The Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (“CERA”) is a not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to preventing evictions, ending housing discrimination and addressing human rights violations in housing across Ontario. For sixteen years, CERA has served 1500 clients annually who are facing eviction and human rights violations in their housing, such as the need for accommodation for disability. We also work with tenants, landlords, post-secondary institutions, community partners and the public to deliver public education to communities and vulnerable individuals to build the capacity of Ontarians to understand their housing rights.
CERA’s high volume of clients gives us unique and current insight into the issues faced by renters across the GTA, particularly vulnerable renters, including seniors, newcomers to Canada, racialized individuals, persons with disabilities, and families.
The City has requested feedback on the review of its bylaws related to property standards and building maintenance to inform reports to be considered by the Planning and Housing Committee at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.(1) We note that this review is taking place through a process that is separate from the development of the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, the City’s next ten-year housing plan, slated to be presented to City Council in November 2019. (2) We also note that City Council has directed the Housing Secretariat, in May 2019, to take a rights-based approach to developing its ten-year plan. (3)
The HousingTO website states that:
The City believes all Torontonians should have safe, secure, affordable and well- maintained homes where they can realize their full potential. Over the next year, we will be working with all housing stakeholders and the public to develop a comprehensive solutions-based plan to address housing and homelessness challenges over the next decade. (4)
The City of Toronto is facing an unprecedented housing and homelessness crisis. Any comprehensive, solutions-based housing plan meant to address issues of safety, security, and well-maintained homes cannot effectively do so when bylaws governing these very matters are being reviewed, considered and amended as part of a separate process, absent guidance from overarching objectives. This lack of coordination between the development and implementation of legal and policy instruments meant to protect tenants and which profoundly impact the adequacy of their housing and living conditions represents a fundamental disconnect at the City of Toronto.
Any modernization of the City’s property standards and building maintenance bylaws should be considered as part of a comprehensive plan for housing that embraces a broad rights-based approach.
The Right to Housing
The right to adequate housing implies more than having four walls and a roof and is not limited to the basic supply and availability of housing. At minimum, adequate housing meets the following basic conditions:
Affordability, meaning that the cost of housing does not interfere with access to other basic needs;
- Security of tenure, meaning that residents are protected from arbitrary eviction;
- Accessibility, meaning that people of all abilities have housing that accommodates their needs;
- Habitability, meaning that housing provides a safe, secure, and healthy environment in which to thrive;
- Location close to employment, education, and services;
- Necessary infrastructure to provide such things as safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, affordable heating and water, and access to communication; and
- Cultural adequacy, meaning that housing must respect and provide for the expression of cultural
The right to adequate housing is also understood to include the following elements:
- Protection against forced evictions and the arbitrary destruction and demolition of one’s home.
- Freedom from arbitrary interference with one’s home, family, and
- The ability to choose one’s residence, to determine where to live, and to have freedom of movement.
- Equal and non-discriminatory access to adequate housing;
- Participation in housing-related decision-making.
The right to adequate housing does not mean that everyone is entitled to a government-funded home. What it does mean is that governments must ensure that everyone, particularly the most disadvantaged groups, should have access to housing that is adequate.
Property Standards and Building Maintenance and the Right to Housing
Matters related to property standards and building maintenance, which are meant to ensure that housing is safe, in good repair and condition, free of physical and health hazards such as mould, pests, and extreme temperatures, and provides safe, potable water, proper sanitation and other necessary facilities and infrastructure, (5) are integral to and lie squarely within the right to adequate housing.
CERA has heard, through its work and during public consultations, that tenants have numerous and ongoing concerns with many of these basic components of the right to housing. These concerns include inadequate City enforcement of and landlord adherence to property standards and building maintenance requirements, insufficient incentives for compliance, a lack of tenant awareness of landlord obligations and tenant rights, a lack of awareness of the RentSafeTO program, unsafe and unhealthy conditions in rental units and common areas, and an ineffective complaints mechanism.
The system is difficult to navigate, and tenants find it challenging to obtain assistance. In short, the system is not working. From the perspective of tenants, who are meant to be protected by this regime, many of whom have limited or no other housing options, the property standards and building maintenance system is broken.
The City has asked what improvements should be made to modernize its property standards and building maintenance bylaws. The answer is the City should adopt a tenant-focused, coordinated, and holistic approach to housing that is rights-based. What is required is a fundamental shift in the way the City views property standards and building maintenance – not as discrete technical fixes to discrete technical problems – but as part and parcel of a comprehensive right to housing, where human dignity comes first. To properly address property standards and building maintenance matters, the City must adopt a rights-based approach.
Implementing a Rights-Based Approach
A human rights-based approach is generally applied through the four principles of non- discrimination, participation, transparency, and accountability. In a human rights-based approach, people are empowered as rights-holders, who know and understand their rights and can challenge the state when their rights are violated, for example, through complaints mechanisms. Within a human rights-based framework, governments are duty-bearers – rather than service-providers – who are obliged to respect, promote, protect and fulfil those rights. (6)
A broad, human rights-based approach is especially important in the context of the City of Toronto’s housing and homelessness crisis. When people are faced with a limited supply of affordable housing they may have no choice but to remain in substandard housing, which can also serve to disincentivize landlord compliance. It is critical that the City appropriately enforce property standards and building maintenance requirements. However, what must be understood is that these issues comprise part of a larger right to adequate housing and must be addressed through that lens.
The City should ensure coordinated efforts on matters that affect the right to adequate housing. In particular, a rights-based approach to housing under the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan should govern the review of the property standards and building maintenance bylaws. All decisions should be filtered through this lens.
In a rights-based approach, where protection of tenants’ rights is key, property standards and building maintenance bylaws are supported by strong accountability mechanisms. The City should establish an independent body to monitor compliance, establish and investigate appropriate and meaningful complaints mechanisms, and effectively enforce property standards. The RentSafeTO program, for example, would be incorporated into such an independent body. To be effective, enforcement tools would include, for example, establishing meaningful fines and making use of the City’s ability to undertake repairs on its own and collect the costs from non- compliant landlords. (7)
Ideally, efforts would shift to focusing on prevention, rather than enforcement, by conducting regular inspections and establishing strong enforcement tools that incentivize landlord compliance. The property standards and building maintenance regime could shift from a reactive process, based primarily on tenant complaints as problems arise, to a proactive process where potential problems are identified and addressed before they impact the living standards of inhabitants.
Under a rights-based approach, tenants, including those from marginalized groups, must have meaningful opportunities to participate in all processes that affect their housing conditions. This would include, for example, participation as members of an independent body overseeing property standards and building maintenance matters, committees hearing complaints and making decisions, as well as advisory committees providing ongoing input and review.
This would also include meaningful opportunities to participate throughout the current bylaw amendment process. While public consultations have been held to help inform reports to the Planning and Housing Committee in November, it is important for tenants to have an opportunity to provide input throughout the process, including prior to finalization when proposed amendments are in draft form, and as part of any implementation process.
A rights-based approach ensures transparency, including appropriate and meaningful access to information. We understand that many tenants are unaware of their rights or of landlord obligations under the RentSafeTO program, for example. A simple solution would be to require all rental buildings under the program to prominently post a City-sanctioned list of tenants’ rights and responsibilities, as well as landlord obligations, both in common areas and in units, with contact information on who to call for additional information and guidance. (8) Importantly, such a notice would include a list of key items protected by the appropriate bylaws. An example of such a list is currently available on the City’s website. (9) While providing information on the City’s website is helpful, it is not easily accessible to those who lack regular internet services. Other means of ensuring that those who require the information receive it must be considered.
The City could also develop a public database of landlords and buildings who have been fined under property standards and building maintenance bylaws. This could serve the purpose of motivating landlords to fix problems before fines are administered to avoid inclusion on the database. Additionally, the City should consider public signs that indicate whether buildings meet their required property and building maintenance standards. Similar to the City’s DineSafe program, colour-coded signs could be posted in a public area of the building. City Council has directed Municipal Licensing and Standards to consider such a measure in the past, (10) but there has been no implementation. Tenants should also have easy access to educational materials that can assist them in better understanding property standards and building maintenance matters, including their rights, in various electronic and other formats, and not only solely limited to information on the City’s website. (11)
Transparency includes ensuring that tenants are well-informed during any complaints process. CERA has heard from clients that property standards enforcement officers take an unreasonably long time to respond to complaints, or do not respond at all. When residents file complaints and receive no response, they are less likely to initiate a complaint in the future, which prolongs and perpetuates inadequate living conditions. We have also heard that City staff do not provide complainants with a timeline of the investigation process, including when an investigation will start or when the problem will be remedied. Complainants need to be kept better informed throughout the process, and this could include ensuring that tenants are aware of the service-tracking feature offered through 311 or on the City’s website. (12)
The principle of non-discrimination in a rights-based approach recognizes that many tenants for whom the property standards and building maintenance bylaws are critical, may disproportionately represent disadvantaged groups. The City should ensure that property standards and building maintenance bylaws, and the processes and mechanisms established under them, do not further entrench inequities. The City should also make efforts to reach out to representatives from marginalized groups to ensure their voices are heard, and they are included in decision-making processes regarding property standards and building maintenance matters.
This would include actively reaching out to groups who may be less likely to attend, hear about, or access traditional public consultations.
For illustrative purposes only, the following specific examples demonstrate how a rights-based approach to property standards and building maintenance can apply to specific issues that arise:
Heating and Cooling
During periods of extreme heat, for example, which expose individuals to significant health risks and can exacerbate certain health conditions, housing providers should be required to provide strategies for tenants to deal with excessive indoor temperatures. While a maximum indoor temperature has been implemented in the case of buildings with air conditioning, there are no consistent or comprehensive measures to address this issue in buildings without such facilities. (13) The City should explore feasible options that will maintain healthy temperatures within units, including the possibility of providing funding to support the retrofitting that some buildings would require to meet that standard. Such a measure could help to address the concern raised that the high costs associated with doing so could be passed on to vulnerable tenants or cause displacement and loss of affordable housing. (14) As excessive heat is a health risk, a creative solution must be found.
Our clients have informed us that many landlords fail to treat for pests, or if they do provide treatment, fail to do so adequately. Rat infestation has become an increasing problem in Toronto and poses significant risks to both health and property. The City must aim to eradicate rats in housing.
The City has taken steps to examine possible ways to mitigate this problem. (15) However, a rights-based approach would require the City to address this issue with the goal of eradicating rats in housing, rather than simply mitigating them. This approach aligns with section 3.3 of the apartment buildings bylaw, which identifies the goal of treatment to be the “elimination” or “eradication” of pests, which include rodents. (16) Toronto can look to the example of Alberta, which since the 1950s has been essentially rat free. (17)
The HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, currently under development, is meant to address the City’s housing and homelessness crisis. The current bylaw review process should not be finalized until the ten-year housing plan has been approved by Council, with appropriate direction to guide the bylaw review process. The housing plan process necessarily includes addressing matters that are contained within the property standards and building maintenance bylaws. What is required is a coordinated, rights-based approach at the City that will serve to inform and guide all property standards and building maintenance decisions and processes, including bylaw reviews and amendments.
1 City of Toronto “Public consultations: Property standards and building maintenance” Online,
https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/get-involved/public-consultations/#item/688. 2 City of Toronto “Planning and Housing Committee Overview” Online, https://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2019/ph/bgrd/backgroundfile-126609.pdf.
3 City of Toronto “2019.PH5.1” Online, http://app.toronto.ca/tmmis/viewAgendaItemHistory.do?item=2019.PH5.1.
4 City of Toronto “Creating a new housing plan: Housing 2020-2030 action plan” Online, https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/get-involved/public-consultations/toronto-housing-strategy-2020- 2030/.
5 Toronto, 629, Toronto Municipal Code (July 9, 2015).; See also City of Toronto “Common Standards” (Chart), Online, https://www.toronto.ca/city-government/public-notices-bylaws/bylaw-enforcement/property-standards- keep/.
6 A human rights-based approach is generally applied through the four principles of non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability. In a human rights-based approach, people are empowered as rights-holders, who know and understand their rights and can challenge the state when their rights are violated, for example, through complaints mechanisms. Within a human rights-based framework, governments are duty- bearers – rather than service-providers – who are obliged to respect, promote, protect and fulfil those rights.
7 Toronto, 354-7.4, Toronto Municipal Code (July18, 2019).
8 See, for example, a list provided on the City’s website: City of Toronto “Tenant rights and responsibilities” Online,
https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/housing-shelter/finding-housing/tenant-rights-and-responsibilities/. 9 City of Toronto “Property Standards” Online, https://www.toronto.ca/city-government/public-notices- bylaws/bylaw-enforcement/property-standards-keep/.
10 City of Toronto “2016. LS15.3” Online,
12 City of Toronto ”311 Toronto: Service requests” Online, https://www.toronto.ca/311/knowledgebase/kb/docs/articles/311-toronto/information-and-business- development/311-toronto-service-requests.html.
13 Toronto, 629-38(B), Toronto Municipal Code (July 9, 2015).
14 City of Toronto ”Licensing standards committee: 2018-05-04″ Online, http://app.toronto.ca/tmmis/viewPublishedReport.do?function=getAgendaReport&meetingId=13044 ; City of Toronto ”LS 25.1 Mitigating the negative impacts of excess heat in apartment buildings” pp 5-6. Online, https://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2018/ls/bgrd/backgroundfile-114428.pdf.
15 City of Toronto “Agenda Item 2018 MM39.6” Online, http://app.toronto.ca/tmmis/viewAgendaItemHistory.do?item=2018.MM39.6. 16 Toronto, 354-3.3, Toronto Municipal Code (July 18, 2019).
17 Alberta has a “rat hotline” that residents of the province can call to report a rat sighting, although municipalities are responsible for eradication. The Agricultural Pests Act makes rat control mandatory, and property owners who fail to control rats can face court action. Although Toronto may not be able to entirely eradicate rats, the example of Edmonton and Calgary proves that it is possible, with enforcement and public education, to control the rat population in urban areas.
Alberta “History of rat control in Alberta” Online, https://www.alberta.ca/history-of-rat-control-in-alberta.aspx; The Canadian Press “Rat Hotline encourages rodent reporting in Alberta” CBC News, January 20, 2019. Online, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/rat-hotline-encourages-rodent-reporting-in-alberta-1.2919975.