government. We know, and we suspect you know, that your attack on Wages for Housework and the struggle here, is nothing more than a clear trashing of the many tenants who do not happen to share your ideas on how to fight for their needs.

Certainly Wages for Housework was involved in the struggle from early on. However it was a development far less mysterious or conspiritorial than you would have us believe. A tenant, who was in our already quite rebellious group opposing the increase, simply offered the resources of the Wages for Housework Campaign — both in terms of technical help, and also their experience, in making other fights for money and against unpaid work. No one thought this was odd — especially as most of the tenants who were active were also women (a situation which happens to be common in tenant struggles everywhere). Neither were there any cries of ’outsiders’. If you jog your memory as a community reporter, you may recall that help from outside groups and individual tenants was common in all the major housing battles like South St. Jamestown and Quebec-Gothic. Then as now, it was welcomed and needed to win. Solidarity among tenants wherever they live, is not our invention.

Also, in contrast to your idea that we had some sort of monolithic organization taking orders from WFH — quite the opposite was true. We made group decisions on possible routes of action, and no decision prevented any tenant from making their fight in anyway they pleased — in fact, a number of tenants expressed their opposition to the Co-op on their own, which was something we always welcomed and encouraged. Perhaps this is why you saw the ’tactics’ so far removed from your own and the left’s rigid ideas of tenant struggles. Your conception of women’s leadership and the role of Wages for Housework at Bain is clearly rooted in the traditional position that those with less power should submit to those who claim to represent ’the majority’. But when they do, their own specific interests are always lost. You say, for example, that ’of course the issues (of high rents, etc.) concern male and female residents equally’. In fact, the women were in the forefront of the struggle precisely because it effected them more. Not only do women with a second job have only half the money of men, but full-time housewives know that rent increases mean still more housework - more budgeting, bargain-shopping, and soothing family tensions which always mount up quicker when money is tight. Your comments claiming that tenants with subsidies — most of whom are women - are ’not affected’ by rent increases because of increased subsidies is also wrong. Not only do they feel the increased poverty of their neighbours, but they themselves are further ’in the hole’, as future wage increases simply mean a lower subsidy. Subsidized tenants, in fact, were among the most active organizers of the rent freeze.

What lies just beneath the surface in your article is not simply your objection to the role of Wages for Housework here (which you did not do much to find out about anyway), but rather the fact that you, like the Co-op managers could not stomach a struggle led by women which broke all the rules in the book because ’democracy’ was the instrument of the more powerful Co-op forces against us.

c) Much of your thesis seems to rest on a rather dogmatic notion of "community control", and of course, the unquestionable virtues of "the democratic process". Had you bothered to include a few minor facts such as the wave of door-to-door visits by the Co-op office staff and council members telling tenants that supporting the rent-freeze would surely mean their eviction and/or loss of their rent subsidies — it might have put that vote against the rent-freeze in a more realistic perspective. Many tenants simply did not want to show their support publicly after having been intimidated. Who, after all, meets them at the Co-op office if they want something done, or if the rent is late? You might also have mentioned the fact that our so-democratically-elected council here at Bain had only 13 people running for the 12 positions, and about 45 tenants out of 400 voted them in. Or perhaps you might have explained why the Co-op managers frantically lobbied ward aldermen to change the rules set for the referendum on ownership immediately after the City committee had arbitrated a compromise between the Co-op and the tenants’ organization. Had the rules agreed upon been used, we would have won the vote with 37% of the tenants against the Co-op. You also conveniently described the Co-op meeting to evict tenants withholding rent as having "voted by a large majority to issue eviction notices". In actuality, although 120 tenants attended the meeting, most were disgusted with the affair, and the vote was only 57 to 23 - hardly a blazing majority of the Co-op. And finally, why if you and the Co-op are so concerned about the City of Toronto being the cause of our high rents, did the Co-op council decide to forgo action against the City for the misuse of $300,000 — over the constant demands of tenants to do so for at least one and one-half years? Had you included these and other points, it would have of course been dificult for you to write your article at all. But for us here, it was precisely this kind of "democracy" and "community control" that we opposed. It was, in fact, our struggle for affordable housing that was trying to bring back tenant control — control that we had won in the past here at Bain by fighting back against the City.

You would have us, instead, ’form 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’. If you can’t beat them, join them, right Ulli? The Co-op has always been quite cozy with the governments (while at the same time putting on airs of opposition of course). And this ownership deal was too good for the Co-opers to refuse. The City politicians would help the Co-op by changing the rules, and issuing eviction orders for the Co-op, and the Co-op managers would become the proud owners of Bain Ave., while many of us would be forced to move out. In return, the Co-op would of course, enforce rent increase, and generally keep the tenants from making any demands.

It was also quite useful to keep us split from the other City of Toronto Non-profit Housing tenants, who at that time were at the boiling point over their own rent increases — and watching Bain Ave. very closely. You certainly mystify the State, Ulli - which for you can only be in Ottawa or in some corporate office. But is was quite clear that for us as tenants at Bain, the actions of the Co-op put the State right at our doorsteps. Tenants here were not as confused about that as you are. At the rent-freeze meeting, a tenant who had seen landlords at Bain come and go, asked whether the speaker for the Co-op was ’working for the City’. Other tenants quite seriously wondered whether a red flag would go up in the courtyards after the Co-Op took over. And we were quite right in associating the Co-op managers and the left with the State — for their position in the name of Co-op ownership and ’community control’ was austerity, high rents, and free labour or forced eviction.

It is incredible to us that you underwrite this position simply because of the supposed ’democratic process’ that was going on at Bain. Trudeau got elected democratically no? And as a Canadian Native put it at a Co-op general meeting, ’For our people, democracy is best demonstrated by the activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police against us’. If we were expected to wait to fight until the ’will of the majority’ let us, whether at Bain or elsewhere, then not only the tenants here, but also women, blacks, native peoples, and others would be waiting in vain for the go-ahead.

Finally, where does the Red Menace stand in this controversy between the tenants and the Co-op managers at Bain? From the slogan on"your back cover, "Capitalism is icky", it seems that like Ulli, you are not about to get your hands dirty with "vulgar things" like the struggle by workers for money. And maybe like the Co-op, you also long for a little hide-away subsidized by the free labour of the workers and tenants. If so - TOUGH LUCK!

For the Tenants Voice
Linda Jain
Francie Wyland
Steve Oltuski

Published in Volume 2, Number 2 of The Red Menace, Spring 1978.