Building on a 50-year legacy: human rights and housing

Housing in the news

When discussing a bill to prohibit discrimination in housing, Liberal leader John Wintermeyer said the bill didn’t go far enough, because it only applied to rental housing with more than six units.

“We are in no way interfering with the rights of individuals to choose their own friends and operate their own homes as they see fit,” said Premier Leslie Frost.

Reginal Gisborn (CCF) hoped that this was only the beginning in promoting equal opportunity in housing accommodation.

Source: The Globe and Mail, March 2, 1961

Since the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s beginnings in 1961, we have had a mandate to remove the many discriminatory barriers that prevent people from getting the housing they need. Over time, as the OHRC has evolved, so have the barriers.

In 1961, the Commission saw much overt racism. People were routinely denied housing because of race or religion. Daniel G. Hill, the head of Ontario’s first Human Rights Commission, got involved in human rights after experiencing discrimination both in the United States and Canada – he knew first-hand how it felt to face racism in the search for a place to live.

Hill had done something almost unheard of – he was a Black man who married a White woman. He had to have his wife bring a white friend with her to rent their first apartment in Toronto, and routinely faced different treatment because his family did not fit the accepted “norm.” It took weeks after moving in before the Hills could get a formal lease. As his wife, Donna Hill, recounted years later, “The landlords watched Dan and me for six weeks or so and decided we weren't going to cause any horrible problems for them and finally let us sign a lease for about $80 a month plus parking.”

Individual cases continue to arise today, and we have just developed new education tools to help tenants understand their rights and the remedies available to them. We have also created resources for landlords, to help them understand their responsibilities under the Code.

After major consultations, we have focused on factors that affect the supply of housing, such as zoning and rental housing licensing bylaws. Key issues seem to recur again and again across Ontario including:

  • Minimum separation distance requirements – rules that can unfairly limit some types of housing in an area
  • Caps on the number of bedrooms in rental housing, which could limit housing options for larger families and different family types, students and other people who identify under Code grounds
  • Bylaws that are not applied consistently across a municipality – this differential treatment could be seen as discrimination, especially when bylaws target only student housing areas
  • Basing bylaws on behaviour rather than land-use issues.

Many municipalities have had such provisions in place for years and may not even realize their potential to discriminate. When we first began raising these issues, we were met with, at best, surprise and at worst, hostility. This is nothing new – there is often resistance when challenging “what we’ve always done in the past” to advance human rights.

We have not been successful on every housing issue. But we are making solid progress. Since we began to focus on housing issues in 2007, we have gained new acceptance for our position – and the view of the United Nations – that housing is a human right. There are now decisions at the Tribunal and the OMB that help support the changes we want to make. And we’re starting to see municipalities wanting us to work with them on housing issues.

Talking to Toronto about zoning

In August 2010, we made a written submission and Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall spoke to the City of Toronto Planning and Growth Management Committee about Toronto’s Draft Zoning Bylaw. We continued to have concerns that parts of the bylaw could contravene the Human Rights Code.

Our biggest concern was the minimum separation distance of 250 metres between one group or residential care home and another. We were also concerned about the City’s plans to put off dealing with the human rights issues until a later date. Under the Code, organizations and governments, like Toronto, have a duty to deal with human rights issues when they arise, not at some unspecified later date.

Toronto Council ultimately passed the bylaw without dealing with our human rights concerns, and we are reviewing the legal options available to us.

Stepping in at the Tribunal

Once Toronto’s zoning bylaw was passed, the OHRC intervened in an application against the City at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. Other parties in this case are the Dream Team (an organization led by psychiatric consumer survivors) the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO) and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

We are also intervening in Tribunal cases with the same partners and issues against the cities of Smiths Falls and Kitchener. A fourth city, Sarnia, was also originally named, but has since made a commitment to change its bylaws to reflect its human rights responsibilities. We commend Sarnia for the solid leadership it is showing in this area.

The cases with Smiths Falls and Kitchener are currently at the mediation stage, while the Toronto case is pending.

Working on Waterloo rental housing licensing

Over the past few months, staff of the City of Waterloo have worked extensively with the OHRC to create a rental housing licensing by-law that meets the City’s operational needs while respecting and advancing the human rights of tenants. While some elements can be seen as best practices, we still have concerns about this bylaw.

Our concerns include the cap on bedrooms, the use of demographic data in an inaccurate way, and bedroom size requirements that exceed those in the Building Code and could effectively limit how many people can live in a housing unit.

There is still work to be done to make sure this bylaw focuses on helping people get the quality of housing they need, instead of telling them they may not be welcome in Waterloo.

Protecting housing options at the OMB

The OHRC has asked to be involved as a party in an OMB appeal of the City of Guelph’s rental housing licensing bylaw. We believe elements of this bylaw contravene the Ontario Human Rights Code, by limiting the rental housing options for many people who identify under Code grounds. In fact, this bylaw has the potential to move beyond limiting – it could actually reduce the amount of housing available to Guelph’s most vulnerable residents.

Taking it to a higher systemic level – working with the Province of Ontario

We are involved with several systemic cases against municipalities, but we want to change the rules that make discriminatory bylaws possible. The best way to do this is to work with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to clarify the human rights responsibilities of municipalities as they draft bylaws.

Part of our work here involved a submission in October 2010 to the province-wide consultation on the Provincial Policy Statement 2005 (PPS). The PPS gives policy direction on matters of provincial interest related to land use planning and development.

Under the Planning Act, all decisions made by municipalities and other planning authorities affecting land use planning must be consistent with the PPS – which makes it a valuable tool for building in human rights principles. If it integrates human rights and considers the Ontario Human Rights Code, it can bring progressive action on ensuring accessible, healthy, affordable and equitable housing across Ontario.

In our submission, we asked for revisions that would integrate human rights, and recommended ways the PPS could include requirements for preventing and removing discriminatory land-use barriers.

In the spring of 2011, we also made a submission on Bill 140, the Strong Communities through Affordable Housing Act, 2011. While the bill is receiving general support, we are concerned that it does not explicitly connect human rights requirements, and does not deal with the very long waiting lists for a limited supply of affordable housing in Ontario.

It is vital that Ontario recognizes housing as a human right and a matter of provincial and national interest for some compelling reasons – the international community recognizes housing as a human right, housing is protected under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, and the people most in need of affordable housing are likely to be the same people who the Code aims to protect.

We also voiced our support for other amendments proposed by the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, the Social Rights Advocacy Centre, the Housing Network of Ontario, the Ontario Municipal Social Services Association, March of Dimes Canada and the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association, among others. These organizations all suggested amendments consistent with our 2008 consultation report, Right at Home, our 2009 Policy on Human Rights and Rental Housing, and our comments on the PPS discussed earlier.

Seventeen years ago, in 1944, this legislature enacted The Racial Discrimination Act, making it an offence to publish or display any notice, sign, symbol or other representation expressing racial or religious discrimination.

That was the first [anti-discrimination] Act passed in this Legislature. As a matter of fact, it was passed and introduced here with some fear and misgivings; but I ask you today, Mr. Speaker, who would repeal that Act which we faced with some fears 17 years ago? - Hon. Leslie Frost in the Ontario Legislature, February 14, 1961

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