I am the Program Director at the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA). I have a masters degree in Urban Planning and have worked in the area of housing and social planning for the last ten years. During the last three years I have worked at CERA, and have assisted numerous clients in processing their claims of discrimination and in accessing housing. I am currently involved in a province wide public education initiative that includes working with municipalities and landlord associations in Ontario. One of the components of this initiative is aimed at working with local communities and landlords to develop a code of conduct for tenant selection that outlines alternative good practice mechanisms of tenant selection. This initiative also involves a public education component aimed at ending discrimination in accessing rental housing. Prior to working at CERA, I was researcher and policy analyst at the Social Planning Council for four years. My main areas of focus included conducting and reporting on the social impact of government policy and economic trends on Toronto’s neighbourhoods. Very often I was called upon to provide feedback to the city planning department’s housing and access and equity program initiatives. Previously, I was a housing coordinator at the Canadian African Newcomer Centre of Toronto (CANACT) where I was responsible for providing advice or housing referral to immigrants from Africa.
My testimony will outline how discrimination occurs in the rental housing market with particular focus on low income visible minority households. I am familiar with Michael Ornstein’s report on the statistical correlation between poverty and race among renters. My testimony will address how this correlation plays out in attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes affecting tenant selection in Ontario’s rental market.
Although CERA’s work over the years has shown that discrimination in housing limits the housing opportunities of a number of disadvantaged groups - including single mothers, youth and persons with disabilities – as a staff member at CERA I have been alarmed by the high proportion of poor racial minorities that face discrimination in housing.
CERA receives an average of 1,000 calls per year from people requiring investigation and mediation services in incidents of alleged discrimination. Frequently callers report discrimination on more than one ground. In 1998/99 the most common ground of discrimination reported was receipt of public assistance (25%), followed by family status (16%) and race (15%). Often these are combined with reports of the use of income criteria. An informal survey of housing help centers and shelters undertaken by CERA in 1999 found that these organizations experienced a similar pattern in reports of discrimination: income was the most frequently reported ground of discrimination. It was reported by many participants that the lowest income racial minorities – often new immigrants and refugees – experienced the most pervasive housing discrimination. Statistics from Ontario’s Human Rights Commission over the last ten years also show that 25% of the filed complaints alleged racial discrimination.
Discrimination takes place in different ways, some are easier to discern and some more difficult. At CERA we have assisted numerous complaints related to blatant discrimination. Although most landlords do not state directly that they are refusing a racial minority applicant because of colour or ethnic heritage, many will use accent or foreign names to detect and reject racial minority applicants. In other instances, where racial minority applicants make appointments to view apartments, they report that on seeing their race the landlord gives the excuse that the apartment is already taken. A subsequent call usually verifies that in fact the apartment remains available.
Most of the racial discrimination in the rental housing market which we encounter at CERA, however, occurs in less discernible and very subtle ways. The rental market in Toronto now tends to be divided between over-priced, less desirable buildings in which the majority of tenants are visible minority, and more desirable apartments in terms of price and quality in which the majority of tenants are white. This emerging social divide tends to coincide with the use of income criteria, such as a 30% or 35% rent to income rule. It is well known in the landlord community and among the public at large that a low income tenant community in Toronto will be largely visible minority. Such communities are referred to as "ghettoes" with very clear racial overtones. What is referred to in housing circles as the "Not in My Backyard Syndrome" (NIMBY) is clearly focused on negative stereotypes of low income visible minority communities. Fears such as rising crime, inadequate parental supervision, declining school standards and lower property values are invariably associated with these negative images, despite the fact that studies show such fears to be misplaced. The use of income criteria avoids these negative stereotypes and prejudices associated with low income racial minorities.
Income information, credit and reference may, of course, be considered reasonably, to confirm identity and avoid tenants with a history of defaulting on rent. Given the fact that there appears to be no correlation between rent to income ratios and default rates, however, any use of income criteria will unreasonably exclude even those low income people who have no negative credit or reference. Many racial minorities, especially recent black immigrants and young families who are first time renters have no available credit references or rental history. If income criteria are applied in conjunction with these other criteria, low income black applicants are invariably excluded.
Unlike public housing that was previously allocated on the basis of need, all subsidized housing in Ontario is now allocated on the basis of a waiting list. Families with children must wait for up to 15 or 20 years in Toronto. This means that the majority of racial minority housing seekers, many of whom are newcomers, must rely on the private rental housing market where income discrimination is pervasive. Though not segregated by neighbourhood as in major cities in the United States, low income black households face an increasingly segregated housing market in Toronto and other Ontario cities.
A study by CERA on "Racial Discrimination & Harassment in Housing", 1992, found that among visible minorities reporting discrimination in housing, 65% were in receipt of some form of public assistance. African Canadians are particularly susceptible to income discrimination because of the high rate of poverty in the community. A recent paper by the Task Force on Poverty - National Roundtable, 1999, reported that based on census data, "the rate of poverty of Africa Canadians is approximately double the rate for the overall Canadian population…and…more than half of all African Canadians living in single families are living in poverty" (p.5-6). The continued use of income criteria in the context of racialized poverty leads to the ghettoization of poor black households in poor quality private housing.
Given the correlation between low income and race in rental housing populations in Toronto, it is not difficult to explain how stereotypes about poor people and racial prejudice begin to feed on each other in private rental buildings occupied predominantly by the poor. These stereotypes are very similar to negative stereotypes about public housing complexes in the past. The source of many common negative stereotypes about public housing occupants was not solely that the occupants were poor but also because they were increasingly made up of racial minorities. The two sets of prejudices, based on race and poverty, merged into a doubly negative stereotype. Higher income blacks will not face the same kind of attitudes and nor will lower income whites. Attitudes toward low income blacks have emerged as a distinct and invidious form of prejudice within Ontario’s rental housing sector.
The kind of segregation that results from income based discrimination leads to differentiation in the rental markets into locations of prime rental housing that is occupied primarily by moderate income white residents and poor housing that is occupied by low-income and mostly black residents. Very often these two ‘locations’ are different not so much in terms of the actual rent levels but rather in the quality of housing. The quality of the housing is then confused in public attitudes with the living habits of the residents and increasingly negative images are fostered about low income visible minority tenants. In effect, low income black residents end up paying comparably higher rents for poor quality housing and then pay a serious social price for the negative images created by the locations in which they are forced to live.