All posts by John

Another National Housing Day

It’s November 22nd, 2012. Another National Housing Day.

What do we have to show for it?

We have a federal government that continues to ignore calls for a national housing strategy and that, other than the odd stimulus blip, invests less and less in housing and homelessness programs. Don’t believe what they say about “belt tightening” and sacrifice. The money is there. It’s all about priorities.

We have a provincial government (Ontario) that has a “long term affordable housing strategy” that is free of substance and commitments, and that refuses to set social assistance benefits or the minimum wage at levels that would allow people to afford a good place to live. It is also about to cut a critical social assistance benefit that helps thousands of low income individuals and families get and keep their homes. Yes, Ontario’s finances were hit hard by the recession, but the money is there. Once again, it’s a question of priorities.

We have municipalities that are increasingly responsible for housing needs and associated costs that they are not financially equipped to address – all because higher levels of government refuse to live up to their responsibilities.

We have three levels of government that refuse to take seriously the human right to housing.

Happy National Housing Day.

What can we do about housing discrimination?

Over the past few months, CERA, the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario and COSTI Immigrant Services have been holding housing rights workshops for front line workers that provide housing assistance for recent immigrants and refugees.

We provided a session in Ottawa in October, Toronto in November and London in December. We’ll be holding our fourth and final session in Windsor later this month.

I’m responsible for the segment dealing with housing and the Human Rights Code and, invariably, I’ll see many people nodding their heads during the discussion of the different types of discrimination. Being refused an apartment because your income is “too low”, you have no Canadian credit or references or you have “too many” children, or being required to pay six or twelve months rent in advance is old news for these community workers. It’s what many of their clients experience when applying for an apartment.

Shortly after I see the heads nodding, a hand goes up. The participant asks, “What can we do?”

This is the most difficult question I have to deal with in any workshop. It’s easy to describe the law. The challenging part is making it work for vulnerable households.

Ontario has a human rights enforcement system, but the vast majority of people experiencing housing discrimination do not access it. Many are not aware of their legal rights or the mechanism for enforcing them. Those that are frequently don’t have the resources or time to file a formal human rights application and take it through the Tribunal process – a process which will, in any event, not get them the apartment they were denied. The proof is in the numbers: despite evidence of widespread housing discrimination, housing cases make up less than 6% of all human rights applications filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

In most cases, a person who experiences housing discrimination will just move on to the next apartment ad, try again and, often, be refused again.

During my workshop, I tell these community workers that they or their clients can call CERA and we will advocate with the landlord. The reality, however, is that CERA is a very small organization and we receive no funding to provide human rights advocacy services (we’ve only received dribs and drabs since 1995). Our services are provided almost entirely by volunteers and this limits what we can do.

I can also tell them to contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, but in most cases the intake process at the HRLSC is too long for any advocacy to start before the apartment has been rented. And few community legal clinics provide direct advocacy services related to housing discrimination.

Even if a person can access advocacy services, will anyone follow-up with the landlord to ensure the discrimination doesn’t happen in the future? No.

To effectively tackle housing discrimination, Ontario needs an enforcement process that recognizes the importance of early intervention and monitoring – where housing providers are monitored for compliance with the law and where community and legal workers can be ready to advocate with landlords immediately after discrimination has occurred. A system that focuses entirely on formal complaints, as ours does, will be needlessly expensive and will not respond to the needs of the thousands of recent immigrants and refugees, Aboriginal People and members of racialized communities, youth, people with disabilities, lone parent families, people living on low incomes and other disadvantaged individuals and families who experience housing discrimination.

It will not respond to the needs of Ontario’s most vulnerable residents – because that is who experiences rental housing discrimination.

Roomers’ (Non)Rights

If you rent a room in someone’s home and share the kitchen or bathroom with the owner or the owner’s family, you aren’t protected under the Human Rights Code (you aren’t protected under the Residential Tenancies Act either, but that’s a discussion for another blog). It’s a very precarious type of housing.

This exception under the Code has always troubled us at CERA. “Rooming” situations are typically the most affordable type of housing in any community and are often the only option for particularly vulnerable households such as youth, people with disabilities, refugees and recent immigrants, and others living on very low incomes. Because of this exception, these equality-seeking communities are left with few housing rights.

It’s not clear to me what the rationale is behind this exception – it always seems to be presented as a truism, that “it’s just the way it is.” Possibly, it stems from an assumption that once you share a kitchen or bathroom you are part of a private household. Governments don’t want to be seen to be prying too far into the business of private households.

Private household or not, do we think it is acceptable that a landlord can publicly advertise a room for rent and then freely refuse to accept someone because they are Muslim, Black, have a disability, etc.?

Unfortunately, this is a pretty fundamental exception in human rights law, with most provinces and territories having similar exclusions. It will take a lot of pressure to get governments to move on this. But it is possible. In the past this exception was even broader – applying to buildings with six or fewer units – so we’ve already moved some distance.

And, while widespread, this exception isn’t universal: New Brunswick does not limit its human rights protections in this way. Instead, the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission clarifies that there may be circumstances where it would be reasonable for a landlord to restrict access to a room in a way that appears discriminatory. Where the requirement is a Bona Fide Qualification, or “BFQ”, it could be permissible. The Commission uses the example of a single woman renting out a room in her home who may only want to rent to another woman. (Ontario already permits landlords to restrict occupancy by sex, so this would be allowed without resorting to the concept of a bona fide qualification).

The BFQ defence isn’t unique to New Brunswick – it is a principal of human rights law across Canada. If roomers were brought under the protections of Ontario’s Human Rights Code, landlords could still potentially make use of this defence.

So what is the Government of Ontario afraid of? It’s time to change the law.

The State of Human Rights Enforcement in Ontario

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario recently released its 2009-2010 annual report and, not surprisingly, it contains both good and bad news.

Let’s start with the good news.

People are using the human rights system. In 2009-2010 3,551 applications were filed with the Tribunal. Three years ago, the corresponding number was just over 2,300. This could be related to a few things. The human rights enforcement in Ontario was dramatically overhauled in 2008 to address a variety of problems with the system. There is a widespread perception (consistent with CERA’s experience) that the new system gives applicants faster results. The new system, therefore, may be more attractive to potential applicants. It may also reflect the fact that there is less pre-screening, or “gate-keeping,” of potential applications than there was under the previous system.

Almost 70% of Tribunal mediations resulted in a settlement being reached. For most cases, settling at mediation is a good thing. It gives an applicant the opportunity to craft his/her own resolution and requires much less time, stress and expense than going to a hearing. Overall, CERA’s clients have had good experiences at mediation. For the most part, Tribunal mediators have been very helpful, educating the parties on the Code and helping them understand the strengths and weaknesses of their cases.

Things are moving faster: In 2009-2010, 95% of the applications where resolved within one year of acceptance, with the average period being a little over 6 months. In 2006-2007, under the old system, the average period was 14.6 months. However, the active caseload of Tribunal is increasing, so timeframes may increase in the future.

And now for the bad news.

Housing case still make up a misleadingly small percentage of all applications filed – less than 6% in 2009/2010. There are probably many reasons for this, including the nature of human rights remedies (in most cases, filing a complaint is not going to help you get the apartment you were denied) and the particularly disadvantaged position of most victims of housing discrimination (low income renters, youth, recent immigrants and refugees, people receiving social assistance, etc.). There needs to be better supports for people who have experienced housing discrimination and who wish to file a complaint.

Less than 30% of applicants were represented when they filed an application with the Tribunal. While the Tribunal has done a lot to make the human rights enforcement process more accessible, this is still a legal process that is difficult to navigate without support. Applicants need assistance.

The wait for mediation is too long. This actually isn’t discussed in the annual report, but I’m going to raise it here. Three to four months from filing an application to mediation would probably be a reasonable timeframe. For our clients, the wait is about double this – and not much different from the wait for early mediation under the previous, “slower” system. This is just too long.

17% of decisions by the Tribunal were “dismissals on a preliminary basis” and the annual report provides no details regarding the basis for these dismissals. While this statistic presumably does not factor in the cases that were settled at mediation, it is a significant number and deserves clarification.

This is an important annual report for the Tribunal as it is the first to cover a full year under the new system. From the report and CERA’s experience using the system over the past year, it is clear that many things are working well. People are filing applications, things are moving relatively quickly, and the mediation process is largely effective. But there is still much that the Tribunal and the Ministry of the Attorney General can do to ensure that Ontarians have a truly effective and accessible human rights system.

Helping Hoarders

Here at the Eviction Prevention desk we know the hardest cases involve hoarders.  But we didn’t know just how hard they can be.  Two recent cases have shown us the limits of our small organization when it comes to helping combat a very large problem.

In both instances, the clients were long-term tenants of subsidized units.  They were in their mid-50s, with significant mental health issues.  The state of their apartments was almost unlivable.  Their landlords, however, were very accommodating and gave CERA ample time to work with our clients.  We spent months building rapport, discussing options, connecting to other support services.  We really felt we could help our clients clean up their apartments and prevent eviction.

We failed.

Why?  The mind of a hoarder is strange terrain.  Unlike tenants facing arrears, the hoarder often does not see the scope of their problem; even when faced with eviction, they will deny a need to change.  CERA staff were overwhelmed.  We spoke daily with clients, but also tried to co-ordinate property managers, lawyers, extreme cleaners and occupational therapists.  In the end we failed primarily because of our clients’ resistance, but it also became clear that only a more fully-organized response would help the most extreme clients.  What we need is a multi-disciplinary team armed with a consistent city-wide plan that encompasses all aspects of the hoarder’s problem, from initial resistance to possible relapse.  Perhaps this is pie-in-the-sky thinking, especially in the current political climate, but a small initial investment in capital and ideas could payoff big time for tenants, landlords and city services alike.

Stereotyping can go both ways

At CERA, we often see landlords at their worst. Those brought to our attention are typically not landlords that are doing a great job, but those that are potentially violating the Human Rights Code. When we speak to them it is usually because they have (allegedly) discriminated against one of our clients. After 25 years of responding to discrimination complaints, CERA has developed a pretty one-sided view of the rental housing sector.

It’s nice, then, when we can get beyond our own prejudices.

Over the past few months, CERA staff and volunteers have been scanning ads in Kijiji and Craigslist to educate landlords whose ads indicate that they may be violating the Code (see “Kijiji – stop promoting housing discrimination“). We’ve been picking out ads that say things like, “looking for a professional single or couple,” “seeking mature, quiet individual,” “proof of employment required” or “no kids” and either calling or e-mailing the posters to educate them on the Code and its prohibitions against discrimination directed at families with children, young people, people receiving social assistance, etc.

When we started, we weren’t sure how this outreach would be greeted. Would the landlords hang up on us, yell at us to mind our own business, tell us that they can rent to whomever they want?

We’ve heard all of these things, though more often the landlords have been open to our calls. Most have said they didn’t realize their rental requirements or “preferences” were potentially discriminatory and have been quick to change their ads. Many have also wanted us to forward additional information on CERA and the Code. With most of the landlords, there appears to be a genuine interest in understanding the Code and how it applies to their rental property. And most haven’t been professional landlords (i.e. landlords that should “know better”) – they’re just people renting out apartments in their homes.

CERA counsels others not to generalize or make decisions based on assumptions. When it comes to landlords, it appears that we haven’t always followed our own advice.

Trying to find environmentally safe housing

These are the experiences of one of our clients, Jane, who lives with environmental sensitivities and has been struggling to find safe housing.

If you are one of the few Ontarians that doesn’t have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) or doesn’t have a relative, a friend, a co-worker, who has MCS then please read on. If you are one of the more than a quarter of a million Ontarians who have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (217,000 in 2005, Statistics Canada), also known as Environmental Sensitivities (ES), a human rights disability, then you know how desperately important healthy, safe housing is to improving your health, to making life livable.

I had no idea that when I started experiencing increasing migraines, sudden weight gain, rashes, coughing, IBS, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and other symptoms at work, that I was developing MCS/ES. Very small amounts of chemicals found in fabric softener, air freshener, perfume, scented personal care products, detergents, pesticides and more, were toxic to my body — chemically injuring the organs of my body. At first, I would be fine when I returned home, but over many months, the exposures to chemicals caused chronic MCS/ES and my home was no longer safe. I needed, what is known in human rights as ’a scent-free/chemical avoidance’ environment. And so I began the search for safe housing.

My first attempt was completely unsuccessful, mainly because it takes a great deal of research to know what is safe and what is not safe. I can tell you now that living near ‘brownfield’ remediation is not safe, living near a major street or highway is not safe; neighbours using fabric softener, detergents like Tide or Gain and venting these chemicals out of hot dryers; pesticide use in the neighbourhood, industry, rail lines and gas stations nearby; and the list goes on. Also, the house, itself, was not safe. Air freshener residue is very hard, if not impossible, to remove; products such as laminate and carpets ‘off-gas’; mold can make life impossible; and, again, the list goes on.

My last attempt at safe housing seemed to be almost perfect: wood floors, no scented products used for cleaning, radiant heat, no laundry exhaust near my unit from neighbours, no industry, and lots of trees. However, I had forgotten the most important thing of all: “For people with environmental sensitivities, their health . . . rests with the actions of others. . . .” [Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities, 2007] When I asked for accommodation for my disability, some residents were very co-operative, but some were not — there was discrimination, reprisals, threats, and lots of chemical injury (e.g. cologne worn in the hallway by those who never used it before; cleaning the carpets in the halls chemically instead of using steam cleaning; cleaning common areas with ‘green’ scented products instead of the vinegar and water used before; running a truck motor under my window).

I foolishly assumed that people would understand that the environment is healthier for everyone when it is chemical-free: better for those with asthma, cancer, and respiratory disease; better for babies and children (studies show that the use of air fresheners causes new moms to be more depressed and babies to have stomach and other problems), the frail, the elderly.

I shared information available on MCS/ES, toxic chemicals, safe products: CERA (Multi-unit buildings and accommodating MCS), Canadian Human Rights Commission (policy and two papers on ES), The Environmental Working Group www.ewg.org on product safety, www.lesstoxicguide.ca on products, and many more. The Ontario Human Rights Commission recognizes MCS/ES as a non-evident disability. And The Standards for Customer Service, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, provides for accessibility for all disabilities in buildings with at least one employee, starting January 2012.

However, knowing you have a right to accessibility is very different from being able to get that accessibility, especially when you are dependent on people‘s good will and you have no guarantee that the future will not bring new chemical injuries. After many months of sharing information on MCS/ES, letter writing, record keeping (very important!), taking legal action, it became evident that this was going to be an on-going struggle in a ‘toxic’ environment, both chemical and emotional.

I will be moving once again, hopefully to a kinder, safer environment. And this is the struggle for most people disabled with ES/MCS: finding a safe oasis from a ‘chemically charged‘ world and finding understanding. Attitudes will change over time, just as they changed in relation to cigarettes and smoking. When people realize that they or their loved ones are suffering unnecessarily from chemical exposures, they change. Of course, that doesn’t help the thousands of people with MCS/ES that need healthy housing today — but, if each of us does our part to use only safe products, to spread the word about MCS/ES, to make our homes healthy indoor spaces with good air quality, then our environment, our homes, can become safer for those with MCS/ES, safer for all.

Kijiji – stop promoting housing discrimination

Over the past few weeks, CERA volunteers have been scanning rental housing ads in Kijij to pro-actively reach out and provide human rights education to landlords who might be violating the Code.

The volunteers have been busy.

They have found dozens of ads – some blatantly discriminatory, others which may not explicitly discriminate, but which are still problematic.

Some of the more obvious examples:

“Require…permanent employment.”

“No children”

“Suitable for mature, working individual”

“Basement apartment for couple/employee”

“You must have a steady full time job”

“Applicants over 40 years old only”

“Professionals only please”

“No government assistance of any kind”

Other ads were less obvious, but still communicated to young people, people receiving social assistance, families with children and other groups protected under the Code that they are either not welcome and will not be treated equally if they choose to apply:

“A professional single or couple welcome!”

“Perfect for couple and young professionals”

“Best place for a single working person”

“Ideal for senior person or couple”

“Perfect for a retired couple”

Unlike rental ads in Viewit.ca, Renters News and most large newspapers, ads in Kijiji and other online “want ads” such as Craigslist, are not screened. As a result, exclusionary wording is common-place. While both Kijiji and Craigslist have mechanisms for reporting problematic ads, they do not make it clear to posters that they must abide by the Human Rights Code.

Kijiji and other free online classifieds need to start being pro-active in promoting human rights and removing discriminatory ads. There are many options they investigate – directly monitoring and removing ads, posting information on the Code, or adding discrimination as a reason for reporting an ad.

It’s time Kijiji and other online classifieds realized that they can play a significant role in promoting housing equality – or inequality.

One Family’s Experience

CERA recently received an e-mail from a woman who is trying to find an apartment with her husband and baby. We were struck by how clearly and powerfully she described the discrimination commonly faced by families, newcomers to Canada, and low income people. We asked her if we could post it on our website.

“My husband and I are newcomers to Canada and we have a 5 month baby…We have been looking for a place to live. When we first got here we where receiving assistance and the only place we could get was a bachelor basement. I got pregnant and now we have a baby growing fast and no place for him to grow. My husband has a job now in the cosntruction business and we always provide the job letter to the places we try to rent, but everytime there is competition and we are always the last.

“We are being very discriminated against. Some places don’t even accept us because of the baby. They say things like: “our place is not big enough for 3 people”, “not suitable for a family”, “suitable for a professional couple only, no babies” and it goes on. We are looking for a small place because that’s what we can afford. We just started our life here we need to start small, but people don’t give us a chance to rent anywhere.

“At other places the discrimination is because we are immigrants. They keep asking questions about where we are from and after that all we receive is calls and emails, ” sorry, somebody else got the place”.

“I’m getting desperate because the baby is growing up fast. We need to move fast but by ourselves nothing is working. We can afford to pay the rent no problem… But everyday I see lots of places that could fit us, they just don’t accept us. My question is is there anything that we can do to make this process easier? Any place that can help us?”

Searching for Barrier-Free Housing

Many of CERA’s clients have mobility impairments and other disabilities that make it very difficult to access and retain affordable, appropriate housing. Here’s an excellent description of one couple’s struggle to find barrier-free housing in Toronto:

There are several landmark events in the life of a young couple. The first knowing glance across the table, the first date, the first kiss… the list goes on.  As the relationship progresses, these landmarks have a tendency to progress in magnitude. One of the most exciting ones for any young couple, it could be argued, is the search for the first apartment together. It is the quest to find that nice little haven where cohabitation can flourish. But what happens when that search comes up empty? What happens when that apartment does not exist? This is the situation that I currently find myself in. And as has become my recent custom whenever anything in my life needs a good rant, I decided to write about it.

Let’s get the parameters of the story out of the way. My name is Tim Rose and I am a 25 year old Canadian student doing my post-graduate degree in law and human rights at the University of Nottingham in the UK. I also have a severe physical disability, cerebral palsy spastic quadriplegia if you want to get technical. I spend almost every waking hour confined to a very heavy and equally as expensive power wheelchair. I also, through some twist of luck, have a girlfriend who is able bodied (not that this should matter but it bears some relevance on the story) and currently finishing her masters degree in Occupational Therapy in Canada. Her name is Natalie. We plan on living together upon my return to Canada in August. Now that we have those parameters out of the way, comes the challenge. There is nowhere for us to live.

It’s not that we don’t have money. In fact, we have enough saved up between the two of us to survive (at least for a while) while paying a reasonable rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto. We would be quite happy to do that. The issues arise in the form of the 500 pound beast which I sit in for 16 hours a day, and all of the joys that go along with that. We have been searching for this elusive mirage of an apartment for the last couple of months, asking for the very modest following considerations: a two-bedroom apartment, where we can feel safe and where I can shower (i.e. accessible roll in shower required). These are seemingly impossible demands to fill, as no such place exists without an accompanying waiting list of at least two years. That’s right, individuals with disabilities and their partners are expected to have their lives planned out two years in advance. I’m not saying that I am the picture of spontaneity, but come on!

We have scoured high and low, fired off e-mails left right and center and asked for help, wherever we could think to do so. I am not for a second saying that we do not appreciate the assistance that we have been given, as there have been people who have gone to great lengths to lend a hand in our search, but just that the results have not been promising. Over 2+ months of searching, and we have found one building with a decent sized waiting list, an inflatable roll in shower that could be assembled in a living room or closet, and a suggestion from a couple of sources that I could, in a pinch, go and shower at the local gym or YMCA.

It is true that the “right to shower” is not one enshrined in any international legal document. But, the right to live free of discrimination based on disability has been enshrined in many international and domestic legal documents, including the Canadian ones. And so it is with the greatest of ease that I brand the fight which Natalie and I currently find ourselves in, a definite “human rights” battle.

What we have in this situation is a blatant failure of the legendary Canadian social safety net, which may see an upper-middle-class postgraduate degree holder made homeless by a lack of options. Begging to try and get myself into a facilitated living system, thereby forfeiting my right to live with whom I wish, is not an option that I am considering. What I am considering is working to shed light on the fact that housing options for individuals with disabilities in Ontario suck. It is not only severely limiting of my independence (which interestingly enough, is now directly encased in international law through the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) but also on the independence of my girlfriend. The bottom line is that Natalie and I want to live together, and are not going to stop fighting until a suitable solution is presented to us.

We are not asking for anything specific via this article. Its purpose was to inform you of a situation that is ongoing, and to bring attention to this sad state of accessible housing in Canada and around the world. This issue goes beyond Natalie and I, it speaks to the fundamental freedoms, which in the year 2011, should be granted without problem. It speaks to a continued struggle for individuals with disabilities to have to fight every step of the way in a country that is celebrated for its human rights record. We are pissed off, and want to tell you about it!

After all, what else is a guy to do when he’s all dressed up with no place to go??