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Right at home: Report on the consultation on human rights and rental housing in Ontario

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Approved by the Commission: May 28, 2008

Executive summary

This report is the end result of a province-wide consultation on rental housing and human rights by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (the Commission). It documents what the Commission heard and aims to increase our collective understanding of human rights in rental housing. Individuals and organizations responsible for implementing and advancing housing rights protections need to feel “right at home” in understanding what obligations exist and how to fulfill them. Tenants also need to feel “right at home” in being able to access and live in rental housing that is free from discrimination. As the recommendations and commitments in section 6: “Framework for action” show, we all have a role to play in understanding and eliminating housing discrimination in our province.

The Commission recognizes that many landlords and housing providers across Ontario take their human rights obligations seriously and that a large percentage of tenants are satisfactorily housed. However, in this consultation, the Commission heard about the situations faced by tenants experiencing discrimination and systemic barriers in accessing and maintaining adequate and affordable housing. For refugees, immigrants, transgendered people, lone mothers, Aboriginal people, people with mental illnesses or other disabilities, and other people protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code), the human rights dimensions of the housing crisis are undeniable.

This report describes a range of discriminatory situations experienced by the most vulnerable of Ontario’s tenants, including inappropriate advertisements, discriminatory stereotypes and negative attitudes. Tenants and their advocates spoke at length about the discriminatory impacts of commonly used screening criteria and requirements such as credit checks, guarantors, rent deposits, employment verification and income requirements. Housing providers and tenants described significant challenges relating to the duty to accommodate in rental housing, particularly in relation to mental illness.

Yet, human rights claims raising these kinds of issues, and those of a more systemic nature, are rarely filed and the rights that already exist under the Code are largely not enforced. This creates a situation in which housing providers, government and other responsible parties may be unaware of their obligations and the extent to which they may be failing to fulfill them. This reality needs to be replaced by a housing sector in which human rights are known by tenants, housing providers, governments and other responsible parties. There also needs to be effective enforcement of the Code to make sure that the rights of tenants protected under the Code have meaning. Clearly identifying expectations through consistent enforcement also benefits parties responsible for complying with the Code.

In previous consultations, the Commission heard about the impacts of inadequate housing options and the dearth of adequate affordable housing for older Ontarians[1] and families[2]. These issues continue to exist. In this consultation, the Commission also heard more broadly about the impacts of current problems in the housing sector on people who are racialized, have disabilities such as mental illnesses and others. The lack of coordinated actions on behalf of all levels of government to eliminate homelessness and to provide sufficient levels of adequate and affordable housing to meet the needs of Code-protected groups and individuals was a concern for many. Housing strategies aimed at addressing homelessness and increasing access to affordable housing in Ontario must be consistent with international human rights obligations, the Code and applicable human rights principles.

A key theme in this consultation was the link between poverty, Code grounds such as disability or race, and homelessness. Consultees spoke about how the rates of public assistance and minimum wage have not kept pace with average rents across the province. As a result, a substantial group of Code-protected people with low incomes due to social assistance, minimum wage rates or part-time work are vulnerable to being under-housed or excluded from the rental market. Measures must be put in place to make sure that low-income Ontarians are able to afford average rents, food and other basic necessities.

Consultees spoke about systemic problems in the housing sector such as a need for inclusive design and barrier removal relating to both physical structures and policies or programs. In practical terms, the Commission heard that the human rights of protected groups may be compromised when decisions have to be made about who should get access to a limited but precious resource – affordable, adequate housing – whether in the private rental market or in social housing. For example, there are human rights impacts associated with decision-making and priority setting around chronological waiting lists for subsidized housing. There was some agreement between housing providers and tenant advocates that a shift to widespread availability of portable housing allowances is a potential solution worth exploring.

The Commission also heard much about the prevalence of discriminatory Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) opposition to affordable or supportive housing projects, and the impact of this on tenants, housing providers and society as a whole. People with disabilities including mental illnesses, young parents and other persons protected under the Code may be exposed to discriminatory comments or conduct both during the planning process and once the housing is built. In many cases, NIMBYism prevents, delays or increases the costs of developing much needed housing for Code-protected groups and individuals. It is time that a comprehensive strategy be developed to make sure that discriminatory NIMBYism does not hinder the creation of affordable housing for Code-protected people.

[1] Ontario Human Rights Commission, Time for Action: Advancing Human Rights for Older Ontarians (June 2001) (Time for Action).
[2] Ontario Human Rights Commission, The Cost of Caring: Report on the Consultation on Discrimination on the Basis of Family Status (November 2006).

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