Community Organizing, Building Power, and Winning a Right to the City in Toronto’s Low Income Neighbourhoods*


Many cities will identify an absence of access and influence to the structures and institutions in charge of policy, programmes and projects which could or should improve the lives of citizens. As Brown (2009) puts forth, eliminating poverty demands rethinking approaches to cities, urban policies and rights and responsibilities. Democracies such as in Canada allow citizens to vote and select their representative candidates every four years. Yet in the lowest-income areas, voter turnout is also the lowest.

Satterthwaitte (2002: 10) points out seven aspects of urban poverty: inadequate income; inadequate unstable or risky asset base; inadequate shelter; inadequate provision of public infrastructure; inadequate provision for basic services; no safety nets; and inadequate protection of rights through law. Building the right to the city means taking control of democratic processes and building inclusive participatory processes to increase social and political assets and power which in turn allow for people to fight for their basic needs and rights.[1]The obstacles to this road are many and rarely accidental. ACORN Canada is a not-for-profit organisation which follows a community organising model which aims and succeeds to do just that (ACORN Canada: 2009a).

The organisation brings people together to gain the leverage necessary to win changes for the community on local, city, provincial, and national level. In doing so, it is also building social and political power and transforming the way cities are being run. This is the multiplier effect so often sought in effective participatory processes.

This article will look at how members built on local actions to develop a city-wide campaign and to threaten to increase tenant voter turnout by 25% in 2010 in target wards— turning tenant issues into a hot election topic (ACORN Canada, 2009b). In doing so, ACORN Toronto’s members built power for themselves and their organisation; developed social and political assets; gained access to politicians, media, and public authorities; improved their lives; and fought and won rights to their city.



Context: Planning and Development in Toronto, A Blueprint for Social and Economic Exclusion


Poverty and Community Organising in Toronto, Canada

Despite its booming economy and low unemployment rate, Canada has received increasing criticism from its citizens due to an absence of any housing strategy on the national level, crippling the provinces’ and cities’ ability to assure safe and decent housing for all. Toronto Community Housing boasts over 200,000 units most of which are decayed and unsafe structures needing hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs. Many of the buildings violate the city’s own codes for safety standards. There is an estimated waiting list of 70,000 families, mostly those who cannot get into social housing and cannot buy or qualify for a mortgage rent (ACORN Canada 2008). There are 6,385 multi-residential apartment buildings (MRABs) throughout Toronto. Around 80% of these buildings are over 40 years old in desperate need of major repairs; 95% of them are over 25 years old. The worst of these buildings are found in the lowest income areas outside the city. To add to the problem, household incomes have been decreasing in comparison to market rents. (City of Toronto, 2008 a & b).

         Toronto has a population upward of 2.6 million people, sprawling through 44 wards (City of Toronto 2008a). ACORN Canada opened its first office in Toronto five years ago in order to organise low-income communities to better address the issues they face. (ACORN Canada 2009a). ACORN Canada follows a community organising strategy first developed by Saul Alinsky in Chicago and further developed by ACORN in the United States. The approach is simple: there is power in numbers. ACORN Canada is a member-based organization; members own and represent the entire group. At the core of its structure is the neighbourhood chapter (Miller et al 1995). ACORN Canada currently has four city offices (Ottawa, Hamilton, Toronto, and Vancouver). ACORN Toronto boasts over 12,000 members and eleven neighbourhood chapters, covering close to ten of Toronto’s lowest income wards. Members take direct action to protest against strategic targets to address the issues they face. With every victory they build credibility and power for their respective, local organisation. By organising and winning against one bad landlord, a chapter gives strength to other members living on the other side of the city.  



From Fighting for Tenant Rights to Mobilizing around a City Election

ACORN Canada builds its local neighbourhood chapters by sending community organisers into target low-income areas to go door-to-door to talk to residents about local issues and build its membership on a daily basis (Miller et al 1995). Tenant issues emerged quickly as a big topic in all priority neighbourhoods. Members organised independent actions throughout the city targeting ineffective building management companies and slumlords. Members won elevator repairs, bug cleanups, garbage removal, improved security, playgrounds and rent subsidies. But they were only scratching the surface (ACORN Canada 2009a).

In 2006, an underdog candidate in Ward 8 won a seat on city council championing tenant issues and landlord licensing. ACORN Toronto developed the Landlord Licensing Campaign based largely on the experience of Los Angeles and some other cities. Licensing would include a nominal fee and standards and also call for an escrow account to lock rents away from landlords not achieving standards and code (City of Toronto 2008b). The success of the campaign surprised opposition and allies alike and effectively put the issue on the city map. The campaign linked local issues to the city level and culminated two years later with the production of a report and recommendations which was then presented to city council. Despite intense lobbying, action, member participation and speakers at the council meeting, the report offered a weak solution to the problem.[2]

The city launched the MRAB audit program, inspecting four buildings in each ward (without giving priority to wards where the highest density of problem buildings could be found). Though the outcome was disappointing the change launched a new focus for the campaign and members won a collaborative role within the city’s Municipal Licensing and Standards (ML&S) Division after showing a strong and aggressive presence at the first inspection. ACORN Toronto was given priority in choosing problem buildings and by the spring of 2009, members were holding regular meetings with ML&S to help streamline and improve the MRAB program. Targeted buildings quickly began to see improvements as problem landlords began preparing for inspections. Though landlord licensing was still an important campaign, ACORN Toronto’s focus was moving to the potential of the audit program.

The initial building inspections are considered a pilot project. ACORN Toronto is working to develop the program into something that could change the scope and scale of how the city deals with problem landlords and could begin pushing for much needed and very expensive building repairs and maintenance. More importantly, in order to push the campaign a step further, the organisation looked to capitalize on its recent victories and role as partner and collaborator by launching its Tenants Vote 2010 campaign in July, 2009. By threatening to increase tenant voter turnout in target wards by up to 25% (ACORN Canada 2009b), the campaign is a sure-fire way to get council’s attention and to bring new allies into political power.




Winning Tangible Changes to Low-income Neighbourhoods

It must not be ignored that ACORN Toronto’s campaigns began to win improvements of living conditions and much needed repairs to units and buildings. While residents attest to significant changes in buildings where ACORN Toronto has been fighting for years, it has yet to be seen if the MRAB audit program and Tenants Vote 2010 will have the desired impact and scale. Nevertheless, the campaigning and action thus far has led to significant changes in power and planning, decision-making and the physical living conditions of Torontonians.

         ACORN members who had formerly been ignored by their own building management are seeing significant tangible improvements such as removal of pests (rats, bedbugs, and cockroaches), fixed windows and ceilings, repairs to heating (a serious issue for Canadians in the winter), fixed elevators and many other infractions of city code. Prior to the MRAB program, ACORN Toronto would take direct action on managers to pressure them to hold to their responsibilities. With the 188 inspections across the city, their influence was greatly expanded. Furthermore, the campaign allowed for members to work directly with councillors and city workers to provide necessary measurement and evaluation.3]


Building Social and Political Assets and Power

ACORN Canada works on a daily basis to build its membership, strengthen its chapters and take action to make real improvements for low- and moderate- income neighbourhoods. As such, the social network that is developed between members reduces isolation and powerlessness. With city councillors working directly with tenants in target buildings, ACORN members gain access to democratic processes. In the beginning, ML&S was a body reluctant to work with ACORN members. Through the direct action of its campaign, members were able to bring the body on as an ally connecting them to planning structures of the city. Gaining the ability to take action against building management and landlords empowers members and provides a voice that was once easily ignored.

Members get together to plan actions and campaigns, and pressure the decision-makers affecting their lives. Victories and press attention builds confidence for the members and helps bring in more members. Building partners and allies in political power, as well as actively changing, creating and influencing old and new policy also build strength and credibility to the membership and organisation. As a result, exclusion from the structures and processes of the city is reduced.


Transforming the Structures and Processes of the City

The campaign was built off of small groups of ACORN Toronto members taking direct action in their neighbourhoods. Targets moved from single managers and landlords to management companies and landlord development lobby groups. By winning political allies, ACORN Toronto was able to organise on a city level to influence the report on the MRABs. Though the report was not satisfactory, the discussion of landlord licensing in the press and the report that followed were victories of sorts and recognition of the salient role ACORN members held in pushing the report through.

ML&S was once considered a target by members — a public body whose representatives seldom returned calls or showed up to community events and actions, let alone responded to complaints. Suddenly members were receiving calls from ML&S staff concerning their buildings and MRABs. Excluded low-income tenants were now walking into city hall to hold meetings and plan the new auditing program. Things have changed.



Conclusion: Reducing Exclusion, Gaining Housing Security and Building the Right to


the City

The physical layout of the city of Toronto shows how strong the influence of developers is in the city. The result of the influence has been the physical, economic and social exclusion of low- and moderate-income families, forcing them into deteriorating and violent living conditions. Through organising, protest, action, proposals, building partnerships and pressuring targets, ACORN Toronto members were able push for immediate improvements, influence public policy, and transform the planning process to include them — low income tenants — in strategic city planning. By using the 2010 municipal elections, ACORN Toronto is openly posing a threat to any candidate not willing to support tenant rights. They are also threatening to change the fabric and priority of city council. By using community organising strategies, ACORN members were able to build the necessary social and political power to pry their way into city hall and begin to take back the city which is rightfully theirs.




Brown & Kristansen 2009, Urban Policies and the Right to the City: Rights, responsibilities and citizenship, MOST2 Management of Social Transformation, UNESCO, UNHABITAT, March 2009, SHS/SRP/URB/2008/PI/H/3 REV


S.M. Miller, Rein, Levitt 1995, Community Action in the United States, Ch. 10, pp. 112-127; taken from Community empowerment : a reader in participation and development / edited by Gary Craig and Marjorie Mayo. London: Zed Books, 1995


Satterthwaite D. 2002, Reducing Urban Poverty: Some Lessons From Experience. IIED Poverty Reduction in Urban Areas Series (Working Paper 11)


ACORN Canada 2009a, What is ACORN Canada?,, retrieved from, 21/09/2009


ACORN Canada 2009b, Tenants Vote 2010, retrieved from, 21/09/2009


ACORN Canada 2008, Affordable Housing Report, retrieved from, 21/09/2009


City of Toronto 2008a, News Release, November 3rd 2008, retrieved from, 21/09/2009


City of Toronto 2008b, Regulatory Strategy for Multi-Residential Apartment Buildings (MRABs), Staff Report to the Executive Committee from the Executive Director, Municipal Licensing and Standards, ref. no. P:2008Cluster BMLSMRAB Report Final Version October 27.doc, retrieved from, 21/09/2009

*Toronto ACORNs Landlord Licensing Campaign 2005-2010

[1]In Brown and Kristansen (2009: 4), we find five implications for an inclusive city: Liberty, freedom and the benefit of the city life for all; transparency, equity and efficiency in city administrations; participation and respect in local democratic decision making; recognition of diversity in economic, social and cultural life; and reducing poverty, social exclusion and urban violence.

[2]Much of the information in this paragraph was gleaned from my experience as a community organiser for ACORN Toronto at the time, key informants, and informal conversations. ACORN Canada’s website is the best source for media coverage of ACORN Toronto’s campaigns and


[3]ACORN Toronto members designed a multi-lingual complaints forms to report problems in their buildings and apartments which is now used by MRAB.


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