Category Archives: Legal Issues

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.

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.

Tenants Facing Eviction for Children’s Noise have Rights under Ontario’s Human Rights Code

Imagine you are in the common hallway of your apartment building with your 2 year old daughter. She is laughing, talking and running towards the elevator. You notice there are people coming towards her and she may be in their way, so you take her hand and guide her away from the centre of the hall. She protests vehemently and starts to cry. You try to explain to her why you have stopped her from running, but she is only 2 years old and has no interest in this reasoning. She flops herself onto the floor and rolls around crying even louder.   You try to hush your daughter to no avail, while anxiously awaiting the opening of the elevator door so you can pick her up, get on and get out of the building. Those of us with children know this is not an unfamiliar scene. In fact, this may be one of several such scenes that you will deal with most days, when you have a 2 year old child.

Now imagine the next day you receive an Eviction Notice in your mailbox. It says you have disturbed the reasonable enjoyment of your neighbours by allowing your child to run freely and cry in the common hallway. You panic. You have finally moved into an apartment that is nice enough, clean enough, with rent that you can afford. It’s close to work, shopping, and daycare. It’s your home and you want to stay in your home. Then you suddenly feel angry because you think back to yesterday, when the incident occurred and you remember you actually were quite concerned about your neighbours in the hallway and did your best to try to keep your daughter from disturbing them. You now are panicking again. You tell yourself that you can’t lose this apartment, it’s not fair.

Indeed it is not fair. In fact it may be a violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code). Under the Code, children have the right to make a reasonable amount of noise, simply because they are children and children make noise. Parents have the right not to be harassed and threatened with eviction for regular children’s noise such as crying, laughing, playing and running. At a Landlord and Tenant Board Hearing, the adjudicator must consider the Code when making the decision to evict or not evict. Landlords are obligated to make accommodations where possible such as providing carpeting to reduce noise. For more information visit the Ontario Human Rights Commission website at: www. ohrc.on.ca

Women, Canada and The World: Is Canada Failing?

Women, Canada and The World: Is Canada Failing?

This Ottawa event, attended by approximately 100 people, was organized by the McLeod Group, co-sponsored by Embassy Magazine and hosted by the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs on February 18th, 2011. Huguette Labelle, Chancellor, Ottawa University presided.

Participants discussed gender equality and women’s rights. The panellists were Rieky Stuart (Senior Associate, Gender at Work), Sandeep Prasad (Executive Director, Action Canada for Population Development) and Leilani Farha (Executive Director, Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation).

View CPAC video by clicking here. [CERA’s Executive Director, Leilani Farha, appears at 35.00 min]

CERA Presentation (Word doc) – Leilani Farha

CERA Presents to Legislative Committee on Province’s Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy

The Province of Ontario released its Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy in late 2010.  Bill 140, Strong Communities Through Affordable Housing Act, 2011, legislation which has passed 2nd reading and is now before the Legislature at the Comittee on Justice Policy, is the implementing legislation for the Housing Strategy.

CERA and the Social Rights Advocacy Centre (SRAC) appeared before the Committee on 24 March 2011, to encourage the Committee to adopt a series of amendments to Bill 140 to ensure that it is in keeping with the provinces’ commitments under international human rights law.

CERA provided an overview of the 5 components that Bill 140 must include to ensure it is in compliance with international human rights standards based on what UN human rights bodies and officials have indicated must be in a housing strategy.  SRAC then provided the Committee with an overview of practical amendments that could be made to Bill 140 to integrate the 5 components.   Both the Wellesley Institute and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario submissions were supportive of this approach.

Committee members from all three parties expressed interest in the CERA and SRAC presentations and the suggested amendments.  CERA and SRAC will  work collaboratively with other organizations concerned with housing rights and will continue to press for human rights amendments to Bill 140.  For more on human rights accountability of the province and Bill 140 click here.

CERA’s presentation

Summary of UN Consensus

SRAC’s presentation

Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario presentation

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??

Questioning Social Housing Occupancy Rules

The Social Housing Reform Act, provincial legislation that governs the operation of non-profit and government housing, establishes occupancy standards for rent-geared-to-income apartments.

It states that the smallest unit a family will be eligible for is one that allows a maximum of two occupants per bedroom. Many municipalities have established their own social housing standards, but they tend to hold to the SHRA’s ‘2 person per bedroom’ rule.

At first glance, this standard may seem reasonable.

But what about a low income couple with 3 children? Under the SHRA, they would only be eligible for a 3 bedroom apartment. In many communities, 3 bedroom social housing units are very hard to come by – there aren’t many and they don’t turn over very often.

This family might find that two bedroom apartments (which are more plentiful) will meet their needs – e.g. the parents may be willing to sleep in the living room, while their children use the bedrooms. This won’t be an option for them because of the occupancy standards.

The family will end up living in an expensive, private market apartment which will, ironically, likely be a two bedroom unit since they will have difficulty affording three bedrooms.

Social housing occupancy rules can act as a major barrier to families with children who are trying to access appropriate, affordable housing. Rules for private market housing have been challenged under the Human Rights Code, but social housing requirements have to date received only minimal scrutiny.

Some who are in favour of these standards point to healthy and safety concerns. And indeed, households with more than two persons per bedroom will find themselves in ‘Core Housing Need’ as defined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. However, I’m not convinced there is evidence to back up this argument. There is a difference between an ideal, what we should work towards, and what is necessary for health and safety reasons. Municipal occupancy standards by-laws – which relate to health and safety – tend to be much more lenient than social housing rules.

Another argument in favour is that, without the 2 person per bedroom maximum, families will apply for smaller units, get housed and then apply for an internal transfer to a larger unit – effectively jumping the queue. If that is a concern, then address the internal transfer system.

Of course, it is a good thing to give families as much living space as possible. But governments and social housing providers shouldn’t use this goal to deny a family an apartment which the family feels meets their needs.

In the end, shouldn’t the family decide what’s best?