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Wrapping up inquiry on rental housing licensing in North Bay

In May 2013, the OHRC released a report on its inquiry into rental housing licensing in the City of North Bay. We began this inquiry in March/April 2012 with a survey of tenants, landlords and organizations dealing with rental housing. More than 185 people responded. We followed up with some respondents, attended a community meeting, and reviewed materials disclosed by the City and housing research from other sources. 

The City made commitments to reinforce  ground rules to respect human rights at community  meetings, allow a reasonable time to accommodate tenants who may be displaced if rental housing is shut down, enforce the rental housing licensing bylaw with property owners not tenants, educate the public, and monitor the bylaw on an ongoing basis.

We heard concerns about the impact of bedroom caps (limits on the number of bedrooms that can be used in a rented house), gross floor area requirements and licensing fees. Based on the information provided to us, these elements in North Bay’s bylaw did not appear to be discriminatory.

There was, however, one bylaw feature that may be discriminatory in some cases. The City grants exemptions to the bylaw if two or fewer people are paying rent for the household. This focuses on people, not buildings. We called for North Bay to remove this from the bylaw, because this rule can adversely affect students, single people, certain religious or ethnic groups and other Code-protected people who may not live in “traditional” family units.

“Rental housing licensing is a fairly new concept in Ontario,” said OHRC Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall. “Our goal was to look closely at how licensing would affect families, students, seniors and vulnerable people who identify with grounds of Ontario’s Human Rights Code. I thank City staff and the many North Bay residents who spoke with us about this bylaw. We found some promising practices that we’ll share across Ontario, and we will continue to work with municipalities to make sure that there is room for everyone in our communities.”

Reporting back on Waterloo

Later in May 2013, we reported on our findings on rental housing licensing in the City of Waterloo. We did the same kind of survey (225 individuals and organizations responded) and follow-up work we did for the North Bay inquiry.

The City worked with the OHRC and improved the bylaw in many ways, adding references to human rights, applying the bylaw city-wide, educating landlords about human rights and agreeing to review the bylaw regularly. We consider these to be promising practices for other municipalities to consider, and have included them in Room for everyone, a guide on human rights and rental housing licensing.

When we wrote our report, we had two remaining areas of concern – per-person floor area requirements and minimum separation distances.

The bylaw’s requirement of 7 square metres per person in bedrooms is far more stringent than the requirements in the Building Code. This means that many bedrooms that meet provincial standards can’t be rented to couples and other tenants who wish to share a bedroom – which restricts the housing options of many people who identify under the protected grounds of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

During the inquiry, we heard concerns about families who wanted their children to share a bedroom, and landlords said they were restricting their rentals to smaller family groups or households than they had in the past.

The second area of concern was the use of minimum separation distances (MSDs) that limit housing options for many vulnerable members of the community. Even though the licensing bylaw does not contain MSDs, they are in the City’s zoning bylaw relating to lodging houses. By changing the definition of lodging houses, the new system captures some “single housekeeping units” that were not affected by MSDs in the past. This has led to landlords closing bedrooms and renting to smaller households to get exempted from the more onerous rules for lodging houses.

In the months following our report, we continued to negotiate with the City and in February 2014, reached a Memorandum of Agreement with the City that helped to avoid a formal application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. The City agreed to look at its MSDs in its current review of its Zoning Bylaw, and to put exemptions in place to reduce the effect of per-person floor area requirements. As well, the City agreed to monitor the bylaw for human rights impacts. We will continue to work with Waterloo to ensure its zoning and licensing requirements reflect human rights requirements.

Continuing to tackle Toronto zoning

For the past year, we continued our intervention in an HRTO case, where the Dream Team, a group of people living with mental health issues, and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre are challenging the City of Toronto’s minimum separation distance requirements for group homes. We are concerned that both the old and the new bylaws fall short of both the Code and the City’s own Housing Charter, because they:

  • retain a requirement for minimum separation distances between group homes
  • do not allow rooming houses in most parts of Toronto.

Dr. Sandeep K. Agrawal, the city’s planning expert, looked at human rights issues the OHRC has raised from a planning perspective. His recommendations mirrored our position – that there is no sound planning rationale for minimum separation distances (MSDs) for group homes, and they should be removed.

The City issued a report to the Planning and Growth Management Committee in October 2013 recommending removing the MSDs. The Committee directed planning staff to do a larger public consultation and report back in April 2014. We will continue to work on this issue.

New guide promotes room for everyone

Some of the promising steps North Bay and Waterloo are taking have been included in our guide, Room for everyone: Human rights and rental housing licensing. This guide is designed to help municipalities make the connection between housing licensing and human rights, and includes advice on steps that can advance human rights and steps to avoid. The guide was distributed to every Ontario municipality, planning schools, colleges and universities, housing advocates, and to housing organizations.

We also released a Neighbourhood housing tip sheet, which offers municipal politicians and planners ways to answer questions that arise from community opposition to affordable housing.

Housing and human rights: Intervening in Tanudjaja et al. v. The Attorney General of Canada et al

Four people and the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation filed an application against the Attorney General of Canada and the Attorney General of Ontario in 2011. The application alleged that Canada and Ontario had violated their rights under sections 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by creating and maintaining conditions that lead to and sustain homelessness and inadequate housing.

The Attorneys General filed a motion to strike (a request that the court not hear the case on its merits because it has no reasonable prospect of success) and were successful. The applicants appealed to the Court of Appeal, and the OHRC, along with seven other groups, sought leave to intervene in the appeal. We successfully argued that we could assist the court in its interpretation of section 15 of the Charter, with regard to intersecting grounds, contextual factors, and adverse effects leading to discrimination.

The case will be heard in May 2014.

Making recommendations on provincial land use planning and appeals

In January 2014, we made a submission to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing Land Use Planning and Appeal System Review. We recommended that in communications with municipalities and regions, the Ministry should provide guidance on:

  • the relationship between the Human Rights Code, the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) and municipal planning and regulatory tools such as official plans and zoning and licensing bylaws
  • when minimum separation distances are, and are not, appropriate, based on legitimate land-use rationales rather than “people-zoning”
  • the implications of various legal decisions (including OMB decisions such as Lynwood-Charlton v. Hamilton) with recommendations for municipal amendments to plans or bylaws
  • how updating regional/municipal plans can increase inclusion, reduce discrimination, and help to avoid litigation.

We also recommended:

  • advising municipalities of zoning limitations and planning practices that appear to be inconsistent with the Human Rights Code or legitimate planning rationales, recommending that municipalities end such practices, and setting out questions for municipalities in considering the issues.
  • make sure that the planning system has the capacity to hear and address any human rights matter raised concerning official plans and bylaws
  • actively seek input from affected tenants, their advocates, and the organizations that serve them, to ensure they are included in planning processes
  • advise municipalities to include human rights statements on public notices for statutory public meetings
  • direct municipalities to: 
    • communicate to their staff, decision-makers and the public that human rights will be respected in the planning process 
    • consider how proposed changes or projects may affect people based on Code grounds 
    • provide realistic framing of what community engagement is, and is not meant to do, including stating that community input does not include choosing who will or will not live in a neighbourhood.

Working with municipalities, partners, planners on zoning, licensing

We worked with other municipalities on zoning and licensing issues, including:

City of Guelph

  • providing advice through its research and planning processes as it considers a rental housing licensing bylaw. 

City of Ajax

  • reviewing and making a submission on the City’s proposed Lodging House Licensing Bylaw and the associated Proposed Zoning Bylaw Amendment. We generally supported the City’s consideration of human rights, but noted concerns about parking requirements, police record check requirements and potential zoning restrictions.

Town of Greater Napanee

  • we intervened at the HRTO in the case of a group home that was not being provided with the permit from the Town that it needed. In a settlement, the Town issued the required permit and agreed to consult with us and review its zoning bylaws to ensure they do not discriminate.

We have also contacted the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, to seek opportunities to integrate human rights into professional development and ongoing education for planners. And we are involved in preliminary discussions with a planning school to include human rights in the standard university planning curriculum.

Co-owned housing – new options, new human rights issues

We wrote in March 2014 to the Township of Scugog, which was considering zoning bylaw changes that would effectively remove the option for multiple “tenant-incommon” housing. This form of co-owned housing may be important for certain groups, such as older Ontarians and persons with disabilities, regardless of their family and/or marital status.

Under the co-ownership model, a group of seniors (or other people with shared needs) buys into a house, and each co-owner becomes part of the household. The household jointly decides on hiring services such as maintenance, cleaning, attendant care, or anything else that will help the collective continue to live independently in the community.

After looking at the human rights concerns, the Township removed references to a new “communal dwellings” zoning category, and eliminated most of our human rights concerns.

This year in history

Realizing rights in rental housing 

In July 2008, the OHRC released Right at Home: Report on the consultation on human rights and rental housing in OntarioWe followed this up in October 2010 by launching our Policy on human rights and rental housing. This was the first extensive policy on human rights and housing in Canada.

Both the report and the policy were often met with scepticism, as municipalities, planners, housing providers and other groups were not used to considering human rights when making housing decisions. But through much hard work challenging “the way we have always done things,” the OHRC and its partners have changed the housing landscape. Now, it is routine for a municipal politician to ask about human rights implications, or for planners to call us for advice when working on new bylaws and regulations, or for tenants to know that the Human Rights Code protects them in the place they call home.

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