Samuel Adelaar spent the lead up to the holidays this year knocking on his neighbours doors, handing out flyers and circulating a petition.
A resident at his highrise in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood for six years, he's trying to convince the other tenants in his building not to pay a 4.2 per cent rent increase introduced by the building's owner.
"We're still in the midst of a pandemic, people have experienced financial hardships… that will definitely affect people's ability to pay this rent increase," Adelaar told CBC Toronto.
Across town, 88-year-old Gina Gray is in the same situation.
She and her neighbours are also being asked to pay a 4.2 per cent rent hike at their Pape Village apartment building, and, like Adelaar, she's working to convince them they should hold out and pay just 1.2 per cent more — the 2022 guideline increase amount set by the government.
"We all got upset, because there's a lot of seniors in here who can't afford it," she said of the increase.
"There's two ladies that I know, they can't even afford a television," she continued. "If there's a rent hike, who knows what they're going to do."
Above-guideline increases allowed despite rent freeze
Both Adelaar and Gray are dealing with above-guideline rent increases, or AGIs — a kind of hike where landlords can apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board to push rent beyond the legal limit in order to cover capital expenses like higher taxes, repairs or renovations.
AGIs remained legal last year, despite a rent freeze brought in by the Ford government that protected most residential units from the regular annual hike.
In fact, statistics released to CBC News by the Landlord and Tenant Board in March 2021 suggested that landlords were increasingly turning to the board to hike rents at their buildings during the freeze.
In the five months before the freeze legislation came into effect, landlords filed 84 AGIs in Ontario. That number rose to 266 in the five months after.
With AGIs still on the table, "the rent freeze we had for 2021 provided the absolute bare minimum of relief to folks," said Philip Zigman, a housing activist who helped create a website that tracks AGIs in Toronto.
Zigman says the hikes are a strategy used primarily by large, corporate landlords to push people out of their homes. He, along with a number of other advocates, have been calling for AGIs to be abolished altogether.
"It's [landlords] responsibility to maintain their buildings, [and] landlords can afford to maintain their buildings," he said.
Company maintains work on buildings was 'essential'
Technically, Adelaar, Gray, and their neighbours are not required to begin paying the hike until it's approved by the LTB.
Both of their buildings are owned by Starlight Investments, a large real estate company that's made headlines in the past after tenants complained about poor condition in their buildings.
Starlight was also singled out in a report last year co-authored by Zigman for filing the most AGI applications of any Toronto landlord between 2012 and 2019.
In an emailed statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Starlight Investments wrote that management will go to the Landlord and Tenant Board to prove that work done on the two buildings was both "essential to ensuring good building standards; and, that it was for capital expenditures that would be considered well beyond normal."
It also said that tenants who are struggling financially can apply for an AGI relief program.
If the hike is approved, they can challenge it at the board — something Gray says she's ready to do if she has to.
"You renovated the place… I don't think you should charge that much, because I don't think you did enough," she said.
Gray says the cost of housing in the city gives her and her neighbours few options but to stay in their homes and fight the increase.
"I can't move. Where else can I go? No matter where you go right now, rents are expensive."