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A coalition of climate groups is taking aim at the corporate owner of a Toronto apartment building that is upholding above-average rent increases while doing “decarbonization” renovations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate advocates and some tenants gathered Thursday at the corporate headquarters of Dream Unlimited, the owner of 33 King St. in York, to support tenants who are currently on a rent strike.

Efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change should not be used as an excuse for exorbitant rent increases, Monica Mason from Climate Justice Toronto said about the older King Street building.

“When we first read an article about the strike, we noticed that Dream specifically claimed that rent increases were connected to decarbonization, which is totally unfair and a horrible way to greenwash greedy corporations.”

As a climate group, her organization wants to stand up against the company’s rent increases and take responsibility to ensure tenants are not displaced through green retrofitting, she added.

Climate advocates are also asking for rent reductions for tenants in a second Dream building at 22 John St., which is newer and not subject to rent controls. The landlord keeps “trying to squeeze us by increasing the rent by 10 per cent every year, and that is unfortunate,” said Anthony Alao, a tenant in the 22 John St. building who is still paying his rent.

“This year, my rent went up from $2,100 to almost $2,400 per month. I don't know any tenants in Ontario right now who are getting a 10 per cent increase in their income every year, including myself.”

Climate protesters say the landlord is “greenwashing” rent increases and carrying out green retrofitting practices that displace long-term tenants.

The groups delivered an open letter to Dream Unlimited's downtown Toronto headquarters, demanding fair treatment for the rent strikers and calling for an end to what they see as unjust practices.

Climate protesters say the landlord is “greenwashing” rent increases and carrying out green retrofitting practices that displace long-term tenants.

A few dozen King Street tenants have been on a rent strike since June to push back against above-guideline rent increases that were imposed by the previous building owner and are being upheld by Dream. Above-guideline rent increases are rent hikes that exceed Ontario’s prescribed yearly guideline of a 2.5 per cent hike for 2023.

Tenants and tenant advocates argue that while above-guideline increases are legal under Ontario's Residential Tenancy Act, they should be used responsibly and not as a tool to burden tenants with unfair rent increases in the name of climate action.

Climate advocates and some tenants gathered Thursday at the corporate headquarters of Dream Unlimited, the owner of 33 King St. in York, to support tenants who are currently on a rent strike. Photo by Abdul Matin Sarfraz / Canada's National Observer

A statement sent to Canada's National Observer on behalf of Hero Mohtadi, Dream’s vice-president of residential operation and management, said 22 John St. is a luxury building constructed after 2018. As such, rent controls do not apply and there are no above-guideline increases for that building.

As for 33 King St., there are currently 56 tenants not paying rent, the statement noted. Dream said the company has always been open to accommodation for tenants facing hardship resulting from above-guideline rent increases.

“We have hosted meetings with individual tenants and the Tenant Association, as well as consistently and proactively educated tenants on the risk of not paying their rent for their apartment that they are living in,” reads the statement.

“We are concerned that the tenants are getting bad advice as they are responsible to pay rent, and will need to pay rent, to stay in the buildings.”

Dream also disputes assertions by the protest groups that the company is earning huge profits from the buildings. “We have not received any cash flows since we acquired the buildings, and do not expect to in our first 5 years of our ownership.”

Dream insists its work decarbonizing and retrofitting 33 King St. has nothing to do with the current above-guideline increase and two other applications from the previous owner that as yet have not been approved. The retrofitting work has been covered at Dream’s expense, the company stated.

Dream also said the company accommodates and supports tenants as best it can. It “negotiated a reduction in the AGI [above-guideline increase] from 7.5 per cent to ~3 per cent,” the statement said.

All that aside, tenants in both buildings are struggling to pay high rents, Alao said. He called on the government to pass stricter rental controls on all non-market housing and take steps to prevent further displacement through green retrofitting.

Dream Unlimited bills itself as one of Canada’s leading real estate companies, with over $24 billion in assets across North America and Europe. In its 2022 sustainability report, the company describes its aggressive decarbonization strategy designed to differentiate itself from other corporate real estate holders. Its ambitious plans include retrofitting older buildings and building new energy-efficient buildings, some with solar roofs. The company says the strategy will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve living conditions for tenants, reduce operating costs over the life of its buildings, attract investors and deliver solid financial returns. It acknowledges that to do this, rents will increase.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

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It strikes me there should be a kind of "countervailing" rent _reduction_ in recognition of decreased heating costs to be born by the landlord. It seems to me to be temporally unfair to expect current tenants to pay for improvements that generations of tenants will benefit from.