Tag Archives: discrimination

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?”

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?

Discrimination and Newcomers to Canada

I regularly facilitate human rights workshops for Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes – and each time I’m shocked by what I hear.

In almost every class, a large proportion of the students report having experienced multiple forms of discrimination in their search for housing:

Refused because because you cannot meet a minimum income cut-off? Check. Refused because you have no Canadian credit or references? Check. Required to pay six months rent in advance? Check. Required to provide a co-signor or guarantor because you are new to the country? Check. Denied because you don’t yet have a job? Check. Refused because of the number of children in your family? Check.

Many of these students hit a wall of discriminatory barriers when they first arrived in the country. And this was on top of the fact that there are few affordable housing options. Nothing could have prepared them for this introduction to Canada.

Canadians talk about how they value diversity, that it is something that defines this country. Governments rely heavily on immigration to keep the economy and tax base healthy and they lure people with promises . But when newcomers arrive, they are abandoned to a rental housing market that is unaffordable and often inaccessible.

As a result, new Canadians are often forced to double-up for extended periods with friends and relatives, eat away at their savings in expensive short-term accommodation, or even resort to shelters.

When are governments in Canada going to figure out that ensuring access to good, affordable housing has to be an integral part of Canadian and provincial/territorial immigration policies?

NIMBY 101

In 2007, the City of Toronto approved the development of a 29 unit apartment building.

This was an as-of-right proposal – no re-zoning was required. No public consultations should have been required. The project met all municipal planning requirements. The approval process should have been relatively simple, right? Nope.

The problem, it seemed, was who was going to live there. The 29 units would be rented to low income individuals living with mental illness.

Some residents didn’t want people with mental illness moving into their neighbourhood. At a city meeting, they asked questions such as, “What kind of illnesses do these people have? What safety measures have been put in place?” The residents urged the city to delay approving the development so there could be more consultation with community members.

A term for this is “people zoning”. The other is discrimination.

People living with mental illness have the right to live wherever they want – and Canadian laws protect this right. Residents cannot decide who can and cannot live in their neighbourhood. Otherwise we have, as the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission said in a letter to the Toronto Star on this issue, “the tyranny of the majority.”

Fortunately the City of Toronto recognized this and allowed the development to proceed.

In its comments on the decision, the HomeComing Community Choice Coalition – a group that advocates for the provision of supportive housing for people with mental illness – stated:

In making this decision City Council took a principled stand for human rights. Many councillors said emphatically that people do not get to choose their neighbours. Several councillors made specific references to the human right of people to live in communities of their choice without discrimination on the basis of disability. Others spoke of their own experiences where neighbours were initially concerned and yet, after the housing was complete, there have been no issues. Several councillors spoke of their past, positive experiences with the private developer Mahogany Investments/Alternative Living Solutions and with Houselink, who will be providing support services.

Three years later, the building is ready for occupancy.

But NIMBY continues. On the hoarding around the building there is graffiti calling the local councillor who supported the development a “traitor.” A candidate in the upcoming municipal election sent around a flyer saying that residents have a right to be angry about the supportive housing development in their neighbourhood, that they were not given a fair opportunity to express their concerns.

And which concerns were these? – their concerns about having to live near low income people with mental illnesses.

Congratulations to the City for doing the right thing and standing up for human rights.

For more information on NIMBY, check out the website of the HomeComing Community Choice Coalition.

Advocates: Bringing the Law to Life

At CERA we do a lot of advocating for our clients. In fact, we rely quite heavily on the power of our one-on-one advocacy to change or influence landlords’ policies, and in doing so to effect real, measurable and timely change in the lives of Ontarians facing discrimination.

When I am on the phone with landlords, choosing the right words to convince them that their policies or practices are discriminatory, I feel that the law, in this case the Human Rights Code, is at its best. To many people, the Code is simply words on paper: a string of words chosen by the lawmakers of Ontario which look orderly and professional, but seem far from able to compel private landlords to change practices or eliminate barriers. Many Ontarians are not confident that these words can protect them. At CERA we advocate with landlords to make the Code real.  One-on-one advocacy can bring these words to life!

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario is of course a crucial part of our human rights system, and it is a necessary venue for the many human rights complaints which cannot be resolved informally. But does every instance of discrimination require claimants to file pleadings, claim damages and wait for months to have the issue mediated or adjudicated? My experience as an advocate tells me that it doesn’t; that in fact, a formal legal approach would often be unproductive. More often than not, people who call CERA for help want to resolve their problems with the landlord informally and as quickly as possible. These people simply want the landlord to recognize that they have the right to enjoy and benefit from housing regardless of their family status, disability, ethnic origin, or any other Code-protected ground.

Individual advocacy allows us to make direct contact with a landlord, often on the same day that the discriminatory actions took place. We can speak with landlords and inform them that what they have done – or have failed to do – is against the law. More often than many would expect, this comes as a surprise to the landlords. If they disagree with our position, we can try to convince them. Even if this takes multiple phone calls or letters, we can often persuade these landlords to reverse their decisions, or change discriminatory policies. In doing so, we are able to assist our clients while also educating landlords so that they are less likely to discriminate in the future. To the Ontarian whose life improves because of this advocacy, the Code is no longer just words on paper, but a tool which has reached into their lives to protect them and ensure their dignity as a human being.

We will continue to assist our clients to file human rights applications at the Tribunal, and the threat of such action may help us persuade some landlords to change their approach to renting apartments. It is, however, important for all stakeholders in the human rights system to realize that the law is brought to life and used effectively every day through one-on-one advocacy. In utilizing this valuable tool, we can help protect the rights of many Ontarians without the need for pleadings, a “courtroom”, or an adjudicator’s orders.

Linden Dales, Human Rights Caseworker

Youth in the House!

Youth homelessness has been a growing concern at CERA. With a housing crisis gripping communities across Canada and huge waiting lists for affordable housing, this particularly vulnerable group is getting an even shorter end of a short stick.

The common assumption when viewing street youth is “You punks get a job!” or “Get rid of the attitude and go back home.” What people do not realize is that youth on the street are rarely there by choice. They are often forced to leave an abusive or oppressive household or care facility. Many have never had a home or family. After foster care hopping, many youth eventually decide a life of streets may be the safest choice.

Over the past 3 months, CERA Ottawa, with the support of the Law Foundation of Ontario, has offered a weekly outreach program at Operation Come Home, a youth drop-in facility in the downtown core. This program enables us to bring our services directly to the youth who need them. While speaking about housing and discrimination issues, youth often share experiences that are both heartbreaking and inspirational. Many of the youth we speak with have been in and out of foster care and group homes and have survived numerous instances of abuse. Despite this, they are now doing their best to “make life happen.” 

I find it inspirational to watch these young souls doing their best at 17 to write a resume, apply for jobs, start their own business, call landlords and find an apartment, meet their social assistance worker, attend to health needs, and take care of daily hygiene, nutrition and sleep requirements – all while balancing mental health issues from years of abuse. I know many individuals (and I’m sure you do too), who at 20, with the emotional and financial support of their parents and family, can hardly get it together. Society hardly blinks at them, while the youth of the street are barked at for being “lazy.”

In the last session I posed the question, “what does it mean to be homeless in lower town?” The responses were interesting. A female participant, aged 18, responded eagerly, stating that “Living in lower town makes it easy to be homeless.” She continued, “The Salvation Army will give you sleeping bags for free, you can eat for free at a number of drop-ins, and you can shower at the YSB [Youth Service Bureau].” While these services are critical, the young woman emphasized that, “We need more services that actually help us get a home.” Another participant, male, aged 22, added, “when you’re homeless, Ontario Works only gives you $200.00 for your basic needs. Try eating three meals a day for a month with $200.00. It doesn’t work. But if I had a home, I could maybe buy enough Kraft dinner to last me a month, and I could cook food from the food bank.”  

The youth maintained that the most important thing in their lives is a safe, clean, and affordable home. With a housing allowance of $356/month, rental options are scarce. Many youth end up in rooming houses. A female youth, who had been homeless on and off for five years, stated, “You don’t know what it’s like to live in a dirty rooming house, with mice and cockroaches, and creepy unknowns opening your door in the middle of the night; it’s not safe, and it makes you feel sad. That is where I live.”

A male participant, aged 19, stated, “We need a system that works, more services that help us find housing we can afford, and landlords who will actually rent to us.” He continued, “I finally found a landlord that would rent to me, but because Ontario Works thinks I’m homeless, they only give me $200.00/month. When I tried to contact my worker to say I found a landlord that will rent to me, and to please give me my housing allowance, my worker took so long to call me back that the landlord rented to someone else.”

The youth we meet face a number of barriers to housing which can make homelessness almost inevitable. There is nothing easy about being young without a secure, stable, safe, and affordable place to live. The barriers in the social welfare system combined with the discrimination they face for being part of societies “unwanted” often make a life on the streets the only option.

So, when you encounter a young person on the street, don’t be quick to make assumptions. Take time to ask how they are doing, and if they know where they can find the services they need. Don’t be afraid to smile or share what’s in your heart and your pocket. The world needs change.

Fair Housing: CERA USA

CERA is unique in Canada as an organization devoted to challenging housing discrimination. South of the boarder, the landscape is very different.

In an April issue of the New Yorker magazine, there was a full page colour ad showing a “for rent” sign in front of an apartment building followed by the words, “No Kids, No Blacks, No Latinos”. The tagline was, “Discrimination is rarely this obvious, but it is just as real. Just as illegal.” The New Yorker is a major US magazine and ad space does not come cheap. Who had the resources and wherewithal to create and place this ad? –  the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the National Fair Housing Alliance.

There are over 100 fair housing organizations and councils across the United States, each with a mandate similar to CERA’s: promoting equality and non-discrimination in housing. Add to this the National Fair Housing Alliance, a consortium of fair housing organizations and state and local civil rights organizations, and the Fair Housing Advocate, an online journal devoted to housing discrimination, and you have a shockingly “un-Canadian” approach to promoting housing equality.

Fair housing organizations in the US developed out of the national Fair Housing Act – human rights legislation that specifically targets housing discrimination – and frequently receive federal government funding through HUD and its Fair Housing Initiatives program.

Canada, on the other hand, has no human rights legislation focused on housing discrimination. Instead, housing issues get lost among employment and services- related protections in provincial and territorial human rights laws. There are also no federal or provincial funding programs that target initiatives promoting housing equality. CERA, the only Canadian organization with a mandate focused on challenging housing discrimination, has no stable funding and, in fact, receives absolutely no funds to provide legal services to equality seeking individuals.

It should not be surprising then that discrimination remains “under the radar” and neglected in Canada, despite substantial research demonstrating its seriousness (see CERA’s recent report, Sorry, It’s Rented: Measuring Discrimination in Toronto’s Rental Housing Market).

Fair Housing. Canada has a lot to learn.