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I. Introduction

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The international community has long recognized that housing is a fundamental and universal human right that must be protected in law. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[3] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the ICESCR)[4] recognize the right to housing.[5] Other international treaties that have affirmed the right to housing include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Canada has ratified all of these treaties, and in doing so, has endorsed the view that housing is a human right. The challenge for Canada is to make these high-level principles a lived reality for Canadians. Human rights bodies across Canada play a key role in making this happen. In Ontario, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (the OHRC) has a special responsibility to help Canada fulfill its international human rights commitments. In this Policy, the OHRC brings the principles contained in international covenants into communities and homes across Ontario. By looking at the factors that can cause discrimination in creating, finding and maintaining rental housing, this Policy is a major step towards making international rights lived rights for all Ontarians.

Affordable, adequate housing is a necessity for everyone in Ontario. There is an undeniable link between affordable and adequate housing and quality of life. Housing provides the foundation for interacting with the broader community and for general well-being and social inclusion. Adequate housing facilitates access to suitable employment, community resources and supports, and educational opportunities for all Ontarians.

Ontario is one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world. Yet, many Ontarians do not have access to adequate and affordable housing. It is even more troubling that 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 2006, the United Nations referred to homelessness in Canada as “a national emergency.”[6] 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.”[7]

There appear to be several reasons for the dire state of the housing situation in Canada, including a severe shortage of a range of forms of adequate and affordable housing[8], low social assistance and minimum wage rates, and the discriminatory practices of some housing providers.

While many landlords and housing providers in Ontario take their human rights responsibilities seriously, the OHRC has been hearing for some time that human rights violations are taking place in some residential tenancy arrangements. In addition to informal reports from community groups and individuals, numerous incidents and practices have led to formal human rights claims being filed. Also, in its own consultations on age discrimination[9] and discrimination based on family status[10], the OHRC heard about specific human rights issues that arise in rental housing based on these grounds.

As a result, the OHRC decided to do a formal public consultation to more fully explore discrimination issues in rental housing.[11] To this end, in May 2007, the OHRC released a background paper entitled Human Rights and Rental Housing in Ontario.[12] This paper relied on legal research, social science findings, and Canada’s international human rights obligations to set out a framework for discussing discrimination in rental housing. The OHRC later released a consultation paper[13] that asked the public for input on specific human rights issues that arise in rental housing.

In the summer and fall of 2007, the OHRC held its public consultation. Almost 130 organizations and over 100 individuals took part in meetings across the province. The OHRC also received more than 60 formal submissions, and over 100 people wrote in or completed an on-line survey. In July 2008, the OHRC released a consultation report entitled, Right at Home: Report on the Consultation on Human Rights and Rental Housing in Ontario, which reported on the feedback it received through its consultation. The report also made recommendations to responsible parties for addressing discrimination in rental housing, and included OHRC commitments.[14]

The analysis and examples used in this Policy are based on the OHRC’s research on discrimination in rental housing, international standards, human rights claims that have come before the OHRC and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, court decisions, and the extensive input of individuals and organizations throughout the OHRC’s consultation process.[15]

The Policy sets out the OHRC’s position on discrimination in the area of rental housing as it relates to the provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code), and to Canada’s international human rights obligations. It deals primarily with issues that fall within the Code and could be the subject of a human rights claim. At the same time, the Policy interprets the protections of the Code in a broad and purposive manner. This approach is consistent with the principle that the Code’s quasi-constitutional status requires that it be given a liberal interpretation that best ensures its anti-discriminatory goals are reached.

OHRC policy statements contribute to creating a culture of human rights in Ontario. The Policy is intended to help the public understand the Code protections against discrimination and harassment in the area of rental housing. It is also meant to help individuals, housing providers, policy-makers, decision-makers, where appropriate, and other pertinent organizations to understand their responsibilities and act appropriately to ensure compliance with the Code.

In addition to the Policy, the OHRC will continue with promotion and advancement initiatives to address systemic discrimination in housing. At the same time, the OHRC recognizes that effective solutions to the problems that exist in housing in Ontario will come only with the joint efforts and cooperation of multiple partners. This Policy is intended to be part of a coordinated effort on the part of the OHRC, government, decision-makers, community partners, policy-makers and housing providers to improve equal access to adequate and affordable housing for all Ontarians.

[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed Dec. 10, 1948, G.A. Res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948).
[4] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (1976) 993 U.N.T.S. 3, Can. T.S. 1976 No. 46.
[5] The United Nations General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The ICESCR was adopted by the United Nations in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. Canada ratified the ICESCR in 1976.
[6] See “Canada’s Poor Face ‘Emergency’: UN” The Toronto Star (May 23, 2006), that reported that the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights again criticized Canada in its 2006 Annual Report for its inaccessible employment insurance program, its meagre minimum wages, and the fact that it has let homelessness and inadequate housing amount to a “national emergency.”
[7] 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.
[8] Steps have been taken in recent years to address housing supply. For example, in March 2009, the provincial government announced it would invest $620 million to match federal funds under the Canada/Ontario Affordable Housing Agreement, to renovate 50,000 social housing units and build 4,500 affordable housing units, with housing for seniors and people with disabilities as priorities. At the time of publication, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is holding consultations to assist in the development of a long-term affordable housing strategy, as part of the Government of Ontario’s broader Poverty Reduction Strategy.
[9] The OHRC’s 2001 report, Time for Action: Advancing Human Rights for Older Ontarians, outlines housing issues that affect older Ontarians:
[10] In 2007, the OHRC released The Cost of Caring, a consultation report that reported the feedback received from participants in the family status consultation, and included information relating to discriminatory practices in the housing sector:
[11] While the Code protects against discrimination in a broad range of situations relating to housing, this Policy, like the OHRC’s housing consultation, will focus on residential tenancies, or rental housing arrangements. Social housing and not-for-profit co-operative housing arrangements are included within this definition. Housing studies show that people who live in rental housing are people, typically, who have lower incomes and who are disproportionately vulnerable to discrimination and therefore identified by the Code. As such, the Policy does not cover discrimination in purchasing property or negotiating mortgages, for example, or, human rights issues that affect owners in condominium living arrangements, such as discriminatory restrictions on the use of shared spaces. However, such practices would also constitute violations of the Code, and a housing or service provider who engages in these behaviours is vulnerable to having a human rights claim filed against it.
[12] The OHRC’s background paper on discrimination in rental housing is available at:
[13] The OHRC’s consultation paper on discrimination in rental housing is available at:
[14] The OHRC’s housing consultation report, Right at Home, is available at:
[15] For a full understanding of how the OHRC arrived at the positions it takes in this Policy, this Policy should be read together with the documents referenced above.

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