August 15, 2023
From Socialist Project

A corporate landlord at the centre of a major rent strike in Toronto says it must raise rents to “decarbonize” its buildings. But the landlord’s tenants and outside experts want the public to know that decarbonization is used as a guise to push out low-income tenants—and the company’s own materials suggest this is its real goal.

Dream is a massive owner of residential, commercial and office buildings with $23 billion in assets across North America and Europe. Over the past five years, residents at Dream’s 33 King St. apartment building have had their rent increased by 22 per cent, despite being a rent-controlled building. At Dream’s neighboring building at 22 John St., which it bought in 2021, a majority of tenants have faced 10-per-cent increases every year, translating to annual bumps of $150 to $300 on their monthly rents.

Hundreds of tenants at both buildings have refused to pay rent for weeks to protest the excessive increases.

Protestors hold a sign declaring their rent strike at a demonstration in Toronto on Thursday. Tenants at Dream’s King Street property have not paid rent since June 1 while John Street residents have not paid since July. Credit: Kunal Chaudhary

Dream receives millions in public funding

On Thursday, a coalition of advocates representing the York-South Weston Tenant Union, Climate Justice Toronto, ACORN, and others organized a demonstration outside Dream’s offices to condemn the company’s “greenwashing.”

“The main argument [for these rent increases] that Dream has put out to the media, and in every meeting we have had, is that they are ‘decarbonizing’ the building. They’re arguing that basically, this is an environmental issue,” said Bruno Dobrusin, an organizer with the York-South Weston Tenant Union.

Bruno Dobrusin raises a fist outside Dream’s offices in Toronto on Thursday. Credit: Kunal Chaudhary

Residential “decarbonization,” a process by which property owners reduce overall carbon emissions from their buildings by retrofitting them with energy-saving light bulbs and appliances (amongst other interventions), is a critical part of reducing cities’ carbon footprint. In Toronto, buildings account for 58 per cent of the city’s total carbon emissions.

In Dream’s 2022 Sustainability Report, CEO Michael Cooper calls Dream “the leading developer of net zero communities in North America,” and boasts a $136-million partnership with the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) to support their decarbonization efforts. The CIB is a crown corporation that supports “revenue-generating” infrastructure projects across the country.

In the same report, Cooper justifies investing in decarbonization for its potential to “reduce operating costs over the life of the asset, lead to higher rents, and attract like-minded tenants.”

Dream did not respond to a list of detailed questions sent by The Breach by email.

Climate Justice Toronto rallied with Dream tenants to make the connection between class and the impacts of climate change. Credit: Kunal Chaudhary

Dream’s tenants are going hungry

Nemoy Lewis, a professor at the Toronto Metropolitan University who researches the financialization of housing, said Dream’s decarbonization plan explicitly targets low-income and working class tenants.

“A lot of these investments, while they are in place to reduce their carbon footprint, are also there to reduce their operational expenses,” Lewis said. “They’re made to extract more value out of a property so they can be leaner with their operations. This includes attracting more affluent or higher-income renters that can afford these excessive rental increases.”

Nemoy Lewis, a professor at TMU’s School of Urban and Regional Planning says that ‘carbon footprint’ reduction is often about decreasing costs. Credit: Toronto Metropolitan University

What doesn’t get talked about, he said, are the everyday changes low-income tenants have to make in order to afford these hikes in rent. Tenants he has spoken to at the two buildings report cutting back on groceries and meals, and relying extensively on food banks to make ends meet.

“Part of why corporate landlords like Dream engage in these strategies is because they have a legal and fiduciary responsibility to maximize return for their investors,” said Lewis. “They’re never going to prioritize the right to housing over their profit motivation.”

Dream’s 2022 Annual Report notes that the company made almost $165 million in net earnings last year, up $54 million from the previous year, due in part to “increased earnings from our growing multi-family rental portfolio.”

Dream Unlimited also received a healthy payday in 2019 when Blackstone paid $395 million to end its asset management contract with the developer, as part of a $6.2-billion deal to acquire its former holding company Dream Global REIT.

Climate crisis hits working class, racialized communities hardest

“It’s greenwashing corporate greed, is what it is,” said Monica Mason, an organizer with Climate Justice Toronto. “We know that the climate crisis already impacts the most vulnerable people in our society. So people who are in precarious housing, who are working class and racialized, the climate crisis is impacting those people first and foremost. This is just an extension of that.”

In response to the tenants’ rent strike, Dream has sent out eviction notices and upped surveillance by private security guards.

Outside Dream’s offices on Thursday morning, guards appeared again to patrol the coalition of housing supporters and environmentalists lined outside the building. 

Resolute, the crowd’s chants cut through the din of traffic and construction noise in all directions. “They call themselves Dream, but we know they’re a nightmare.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dream Unlimited was acquired by Blackstone in 2019. In fact, Blackstone acquired a holding company which is no longer connected to Dream Unlimited.

The kind of journalism you appreciate
After working in Canadian media for nearly a decade, I’ve come to realize that “objectivity” is often a code word for passive, uncritical reporting.

I’m proud of our honest journalism. Instead of feigning objectivity, we’re open about our progressive values while maintaining rigorous standards.

If that sounds like the kind of journalism you appreciate, consider becoming a monthly sustainer. You’ll help us deliver transformative journalism that’s accessible to everyone.

—Emma Paling, coordinating editor, The Breach