CERA’s Submission on the Government of Ontario’s Proposed Regulatory Amendments to the Housing Services Act, 2011.
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 GTHA, particularly vulnerable renters, including seniors, newcomers to Canada, racialized individuals, persons with disabilities, and families.
In the context of Ontario’s Community Housing Renewal Strategy, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is proposing amendments to Ontario Regulations 298/01 and 367/11, made under the Housing Services Act, 2011. CERA appreciates the opportunity to comment on a number of the proposed amendments.
CERA is pleased to see that the Government of Ontario has committed to a specific housing strategy focused on sustaining, repairing and growing our community housing system to better meet the needs of the people it serves. We note that Ontario has recognized the profound impact of adequate housing on the lives of individuals, families, and communities. In its Community Housing Renewal Strategy, Ontario correctly observes that “when people have the housing they need, they have better health, education and employment outcomes” and that “when housing is affordable and in areas near transit, schools, workplaces and other amenities, individuals have the opportunity to manage their lives and raise their families”.
We agree. For measures to meaningfully address housing needs and ensure better life outcomes, housing must not only be affordable, but it must also meet other basic conditions, including being habitable, accessible and culturally appropriate, and providing security of tenure, the necessary infrastructure, and proximity to employment, amenities and services.
Comments on Proposed Regulatory Amendments
CERA is concerned that some of the proposed regulatory amendments relating to social housing waiting lists, RGI calculations and eligibility, and indexing of minimum rents introduce additional barriers that unfairly and unnecessarily penalize those meant to be served by the province’s community housing strategy, counter to the Strategy’s ultimate aims and objectives. Regulatory amendments aimed at reducing administrative and financial burdens are laudable objectives, but must not come at the expense of improving outcomes for those in need.
The Housing Services Act, 2011, currently requires a Service Manager to accept a minimum of three refusals of community housing offers before a household becomes ineligible for rent-geared-to-income (RGI) assistance in the Service Manager’s area. The Government’s proposed amendment would remove the option for households on waiting lists to refuse an offer of housing. Instead, households would be required to accept the first unit offered, with a failure to do so resulting in the loss of eligibility for social housing. Service Managers would have the authority to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis, but only in extenuating circumstances.
The proposed amendment to the three-refusal allowance ignores practical realities, and imposes unreasonably harsh consequences for individuals and families who may have spent many years on the waiting list. Under the proposed amendment, eligibility for community housing would be lost in situations in which a household refuses an offer of a unit that is not suitable for its current needs, for example, because child care placements or needed health care services will no longer be reasonably accessible, where a household is unreachable when a unit becomes available, or when a portable housing benefit is refused because a viable option is unavailable in the private market. The proposed amendment also removes one of the very limited forms of choice available to low-income households awaiting community housing under the Act.
We understand the concerns the Government wishes to address, which include reducing the amount of time that scarce community housing units remain vacant, the administrative burdens Service Managers face when a unit is refused, and the associated financial losses to Service Managers when units are vacant. However, we believe that the proposed amendment disproportionately impacts households in the greatest housing need, while attempting to address the burdens placed on Service Managers.
The current three-refusal allowance better recognizes the practical realities at play. It recognizes that although a housing offer may meet minimum standards and have bedrooms sufficient for a household’s size, the unit offered may be inappropriate in other ways. The three-refusal allowance takes into account the many varied scenarios in which households may need to refuse an offer, while placing a reasonable limit on the number of refusals permitted. It also enables households to maintain some control over their own circumstances.
CERA urges the Government to retain the current three-refusal allowance and to consider possible complementary measures that could further assist in achieving its objectives. For example, the Government could consider introducing a choice-based lettings system, which has been successfully implemented in countries around the world. Under such a system, eligible households are informed when vacant units become available and must register an interest in the unit before it is offered to them. This approach offers flexibility to households with changing needs, and relieves Service Managers of many of the administrative and financial burdens encountered in the current system. Such a system could be introduced to complement the three-refusal allowance, which provides needed protections for households on community housing waiting lists.
Ontario’s housing strategy recognizes that the current process for calculating RGI assistance is complex and confusing, making it difficult for tenants to understand and for staff to administer. CERA supports efforts to simplify the rules that govern the calculation of RGI assistance to address these concerns.
CERA supports the proposed regulatory amendment that would use the Adjusted Family Net Income (AFNI) to calculate RGI. This approach aligns more closely with that used to calculate numerous provincial and federal tax credits, simplifies the process for Service Managers, and provides households with a more predictable rent over the course of a year.
CERA also supports the proposal to exempt income earned by tenants enrolled in full-time studies at recognized educational institutions from the rent calculation. However, we urge the Government to include in this exemption the income earned by part-time students, who face similar financial challenges and barriers. By excluding part-time student income in the RGI calculation, the proposed regulatory amendments serve as a further barrier for those seeking to improve their economic futures through higher education, but are unable to do so on a full-time basis.
RGI and Annual Tax Filing
CERA is troubled by the proposed regulatory amendments that require households to file their taxes on an annual basis by the appropriate deadline, or risk losing their eligibility for assistance, subject to Service Manager discretion in extenuating circumstances.
Many low income households face multiple barriers to filing taxes, despite the access it provides to various federal and provincial benefits and credits that can increase their income. It is imperative that households are provided with the necessary supports to inform, educate, support and appropriately enable them to file their taxes as required. This would include, for example, ensuring access to free tax filing services, that include appropriate cultural and language supports, to help ensure that taxes are filed. Service Managers could provide assistance by alerting households and facilitating access to such services so that households receive the assistance and support they need.
CERA is also concerned by the penalty – loss of eligibility for assistance – that would be imposed under the amendments should a household fail to meet the administrative requirement of filing its taxes on time, subject only to the discretion of the Service Manager. The Government of Ontario has recognized that without appropriate housing, individual well-being and life outcomes can be profoundly harmed. For households at any income level, deadlines can be missed for a myriad of health, personal, and family reasons. Given the many barriers that lower income households face, this proposed penalty is disproportionate. If taxes are not filed on time, households should be provided with a reasonable extension and the supports they require to file their tax returns. A reasonable grace period should be in place before any contemplated, modest rent increase, which should not rise to the level of market rent. If any rent increase has been imposed, it should immediately be reversed upon tax filing.
Indexation of Minimum Rent
CERA is troubled by the proposed amendment to index minimum rent on an annual basis, not only in future, but retroactive from 2001 to the present. Insufficient information was provided in the Government’s Summary of Proposal to adequately assess the financial impact of this amendment on households, but the magnitude of an increase to the minimum rent, with retroactive indexing reaching back nearly 20 years is likely to be extreme and contrary to the needs of the lowest income households that community housing serves. Rather, households at the lowest levels of income should be protected from measures such as indexing. At the very least, the Government should refrain from implementing retroactive indexing, which harms the most vulnerable in our province.