The Pest-Ridden Legacy of Brit Smith and Homestead
A. Britton ‘Brit’ Smith, founder and figurehead of Homestead Land Holdings is one of Kingston’s most well-known and recognizable figures. While he is now retired, the unfathomable amount of wealth he hoarded as Kingston’s biggest landlord (Homestead currently owns and operates around ~26,000 units across Ontario, and approximately half of Kingston’s rental units), still looms large over the city.
He has donated millions to Kingston institutions like Queen’s and the United Way, with his name spread far and wide across Queen’s campus, and the city itself. Additionally, almost anyone who has served at one of Kingston’s upscale restaurants has a story about receiving a massive tip from Smith.
A billion dollars makes building a reputation like this easy. What isn’t so easy is life for the thousands of Kingstonians who spend everyday amongst pests, bed bugs, black mold, and more, in one of Homestead’s infested buildings in our communities.
We have spoken to Homestead tenants living in nightmarish situations. Many people live their entire lives out of plastic bins, to protect their belongings from infestation. Nights pass in sleepless horror, because that’s when the bugs get more active. People in this community find pests and parasites crawling out of their skin and ears, as they become as infested as their homes. Just for a moment, imagine living like this. Now imagine trying to raise children like this. We’ve spoken to one parent whose children refuse to eat or drink anything in their homes, for fear that it’s contaminated with bugs. Another parent was left wondering what to do after their child was bitten by a rat.
According to their own website, Homestead claims that they “own and manage all of our buildings and are dedicated to the concept of pride of ownership. We always remain focused on upgrading and improving our buildings to ensure the satisfaction of our residents and building staff.” The reality for tenants is much different.
Maintenance claims, even those as dire as raw sewage leaking through the roof, go unaddressed by management for weeks and sometimes months. Meanwhile, pest control is constantly showing up to spray individual units, while bugs spread through the walls to neighbouring units, only to reappear some after, and the useless cycle of isolated pest control continues. This is the true legacy of Brit Smith and Homestead for thousands of working class Kingstonians.
To understand the enormous gap between Smith/Homestead’s reputation in Kingston and the horrifying reality of thousands of Homestead’s tenants, we need to take a closer look at the idea of ‘philanthropy,’ or ‘giving back.’ Almost any billionaire’s Wikipedia page will include the word ‘philanthropist’ in the first line. It is their way of showing “sure, I may make more money in a month than you’ll make in your entire life, but I worked hard for it, and I’m reinvesting it in my community.” But in actuality, philanthropy is a public relations campaign for capitalists, billionaires, and slumlords. The millions of dollars that Smith has laying around to donate to Queen’s is millions of dollars that wasn’t used for maintenance on Homestead buildings, leading to the uninhabitable situations so many Kingstonians live in today. It’s also important not to get blinded by the numbers involved in billionaire philanthropy. Donating $1M for a billionaire is the equivalent of someone making $40,000 donating, after taxes, just $32.
Handing over a big check in front of an uncritical media is easy, especially since so many organizations doing the hard work to actually address social problems are always starved for cash. Meanwhile, the people who have earned those millions of dollars that Homestead sucks up as rent live in infested buildings that Homestead won’t systematically address because it’s too expensive.
This is how billionaires use philanthropy to patch some of the massive holes they create in our society. By shifting (relatively for them) small amounts of the money they hoard from one problem to another, they are lauded as heroes. The exact same thing is happening when someone like Smith leaves a huge tip at a restaurant; it’s nothing more than reputation washing, on both a public and personal level.
At the Katarokwi Union of Tenants, we believe that, rather than giving back, it would have been better for billionaires and landlords not to have taken all of that money in the first place. We cannot rely on crumbs from the ruling class to make a better society for workers and tenants alike; we must unite and make it ourselves. We are currently part of a campaign to help Homestead tenants fight back against these pest infestations. We need to support these brave tenants in their fight for humane housing from Homestead! If you believe the same, and want to help bring about a better world, join us at our next general meeting, on January 11, at 7 PM. Check out our Facebook group for more details, including about our upcoming protest! You can also financially support Homestead tenants in their campaign through our GoFundMe.