Back Issue: “We don’t have to be stepped on like cockroaches” interview with an organizer

Deborah Savage is a working-class organizer and long-time friend of Parkdale Organize. She and her neighbours made news this week when they occupied their homes in response to their landlord locking them out. You can read their story in the Toronto Star.

In light of their recent struggle we are re-posting this interview with Deborah from the very first issue of This Is Parkdale neighbourhood newsletter, Volume 1, Issue 1 – June, 2015.

An interview with a Parkdale organizer

Deborah Savage is a long-time Parkdale resident. In 2013 she and her neighbours on Spencer Avenue went on rent strike in a fight with their slum landlord.

Parkdale: Organize!: Tell us about your connection to Parkdale

Deborah Savage: I’ve mostly lived in Parkdale since 1995. My father is from the neighbourhood.

Recently they’ve been trying to upscale the neighbourhood. There are a lot of new people living here now and it has got a lot preppier. It used to be more tight knit here. But still, the people living here have fought for the things they need in the neighbourhood, the services, and everything is nearby and accessible.

PO: Why did you start organizing with your neighbours?

DS: Looking for affordable places to live in the neighbourhood I ran up against slum landlords. At first I didn’t try to organize. A few years ago I was living on King Street in a place with all kinds of problems, bugs and everything else. I tried to fight by myself and take my case through the Landlord and Tenant Board and I felt like I was being stomped on by the system.

Then I moved to another building on Spencer and that building was even worse–no heat, broken doors and windows. I started speaking to my neighbours and they had the same problems. I made it a point to speak to every single one of my neighbours. I would stand by the mailboxes in the front of the building and chat with people as they came in and out. I gave people my phone number and I said to give me a call if you want to do something about it. We started getting together and talking about what we could do. I started sending mass text messages to all my neighbours to share information so we could respond collectively. We also went to Parkdale Legal to get advice

PO: What led to the rent strike?

DS: My neighbours and I went together to the landlord and requested to have our apartments fixed up. He did nothing. So we decided to withhold our rent collectively. We all paid our rent into a trust account instead of to the landlord. That got his attention. To him it was all about money and we weren’t giving him his money. We were on rent strike for seven months. All that time we were gathering evidence of all the problems so if he decided to take us to court we’d be ready, but he never did. Instead he hired a paralegal to negotiate with us. We elected a committee of tenants to negotiate for us. In the end we all decided to move out. We used the money we saved to get better places. In the end the landlord lost $50,000 in rent from us.

PO: What did you learn from all this?

DS: The rent strike empowered us. It gave us strength to know we don’t have to be stepped on like cockroaches. You don’t have to let landlords do this to you. Parkdale Legal showed us how important it is to document everything, keep all your paperwork, and gather evidence to support your case.

PO: If you could change one thing about Parkdale what would that be?

DS: They’re upscaling all the housing around here. Why can’t they build housing people can afford? We need low-income housing in Parkdale.

PO: Anything else you’d like to add?

DS: Don’t give up! The fight continues.

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