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Report on the inquiry into rental housing licensing in the City of North Bay

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1. Summary

The City of North Bay’s rental housing licensing bylaw was enacted on January 1, 2012 and came into effect on May 1, 2012. Among other things, this bylaw imposed a bedroom cap, gross floor area requirements and a licensing fee on certain rental units.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) was concerned that the bylaw might reduce the availability of low-cost rental housing and in turn disadvantage groups protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code) who rely on that housing. As a result, the OHRC initiated an inquiry to learn more.

During the inquiry, North Bay residents reported a number of concerns to the OHRC, including:

  • Students felt targeted by the bylaw and the process involved (including at a public meeting about the bylaw, and because it was rolled out into student areas first).
  • The gross floor area requirement, bedroom cap and costs associated with licensing may reduce availability of housing for students, large families and other people protected by the Code.
  • The City’s bylaw exemption process may discriminate against people who are not living as a “traditional family.”

The OHRC investigated these and other issues throughout the inquiry, and raised its concerns with the City.

With respect to public meetings and rolling out the bylaw, the City said:

  • It will continue to ensure that it sets ground rules before holding public meetings, where people are clearly informed about the purpose of the meeting and understand that discriminatory comments will not be tolerated.
  • It has fixed a schedule for rolling out the bylaw across the city in stages over an estimated four-year period, to manage administrative challenges.
  • The roll-out will begin in areas where the most complaints were received.

With respect to reduced availability of rental housing for Code-protected groups, the City confirmed:

  • The gross floor area requirement does not apply to the entire building. While only 40% of basement and main floor areas can be bedrooms, 100% of upper floors can be bedrooms.
  • The City instituted a licensing fee that achieved “less than 100% cost recovery” in an attempt to mitigate hardship experienced as a result of the bylaw.

The City also confirmed that where the bylaw states:

9.1 The City of North Bay may authorize variances from this By-law with respect to the number of Bedrooms if:

9.1.1 in the opinion of the City the general intent and purpose of this By-law are maintained; and

9.1.2 the single detached dwelling was originally constructed to contain more than the maximum number of bedrooms as permitted by this By-law

It means that:

  • The bylaw enables property owners to apply for a variance from the five-bedroom cap if their building was “originally constructed” to contain more than five bedrooms
  • The bylaw enables property owners to apply for a variance from the 40% gross floor area requirement (on ground and lower levels) if their building was “originally constructed” to contain more than 40% of floor area for bedrooms on those levels.

Some rental units are exempt from the bylaw. There is a perception in the community that exemptions are not granted to student-occupied units and are only available to units occupied by “families.” The City explained to the OHRC that exemptions are based on the number of people in the rental unit who pay rent – and not on whether any of those people are related. Later correspondence from a City official to a landlord indicated that exemptions would be granted to properties rented to “traditional families.”

With respect to additional concerns raised by the OHRC, the City said:

  • In cases where a rental unit is closed because of the bylaw, the City “is reasonable with respect to the time it takes to find alternate housing (if necessary) and would only require immediate removal in the case of serious life safety issues.”
  • “The City enforces matters (such as compliance with this By-law) with the property owner. The tenants would only be the subject of enforcement action where appropriate (e.g. noise infraction).”
  • The City will provide landlords with information about their responsibilities under the Code, and the City will add this information to its website.
  • The City has and will continue to “educate the public regarding this By-law using whatever means are appropriate and relevant,” and it “continues to educate the public that the By-law does not strictly apply to ‘student rentals.’”
  • The City will monitor and evaluate the bylaw on an ongoing basis.

In considering whether North Bay’s licensing bylaw appears to be discriminatory, the OHRC examined whether:

  1. Elements of the rental housing licensing regime create a distinction that causes someone to be disadvantaged; and
  2. The disadvantage occurs because of that person’s association with a Code ground.

The bylaw grants exemptions based on the number of people paying rent. This focuses on people rather than buildings, and will be discriminatory in some cases. The City should eliminate this distinction to ensure compliance with the Code.

If one City official’s correspondence (indicating that “traditional families” will be granted an exemption) reflects the City’s exemption application process, then that process is discriminatory and the City should change the process to ensure compliance with the Code.

From the information we obtained during the inquiry, it does not appear that other aspects of the bylaw are discriminatory.

The OHRC commends the City for its promising practices (some of which are highlighted in the OHRC’s Room for everyone: Human rights and rental housing licensing guide). Recommendations are included later in this report.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

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