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Zoning in on zoning

Every day, people across Ontario face barriers to finding or keeping rental housing because of disability, age, race, creed, sexual orientation, disability, receipt of social assistance, family status, and other grounds of the Human Rights Code. These barriers often arise because landlords make assumptions about people based on characteristics that usually have nothing to do with their ability to be good tenants.

But there are other kinds of barriers – like the systemic ones that arise from municipal planning and zoning decisions that, often unintentionally, further limit the housing options of vulnerable people. Examples are requiring minimum separation distances between group homes, or limiting the number of bedrooms people can use in rental housing. The OHRC believes that planning and zoning are areas that need much change across the province, and we continued to work in this area over the past year.

Challenging decisions of individual municipalities

We made written submissions and/or presentations to a number of city councils to outline our concerns in several areas, including to:

  • The City of Toronto Planning and Growth Management Committee raising concerns about Toronto’s Draft Zoning Bylaw
  • The City of Waterloo Council on its proposed rental housing licensing bylaw, which had some positive amendments, but other provisions could have a discriminatory effect
  • The City of North Bay, raising concerns about its draft bylaw and the potential adverse effect on students (age discrimination), persons with disabilities and others living in group homes
  • The City of Hamilton, raising concerns about the human rights implications of denying a group home zoning application by the Lynwood Charlton Centre, which was seeking permission to house eight teenage girls with mental health issues
  • The City of London, commenting on proposed amendments to their Official Plan and Zoning By-Law that would treat methadone clinics differently and the impact this may have on people with addiction disabilities.

Taking legal steps

As well, we continued to make strategic legal interventions in a number of cases related to zoning and human rights. Many complaints are about minimum separation distances. We continue to intervene in cases challenging zoning rules that limit options for affordable and supportive housing for people with mental health or other disabilities. For example:

  • An application against the City of Toronto by the Dream Team (an organization led by psychiatric consumer survivors), supported by the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario

  • In Tribunal cases (with the same partners) against the cities of Smiths Falls and Kitchener. These cases are currently at the mediation stage, while the Toronto case is pending.

We also intervened as a party in a case at the Ontario Municipal Board involving the City of Guelph. We challenged a Guelph zoning bylaw that used minimum separation distances to limit rental houses with accessory apartments and also reduced the number of units that could be rented in lodging houses. It appeared that these provisions were being used to keep young people out of neighbourhoods, and would also result in a loss of affordable rental housing that would affect other people who identified under Code grounds (such as seniors, newcomers, people with disabilities, single-parent families and people on social assistance).

In February 2012, the City of Guelph repealed the bylaw, and has committed to working with the OHRC to effectively deal with rental housing issues.

Using legal forums is not our first choice to overcome discriminatory barriers to housing. By the time a case goes to a tribunal or court, the damage to the people wanting to live in a neighbourhood or community is often already done. Instead, our goal is to prevent the damage from happening in the first place, by working with municipalities to arrive at systemic solutions that make communities welcoming to all residents.

An example of this “avoiding the damage” approach was our letter to the City of Toronto about the potential human rights impact of the sale of a large number of houses by Toronto Community Housing.

A new guide for human rights and zoning

In February 2012, we launched In the zone: Housing, human rights and municipal planning. This guide offers municipalities information about their legal obligations, and about the tools and best practices they can apply to connect human rights and housing when making zoning and planning decisions. We consulted planning experts, human rights and planning lawyers, housing providers and advocates to make sure the guide reflects a wide range of views.

We launched the guide at Queen’s University, at a one-day training forum for municipal staff and associates of the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination (CCMARD). The forum featured presentations on organizational change to eliminate racism and discrimination, collecting human rights-based data, setting up special programs under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and a look at the CCMARD Toolkit for Municipalities.

Copies of In the zone have been sent to every municipality in Ontario. More than 30 have asked for extra copies for municipal staff. The guide is receiving a lot of support from both municipalities and advocates, and we receive many requests to provide training on it. We plan to deliver training in eastern Ontario (with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing), in Guelph and in Midland, among other locations. We will continue to reach out across the province over the next few years to address systemic human rights issues in housing.

Making sure licensing is not a licence to discriminate

Rental housing licensing is a fairly new concept – only in the past few years have municipalities had the authority to license and regulate various forms of rental housing. Several municipalities, especially those that are home to colleges and universities, have adopted or are considering rental housing licensing bylaws.

For the past three years, we have contacted several municipalities on these bylaws, including the Cities of Oshawa, North Bay, Waterloo and Windsor. We have consistently raised concerns about minimum separation distances, bedroom caps, gross floor area requirements, applying bylaws across the entire municipality and other issues that appear to target certain Code-protected groups or result in differential treatment of these groups.

In March 2012, we took our concerns further by launching two public interest inquiries to take a closer look at rental housing licensing bylaws in North Bay and Waterloo.

“While rental housing licensing can be a valuable tool for promoting the safety and security of tenants, the ability to license must not be a licence to discriminate. We want to make sure this isn’t happening.” – Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall

The inquiries will help us to discover if there are discriminatory effects of licensing policies on Code-protected groups, identify possible solutions, and suggest ways municipalities can draft bylaws that respect and protect the human rights of tenants.

The first phase of the inquiries involved online surveys for tenants, landlords, community groups, advocates and service providers in the North Bay and Waterloo areas, along with a meeting with student groups in North Bay. We are also reviewing documents that each city relied on when developing the bylaws. Other steps will be determined once the survey and document review is completed. This summer, we will report on what we heard, lessons learned, and recommendations for making sure that rental housing licensing efforts reflect the vision and the legal obligations of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Opening the door to fairer housing ads

Over the past few years, housing websites have become an increasingly popular way to both advertise and look for housing. In response to community concerns about discriminatory online ads, the OHRC and its housing partners looked at 28 sites that offer housing listings, and then did a detailed review of four of the largest websites that provide rental housing listings for Ontario. On some sites, we found that up to 20% of online ads for smaller rental housing units contained statements that were either directly or potentially discriminatory. Our research also showed that often the public is not aware of the full range of housing protections under the Code.

Most landlords and tenants want to comply with housing-related laws. But they need some resources to know what their responsibilities are. That’s why the OHRC and our partners wrote to operators of rental housing websites and print media asking them to work with us to prevent, identify and remove discriminatory ads. We suggested some best practices such as providing information on human rights in housing, and including a non-discrimination clause on forms that landlords use to place ads. We also developed an online fact sheet that has tips on how to write a non-discriminatory housing ad, provides examples of discriminatory statements such as “adult building,” “must provide proof of employment” or “No ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program),” and suggests fairer alternatives. Other support materials include landlord and tenant brochures and an e-learning module on Human Rights and Rental Housing.

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