Category Archives: Your Rights as a Tenant

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.

Smoking and the Human Rights Code

From a human rights perspective, smoking in apartment buildings can be very challenging.

Ideally, the fact that a resident smokes in his/her unit should not have any bearing on the health and quality of life of another resident. But it does. Buildings and apartments leak, ventilation systems don’t work as well as they should, and second-hand smoke regularly moves from one apartment to another. CERA has many clients with asthma, environmental sensitivities and other conditions who are being made ill because of smoke coming from other apartments.

Where a resident has a health condition that is being made worse by second-hand smoke, landlords and/or property managers will have to take steps address the problem. These can include ensuring that corridors are properly pressurized so that smell and fumes from apartments do not enter hallways, sealing any openings in the resident’s unit (such as openings from plumbing, electrical outlets, fans, etc.), and ensuring that kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans are working properly. Unfortunately, this is often not enough.

If steps to eliminate the transfer of second-hand smoke fail, can a landlord request that the resident stop smoking in his/her unit? What are the smoker’s rights?

In all likelihood, smokers’ rights are protected to some degree under the Human Rights Code. Strong arguments can be made that addiction to nicotine is a disability protected by the Code and, as the Ontario Human Rights Commission states in its Policy on Human Rights in Rental Housing, some people smoke to control the symptoms of other medical conditions. The Commission’s policy also notes that people with mental illness are disproportionately likely to be smokers.

However, even if smoking is considered a disability and associated with other Code-protected characteristics, such as mental illness, landlords are only obligated to accommodate smokers if it is safe to do so. If a resident who is smoking is making other tenants ill, the landlord could argue it would be an unreasonable health risk to permit the resident to continue smoking in his/her unit (assuming the landlord has already taken appropriate steps to minimize the transfer of second-hand smoke between units).

What about smoke-free apartment buildings? This is more problematic. In our view, an all-out smoking ban – which could significantly limit the housing options of people with this addiction – would have serious human rights implications. And unlike the example above, it would be difficult for a landlord to demonstrate that it is an unreasonable health or safety risk to permit residents to smoke anywhere in the building.

Is there a way to balance the rights of smoking and non-smoking tenants other than on an individual, case-by-case basis? One option worth considering would be to have a separately ventilated common-room for people who smoke. This could address the problem of second-hand smoke migrating from unit to unit, while maintaining the housing options of individuals who smoke.

Balancing the sometimes competing rights of individuals can be challenging – but it’s not impossible.

Further Reading: