Tag Archives: Legal advocacy

Bruce Porter Reflects on CERA’s 30th Anniversary

“CERA was formed in the heyday of the equality rights movement in Canada. That’s why it has it that cumbersome name that no one can remember or say. In the 1980s in Canada, “equality rights” were in the air. Equality seeking groups began the decade by fighting for and winning a radical reframing of non-discrimination rights in the new Canadian Charter to have them renamed as “equality rights.” Section 15 of the Charter was reworded to ensure not only that laws and policies should not discriminate, but also that they would provide “equal benefit” to disadvantaged groups. People with disabilities were recognized for the first time. Following on that victory at the national level, hearings were held in 1986 at the Ontario Legislature, into a proposed “Equality Rights Statute Law Amendment Act”, intended to ensure that the Human Rights Code and other provincial legislation conformed with the new understanding of equality in s.15 of the Charter. Of course, the government had left a lot out of its draft bill. That’s when we formed the Committee for Equal Access to Apartments – the precursor of CERA, and got to work. Along with a lot of others…

Those hearings were incredibly energizing and demonstrated a new sense of collaboration and shared purpose among equality seeking groups.  The Committee for Equal Access to Apartments mobilized low income tenants from across the province  working to advocate for two amendments to the Human Rights Code to address prominent systemic issues in housing at that time.  One was to remove an exemption that allowed landlords to designate their buildings as “adult only” and exclude families with children.  This had become a convenient way for landlords to “gentrify” their apartments while low income renting families were simply left out the tight rental market.  The other was to extend protections from age discrimination in housing to include 16 and 17 year olds in need of housing.  We won on both counts, but only after an unprecedented number of compelling submissions at Queen’s Park from low income parents, mostly women, and young people describing the effects of discrimination in housing.

Our own discrete victories, however, were part of a wave of victories in which all the different equality seeking groups collaborated. Sexual orientation was added as a prohibited ground of discrimination; protections for people with disabilities were strengthened and adverse effect discrimination was more expansively addressed.  During all of the collaborative work,  marginalized groups in housing, particularly those living in poverty, became part of the human rights movement in a new way.  It became obvious that we needed an organization to continue to promote human rights in hosing and to make hard won protections work for groups that are too often ignored.   We knew it was a daunting task, but I don’t think any of imagined that CERA would still be around three decades later.

CERA’s ideals are perhaps further from being realized now than they ever have been.  However, it is hard to imagine where we would be without CERA’s work over the last 30 years.  CERA has been a voice for the people who don’t usually get heard.   It has changed the way we think about equality in housing, raised awareness of the right to adequate housing and changed the way the international human rights system works.  It has achieved precedent setting recognition of income related discrimination, addressed eviction prevention in new and innovative ways and changed the way we think about equality and human rights in housing.  CERA changed me and so many others over the years and through all of us, informed what has been done in many other places around the world.  It has been an incubator for a more inclusive human rights movement in Canada and internationally.

For CERA to have survived for thirty years without any stable operational funding, surviving through hostile governments and times of austerity measures, is an historic accomplishment, not only for the institution, but also for the ideals for which CERA stands.   It has survived because of the dedication and commitment of staff, board, volunteers and members to a vision that has only become more relevant, more necessary,  more compelling over the course of those years.

When we opened CERA’s phone line 30 years ago, the thing we would hear from people more often than anything else was this:  “You’re the first organization that has really listened to me and taken my concerns seriously.”  CERA still does that.  The acronym of a little organization, with a cumbersome name has come to resonate for a lot of people who have felt they were heard for the first time and for a lot of human rights advocates and human rights institutions who have learned from CERA how to hear human rights claims in a new way.

“CERA”.  It has become a word in its own right, with the historic reference to the equality rights wave of 30 years ago still resonating in its identity.

CERA.   30 years old.  Imagine!  It makes me feel quite proud of all of us!!”

Bruce Porter co-founded CERA in 1987, and is currently the Executive Director of the Social Rights Advocacy Centre.

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Check out new tools to help you claim your rights!

PROJECT UPDATE! Facilitating Local Responses to Housing Discrimination

After many hours of writing and lots of conversations with our wonderful partners across the province, we’re excited to share over twenty new housing rights resources and self-advocacy tools for tenants that we’ve been working on over the past several months. Here they are!

At CERA, we believe that knowing your rights is the first step to making them a reality. These new tools are designed to offer tenants and housing sector professionals key information and strategies to enable Ontarians to realize your human rights in rental housing. Translated versions are coming soon!

Know Your Rights Guide & Tip Sheets

This easy to use Guide has been designed to address common questions and walk tenants through practical examples of ways you can self-advocate: Tenant Toolkit – Human Rights & Rental Housing in Ontario

We will  soon be adding customized Tip Sheets for: Newcomers in Hamilton,  women who have experienced domestic violence in Toronto, Aging and Senior Tenants in London, Tenants facing discrimination in Windsor , Indigenous Tenants in OttawaIndigenous Youth in Thunder Bay, and  Tenants with Mental Health Issues in Sudbury.

Realize-Your-Rights Postcards

Want to self-advocate with a landlord about a time you were treated unfairly under the Human Rights Code? You can use these postcards to educate landlords and your friends and family about housing rights in Ontario.

Myth: Landlords can dictate how many bedrooms a family needs

Myth: Landlords can refuse to rent to someone who does not have references or a credit rating

Myth: Aging tenants need to move out to find a more accessible unit that meets their changing needs

Myth: Landlords can evict tenants that they think are “too old” to live independently

Myth: Landlords just need to collect the rent and do repairs, nothing else

Myth: Landlords can discriminate against indigenous housing seekers

Myth: A landlord can refuse to rent to someone because they have a mental illness

Myth: tenants with worsening disabilities need to move out to find a place that meets their needs

Myth: Landlords can refuse to rent to someone because they are “too young”

Myth: If someone doesn’t have landlord references or a credit rating, landlords can refuse them

Myth: landlords don’t have to rent to people who receive social assistance

Myth: landlords can refuse you if you don’t make 3x the rent

Myth: landlords can refuse to rent to families with children

 

If you or your organization would like hard copies of any of the above resources, please contact us at renee(at)equalityrights.org

Next Steps! CERA will be re-visiting our partners across the province to work with local Housing Rights Ambassadors on spreading the word about human rights in housing in April and May 2016. Stay tuned! If you would like to join one of our upcoming workshops, contact Renee at renee(at)equalityrights.org.

Thanks again to our partners for their feedback and guidance:

Age Friendly London Network, CMHA Sudbury Manitoulin, Housing Help Hamilton, Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic, Odawa Native Friendship Centre’s Drop In, Voices Against Poverty and numerous shelters, drop-ins and community organizations in Toronto.

Special thank you to our funder for this project:

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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.

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