Tag Archives: Human rights casework

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.

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.

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