Activists Are Using Snail Mail to Take on Greedy Landlords

Housing has become a critical battleground for activists during the pandemic, as millions of tenants struggle to pay rent and landlords tighten their grip on properties. Now, a new initiative called My Old Apartment is encouraging tenants to use snail mail to combat illegal rent increases on Prince Edward Island (PEI) in Canada.

The project, launched in late February by PEI resident Darcie Lanthier, quickly garnered attention on social media for its straightforward approach to rent transparency.

The premise is simple: renters are encouraged to fill out and mail a card to the current occupants of their previous rental addresses. The cards state how much former tenants paid in rent when they lived there, allowing current renters to calculate whether their landlords are illegally overcharging them. The cards also include information on how tenants can get their rent lowered to the legal limit, and secure a refund for the rent they’ve overpaid.

“If you send a card to your old apartment, whoever gets a card is going to be happy one way or the other,” Lanthier told Motherboard. “Either they are going to find out they’re owed something back, or they’re going to find out their landlord is an honest guy and that their rent is exactly what it should be.”

Last week, My Old Apartment shared a photo of their first card to be delivered to a current tenant. The photo quickly circulated on Twitter, gaining the account over ten thousand followers along with messages of support from activists around the world.

“That very first door we knocked on, that fellow with the young family in an apartment he can barely afford, is entitled by Prince Edward Island law to get back about $5,400 that he’s overpaid, and also have his rent decreased by $226 a month,” Lanthier said. “That could potentially be a life-changing event. [And] that’s going to happen all across the island.”

Rental rates on Prince Edward Island are controlled by the Island Regulatory & Appeals Commission, or IRAC. Local law states that landlords can only increase rents by 1 percent in 2021, down from 1.3 percent in 2020. Before that, the allowable annual rent increase depended on property type, and ranged from 1.5 percent to 2 percent in 2019. But tenant advocates contend that IRAC has failed to enforce these limits, leading rental prices to rise at a much steeper rate. One estimate suggests rents have increased by 10 to 24 percent since 2018.

“What [recent data] clearly indicated to us was that there was a massive amount of illegal rent increases,” Daniel Cousins, an organizer with the nonprofit group PEI Fight for Affordable Housing, told Motherboard. Last summer, his organization campaigned for a ban on rent increases in 2021. IRAC approved a 1 percent increase instead.

“They ignored us completely,” said Cousins. “The city caves to homeowners more than it does to renters.” PEI resident Ashley Godfrey also encountered difficulties when trying to report an illegal rent hike on her old apartment to IRAC. She reached out to the commission after seeing her unit, which she had rented for $1,050 per month, being advertised online at $1,150 per month—an increase of over 9.5%.

“I tried calling 3 times that month and nobody ever returned my calls,” Godfrey told Motherboard. Then, a Facebook post about My Old Apartment prompted her to write a letter to the new tenant. “It was something I had wanted to do, and this was just the little push I needed.”

When contacted for this story, IRAC would not comment on the My Old Apartment initiative.

“As an adjudicative body that hears and decides upon disputes between tenants and landlords, we are unable to comment on any matter that may come before us,” spokeswoman Kim Devine said in an email.

Renters on Prince Edward Island have long felt the squeeze of housing scarcity. A popular summer destination for Canadian tourists, the island is filled with short-term rental units for vacationers that critics say drive up the cost of living. Godfrey is a PEI native who left the island to attend law school and work as a clerk for the federal government. When she returned, she was shocked to find that rents had skyrocketed in her absence.

Tenants’ advocates argue that the onus to enforce rental laws should fall on the government, not on renters with limited access to information about their unit’s rent history. Cousins, Godfrey, and Lanthier all say that the ideal solution would be a public registry of rental properties containing their current and former rent prices.

“On PEI we have really fantastic legislation,” said Lanthier. “But there is no way to enforce it because there’s no registry.” She hopes that meaningful action during the coming legislative session will eliminate the need for My Old Apartment’s efforts. “Maybe after March or April, I won’t need to print cards anymore because we’ll get some sort of a registry.”

Lanthier says that the financial plight of young people, including her own adult son, motivated her to take action against rent gouging.

“How do you proceed with your life? You don’t have affordable housing, you can’t put money in the bank, you can’t save for a rainy day… really I just think it’s cruel,” she said. For this reason, she urges renters everywhere to research their local laws and take action to defend them.

“Tenants have rights everywhere, and your landlord’s not going to tell you about them,” she said. “We have to start treating housing like what it is: it’s a basic human right.”

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