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In the zone: Housing, human rights and municipal planning

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“Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to the occupancy of accommodation without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status, disability or the receipt of public assistance.” – Ontario Human Rights Code, s.2(1)

This guide offers an overview of the human rights responsibilities of municipalities in housing. It offers information about the various legislated tools municipalities have, and shows some examples of how municipal planners, councillors, Housing Service Managers, District Social Service Boards and others can use “best practices” to overcome discriminatory neighbourhood opposition and promote housing that is free from discrimination. The guide can also be a resource for organizations and advocates who are working with municipalities to advance human rights in housing.

Affordable housing (which includes social housing and market rental housing, lodging houses, and many other housing forms) and housing that is accessible and barrier-free help build attractive, liveable and economically competitive communities. Housing is the foundation for stable living conditions, and a key starting point for financial stability and being included in the community.

Affordable housing can take many forms, such as rooming or lodging houses, group homes, social and supportive housing, boarding houses, institutional care homes and transitional housing.

Many people face barriers to securing affordable housing because of discrimination based on grounds of the Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code). Many people who identify under Code grounds (such as race, disability, family status and receipt of public assistance) face an urgent need for affordable housing.

There is an acknowledged need for affordable housing in Ontario and across Canada – but the public controversy that is attached to affordable housing continues to be one of the biggest barriers to developing it. A key part of achieving inclusive neighbourhoods where all residents feel welcome to live, work and play is taking steps to overcome community opposition to affordable housing.

One way to overcome these barriers is to clearly and consistently make the connection between human rights and the bylaws, policies and procedures that govern housing. This guide can help you make this connection. It represents the best advice from the OHRC, and draws on information from Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. As well, we consulted with a team of planning experts, planning and human rights lawyers, housing providers and advocates to make sure the guide reflected a wide range of perspectives.

In the summer of 2011, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing published its Municipal Tools for Affordable Housing Handbook (, which offers an in-depth look at the many tools municipalities have for increasing and protecting affordable housing. In the zone talks about the same options, from a human rights perspective.

This guide does not offer a high level of detail about these tools like the handbook does. Instead, it is designed to complement the handbook, to help municipalities use familiar tools with the added goal of meeting human rights obligations.

Connecting human rights and housing is more than just “a good thing to do.” Under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, it’s the law. This guide offers steps to help make the law a lived reality for all Ontarians.

Housing is a human right – on an international scale

The international community has long recognized that housing is a fundamental and universal human right that must be protected in law. Since proclaiming the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations has recognized the right to housing in many documents. Examples are:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the ICESCR)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
  • Convention of the Rights of the Child.

Canada has ratified all of these treaties.

Ontario is one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world. Yet, many Ontarians do not have access to adequate and affordable housing. Access to appropriate housing is inequitable for many groups identified by prohibited grounds of discrimination including race, disability and family status. International human rights groups have severely criticized Canada’s housing situation numerous times. For example, in 2007, Miloon Kothari, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, described Canada’s housing situation as “very stark and very disturbing” and amounting to a “national crisis.”[1]

The international community has made the connection between human rights and housing. Canada and Ontario have laws such as the Human Rights Code that can help make this same connection. Solid planning processes are among the steps municipalities can take to ensure human rights at the community level.

[1] Kothari, Miloon, United National Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, “Preliminary Observations at the end of his Mission to Canada 9 – 22 October 2007,” A/HRC/7/16/Add.4 (Preliminary Observations). In May 2008, Ms. Raquel Rolnik (Brazil) was named as the new Special Rapporteur on adequate housing.

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