Category Archives: Legal Issues

Northern Housing Rights – Watch the Video!

Northern Housing Rights (NHR) is a legal education, research and capacity-building initiative directed at Métis, First Nations and Inuit (FNMI) people living in Northwestern Ontario, funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario and undertaken by the Metis Nation of Ontario (MNO) and CERA. The objectives of the NHR initiative were to investigate the experiences of housing discrimination among FNMI people in Northwestern Ontario, provide legal education on human rights in housing, produce human rights resources, and provide recommendations to improve access to supports in these communities.

In May and June 2014, CERA and MNO traveled to Northwestern Ontario, holding engagement sessions and legal education workshops in Fort Frances, Dryden, Kenora, Geraldton and Thunder Bay. It was evident from participant responses that housing discrimination directed at FNMI people continues to be prevalent in the region, creating barriers for those attempting to access and retain rental housing.

“Maria’s Story” is a 20 minute educational video produced by CERA and MNO based on the experiences shared by participants in the NHR sessions:

Thank you to everyone who participated in the Northern Housing Rights Project!

Prospective tenant awarded $10,000 for landlord’s discriminatory treatment

A young woman was denied an apartment because she was under the age of 18, something that is illegal under Ontario’s Human Rights Code. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario found Havcare Investments and Ms. Carolyn Goodman had violated the Code, fabricated evidence and attempted to get a witness to lie on the stand.

Recognizing the young woman’s particular vulnerability the Tribunal anonymized her name, noting that she “had been a Crown ward since she was 13 years old, was homeless, and was still in high school. Furthermore, she was dealing with significant personal issues, including a pregnancy.”

The Tribunal awarded the young woman $10,000 in damages for the discrimination and ordered the landlord to hire an expert to develop a human rights policy and train staff.

“This is a significant decision,” said Megan Evans Maxwell, AB’s lawyer who acted for the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA) and is now counsel at the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.  “This young woman had support and was determined to make a difference to other peoples’ lives so she stuck with it,” continued Evans Maxwell.

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario found that Ms. Goodman (also known as Ms. Linton and/or Krebs) had “attempted to influence a witness, Ms. St. John, to deny that the applicant had been denied the unit on the basis of her age.” The Tribunal also concluded that the landlord’s insistence the unit had been rented to another tenant was “fabricated evidence regarding the purported tenant.”

“Housing decisions from the Tribunal are rare,” said Theresa Thornton, Executive Director of CERA. “Most people walk away from the discrimination, desperate to secure a place to live,” continued Thornton.

CERA is the only organization in Canada dedicated to promoting human rights in housing and ending housing discrimination.

The Human Rights Legal Support Centre offers free legal services to individuals throughout Ontario who have experienced discrimination contrary to Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

For more information or to arrange interviews:

Theresa Thornton, Executive Director, CERA 416-944-0087 ext.2

Jennifer Ramsay, Human Rights Legal Support Centre 416-597-4958 or 416-522-5931 (mobile)

 

Download this press release: here.

Bill C-400 and International Women’s Day

Last week, Bill C-400, a private member’s bill that would put in place the essential components of a national housing strategy, was defeated in the House of Commons. Opposition MP’s and dozens of community organizations put their support behind the bill, but every Conservative MP voted against it.

The Federal Government incorrectly referred to the bill as a “national social housing strategy” and estimated its cost at $5.5 billion annually. Bill C-400 was not about social housing, nor did it have any specific costs attached to it. It put in place a framework for the government to develop a national housing strategy in collaboration with all levels of government, affected communities, and civil society groups which would respect Canada’s human rights obligations.

It was about putting our heads together and grappling with the nation-wide affordable housing crisis. This should have been a no-brainer.

How does this relate to International Women’s Day? It is women in Canada who are disproportionately affected by the federal government’s failure to address housing insecurity and homelessness. Women are more likely to be living in poverty and insecure, low paying employment; they frequently experience housing discrimination because of their lower incomes and their role as mothers and caregivers of children; they are subject to harassment in their housing; lack of appropriate housing options can force them to stay in or return to abusive relationships. Every year, approximately three quarters of the people seeking assistance from CERA’s human rights assistance program are women.

Women in Canada deserved to celebrate 2013’s International Women’s Day with a national housing strategy.

Changes to Social Assistance Don’t Add Up

The 2012 Ontario budget will not be kind to people on social assistance. While much of the focus has been on the Liberals’ decision to freeze rates on Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), another item on the budget is equally cruel: the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) will be cut.

CSUMB is a mandatory benefit for all recipients of OW and ODSP. It is either used to pay rental arrears and prevent eviction or to help pay the first and last months’ deposit on a new apartment. In some cases, tenants have been issued CSUMB to pay for heating and other basic utilities. Recipients without dependents get a maximum payment of $799 every two years, while those with children receive $1,500. This is no small amount for people who are in dire financial need.

 

The Liberals have said that CSUMB is not being cut, but “transferred” to the Ministry of Housing, where it will be administered as part of the long-term affordable hosing strategy. This is disingenuous. Only half of the funding will be available and even then, there is no clear picture how the program will be maintained. The budget stated that the new version of CSUMB will provide housing supports to people even if they are not on social assistance.  This translates to half as much money available to a much larger group of people.

It doesn’t add up.

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.

Putting 2 and 2 Together: Access to Justice and Articling

By David Wiseman, Assistant Professor, University of Ottawa

The staff of CERA, and CERA’s many allies and friends (including me), have often lamented the inability to provide more help to more people who are claiming or defending their equality and housing rights in the rental housing market in Ontario.  There is a significant ‘unmet need’ for the assistance that CERA provides to tenants experiencing discrimination and one of the biggest barriers is lack of funding for more staff.   For instance, CERA does not have sufficient funding to regularly employ an articling student.  And, unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers to CERA getting more funding for more staff is that decision-makers in our Province never seem to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity to find ways to support organizations like CERA.  Lack of funding for an articling student is a case in point.

The most recent example of a potential missed opportunity is the Law Society of Upper Canada’s announcement of a new Taskforce to look at articling in Ontario. The LSUC is the organization that regulates lawyers (and paralegals) in Ontario.  Articling is the year-long on-the-job training that law graduates have to do before they can qualify as lawyers.  The Taskforce was announced after the LSUC learned that there is a shortage of articling positions in Ontario.  This just 3 years after an earlier taskforce had prompted a renewed effort of LSUC and the legal profession to generate more articling positions.

The establishment of the most recent Taskforce threatens to be another missed opportunity to help those, like CERA, who work in an area of unmet needs because the Taskforce isn’t mandated to address the problem of unmet needs.  In theory, if the Taskforce sticks to its terms of reference, it could go about its work trying to ‘fix’ articling without even considering the role that articling could play in improving the ability of organizations like CERA to continue to reduce unmet legal needs.  This is an especially strange thing for the LSUC to allow its own Taskforce to do, given that the LSUC was a key partner in the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project that issued a first report on unmet legal needs in 2010.  The Civil Legal Needs Project documented the significant extent of unmet legal needs in Ontario – including in relation to rental housing disputes — and shone much needed light on the broader problem of access to justice.

The LSUC needs to put 2 and 2 together and integrate a consideration of unmet legal needs and access to justice into the work of the Taskforce on articling.   CERA is just one example of the organizations that could end up with valuable extra capacity if this is done.  After all, the LSUC is charged with regulating the legal profession in the public interest.  Looking at articling without looking at access to justice seems more like putting the self-interest of lawyers above the interests of the public.  Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out that way.

 

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.