WPIRG support for students impacted by Schembri & ongoing student-tenant support

In 2014-15 WPIRG took on a campaign in support of student-tenants at the 1 Columbia apartment building, owned and operated by Schembri Property Management. The central issue was Schembri's refusal to return students' deposits after dozens of students walked away from their lease due to unfinished construction at 1 Columbia. The core of the campaign involved WPIRG working with 53 students to pressure Schembri to return a little under $100,000 in unreturned deposits. In addition WPIRG communicated with dozens of other 1 Columbia tenants during the course of the campaign helping them understand and enforce their tenant rights. 

A two-part strategy was chosen. WPIRG secured legal representation for the 53 students with the Waterloo Region Community Legal Clinic and assisted the students in filing a group claim at the Landlord and Tenant Board seeking the return of the deposits, as well as some damages and fines. WPIRG also organized the students for collective action to put public and economic pressure on Schembri. Over the Fall 2014 term this included a “march on the landlord” protest at Schembri's offices, a “phone zap” action aimed at clogging up Schembri's phone lines with demands from the public that deposits be returned, over a dozen articles in local and campus media about the campaign, and working with FEDS and Off-Campus Housing to remove Schembri's presence from UW (FEDS stopped taking advertising business from Schembri and OCH removed them from their rental listings). Such strategy proves necessary, legal action alone more often than not being insufficient. In response, Schembri took legal action against the WPIRG staff involved in the campaign (seeking a peace bond) but were unsuccessful in court. 

The campaign continued until January when a pre-conference hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board resulted in Schembri and the students entering into confidential negotiations. As a third-party in the legal proceedings, WPIRG was excluded from the negotiations and therefore we cannot publicly say more about the negotiations. We believe that a settlement was reached. 

Without a public campaign, it is likely that Schembri would have dragged out the process at the Landlord and Tenant Board much longer (as they have done with other individual cases). The Landlord and Tenant Board was shown to be of limited use to students/tenants due to its lack of effective penalties for landlords and lack of enforcement capabilities. Collective action and public pressure is key to students organizing and winning against local property management companies. WPIRG continues to prioritize building student tenant organizations that can stop abuses by landlords. Get in touch with alex@wpirg.org.