Housing in Toronto: A Human Rights-Based Approach
The housing crisis in Toronto has reached epidemic proportions. According to the City of Toronto’s own market analysis, “Toronto’s housing and homeless supports system is bursting at the seams.”1 Social housing waiting lists and waiting times have grown, and renters are living in increasingly unaffordable units and in unsuitable conditions, with housing challenges expected to grow at alarming rates.
Currently, 87% of households with incomes under $30,000 spend more than 30% of their income on rent, 148,000 bedrooms are needed to address overcrowding in households, and 100,000 households await social housing. In 2018, an estimated 8,715 people were experiencing homelessness, with housing affordability, migration, and eviction serving as key drivers, and 94% of people experiencing homelessness wanted to move into permanent housing. An estimated 28% of all people experiencing homelessness in Toronto are youth.
In the absence of significant government intervention and action, Toronto’s housing challenges are expected to worsen, particularly for vulnerable groups such as low- and moderate-income households, seniors with fixed incomes or complex health issues, single parent families, households on social assistance, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, and immigrants. By 2031, it is projected that approximately 540,000 people will live in low-income households, nearly 300,000 households will be in core housing need, and the waitlist for social housing will grow to approximately 120,000 households, continuing to surpass the number of available units. Unchecked, Toronto will face increasing challenges for equity, cohesion, and economic prosperity.
Without adequate housing, little is possible. The City of Toronto envisions itself as “a strong, vibrant and sustainable city that is capable of thriving in the global economy.”5 However, this goal cannot be achieved when people are struggling to afford homes that may not even meet basic needs. As Toronto has recognized, a fundamental prerequisite for strengthening the City’s economy, its environmental efforts, and the health and social well-being of its residents is the ability to access safe, secure, affordable, and well-maintained homes.6 When people are adequately housed, they can focus on reaching their full potential, and the City can flourish.
The City of Toronto has made efforts to address the problem of inadequate housing and homelessness, particularly through its Housing Opportunities Toronto Action Plan 2010-2020 (HOT Plan 2010-2020), which established the Toronto Housing Charter – Opportunity for All (Toronto Charter), the first of its kind in Canada.7 Despite these efforts, the housing crisis has continued unabated.
As the City develops its next 10-year action plan on housing, what is needed to effect lasting change is a fundamental shift in the way the issue of housing is understood. Adequate housing is a human right, and this is the lens through which housing must be viewed. Toronto’s housing crisis is a human rights crisis. In a human rights-based framework, human dignity is the central, guiding principle, and it is from this starting point that comprehensive and lasting solutions can be found.
Indeed, in June 2019, Canada passed legislation, which for the first time in this country, recognizes housing as a human right.8 The legislation outlines a human rights framework that will guide, oversee, and monitor a new National Housing Strategy and we hope it will catalyze similar action at the provincial and municipal level across Canada. To this effect, Toronto’s City Council has taken a significant step forward in directing its Affordable Housing Office to take a rights-based approach to the Housing Plan. This is an important development that sets Toronto on a promising path forward to address the current housing crisis in a meaningful and effective manner.
We note that the previous HOT Plan 2010-2020 acknowledged the direction the City received from public advocates and experts to “be bold, be innovative, and above all else, be a leader.”9 We urge the City to continue on this path. A human rights-based approach requires new ways of thinking about and solving our housing problems. And, as one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world,10 Toronto has the capacity and the resources to be a global leader on measures to eradicate housing need and homelessness.
Toronto is also celebrated as one of the most diverse and inclusive cities in the world. As the City develops its HousingTO Plan, those who experience marginalization and those most vulnerable to housing need must be an immediate priority.
The Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA) welcomes the opportunity to provide submissions in support of a human rights-based approach to housing in Toronto.
CERA is a not-for-profit organization that has worked for over thirty years to advance human rights in housing and the right to housing across Ontario. In doing so, CERA assists renters facing eviction and housing-related human rights violations, educates individuals and communities, and advances progressive and inclusive housing law and policy. Clients who use CERA’s individualized services are predominantly low-income members of equity-seeking groups who often face significant discrimination and unequal access to adequate housing, including women, families with children, seniors, youth, people with disabilities, people in receipt of social assistance, people who are racialized, members of the LGBTQ community, people experiencing homelessness, immigrants, refugees and newcomers.
The Right to Adequate Housing
The right to adequate housing is recognized both nationally and internationally,11 and is rooted in the inherent dignity and well-being of all persons.12 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:
1. Affordability, meaning that the cost of housing does not interfere with access to other basic needs;
2. Security of tenure, meaning that residents are protected from arbitrary eviction;
3. Accessibility, meaning that people of all abilities have housing that accommodates their needs;
4. Habitability, meaning that housing provides a safe, secure, and healthy environment in which to thrive;
5. Location close to employment, education, and services;
6. Serviced by necessary infrastructure, such as safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, affordable heating and water, and access to communication; and,
7. Cultural adequacy, meaning that housing must respect and provide for the expression of cultural identity.
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 privacy;
- 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; and,
- 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.
CERA’s Consultations on the HousingTO Plan
To inform CERA’s submissions on the HousingTO Plan, CERA conducted its own consultations with Toronto residents who have been affected by housing need or homelessness, with support from the City of Toronto. The consultations explored with participants their ideas for implementing the right to housing over the next decade.
CERA consulted with two significant stakeholder groups: youth who have experienced homelessness and tenants who have experienced eviction, eviction threats, disputes with landlords, and challenges accessing housing. CERA organized two workshops with 7 members of our Youth Advisory Committee and conducted phone interviews with 14 previous HASEP clients.
During the consultations, participants described their own expectations for housing, which largely mirror the basic conditions set out in the right to adequate housing. Both youth and renters expressed their housing needs in modest terms: they said that they expect to live in dignity and to feel safe, stable and free of housing struggles so that they can turn their focus to moving forward with their lives. In ten years’ time, they hope that Toronto is a city where everyone lives in dignity and without fear of eviction, homelessness or living in inadequate and unsafe conditions.
To achieve their vision of housing in Toronto, participants shared their ideas of what the City of Toronto should do, including:
- Build affordable social housing that meets the needs of residents;
- Ensure a variety of housing types for different needs;
- Partner with the provincial and federal governments to freeze, cap, or control rents;
- Implement legislative measures to prevent the financialization of housing;
- Protect tenants from illegal evictions and harassment;
- Protect the existing stock of rental and social housing while maintaining good standards of living in older buildings;
- Direct financial and other resources to housing in order to meaningfully and effectively address the problems identified;
- Adopt evidence-based data practices, including for monitoring and disclosing data on housing prices and income, and ensuring these are better balanced;
- Establish a complaints mechanism to protect renters from predatory behaviour;
- Regulate the housing market to protect the vulnerable;
- Establish better control over the housing market; and
- Prevent homelessness instead of managing it.
The participants were clear that, in striving to attain these goals, the City should actively and respectfully engage and consult with vulnerable stakeholders and those with lived experience to seek their input and to build relationships of trust. Meaningful engagement would include meeting with stakeholders in the geographic areas where they are located and being respectful of the time constraints they may be under.
The participants also expressed their hope that the City will value the feedback they provided as part of these consultations and take it into consideration in a meaningful way.
A Human Rights-Based Approach to the HousingTO Plan
What does a human rights-based approach to adequate housing mean for the City of Toronto in practice?
It means adopting an overarching human rights framework that guides and informs all of the City’s work and services. It means decision-making that puts people first and prioritizes human dignity above other considerations. It means recognizing that homelessness has a profound impact on human dignity, health, and well-being, and causes a significant loss of life. It means putting into place comprehensive, holistic, and rigorous measures that provide a coordinated and effective response to housing need and homelessness in Toronto, with an emphasis at the outset on assisting the most vulnerable groups, particularly those who are experiencing homelessness or housing precarity. It means ensuring an ongoing, current and accurate understanding of housing need and homelessness, which requires the participation and leadership of those with lived experience, as well as experts in housing and human rights, and a commitment to maintaining and using high-quality, transparent, evidence-based data. It means putting into place meaningful, effective, and independent accountability structures and recourse mechanisms.
In keeping with the recent recognition of the human right to housing in Canada’s National Housing Strategy Act, the City should similarly recognize the right to adequate housing for all residents of Toronto, including a commitment to the progressive realization of this right to the maximum of available resources, and to take steps in this direction without delay. CERA urges the City of Toronto to recognize the right to adequate housing by incorporating this right as the central operating principle of its HousingTO Plan, by amending the Toronto Charter accordingly, and by incorporating this right in the Toronto Municipal Code.
Given the severity and longevity of its housing crisis, the City should consider a definition of housing affordability that more appropriately reflects the realities of lower-income households, vulnerable groups and those in greatest need in Toronto, particularly those experiencing homelessness. There is a need for innovative solutions to ensure that stable and affordable rental housing is built, preserved, and maintained over the long term, and that strong eviction prevention measures are in place. There is also a need to increase the availability of and provide greater protections for dwelling rooms across the City, and to better protect the rights of existing tenants through regulatory reform and increased enforcement. The City should also look to immediate housing solutions that can move people from the streets into decent, clean, adequate housing that honours their right to live in dignity. The creation of mixed-income communities City-wide should be a priority. In addressing these urgent matters, CERA encourages the City to look to successful precedents in other jurisdictions, both domestically and internationally, and consider how these can best be incorporated in Toronto.
A rights-based approach to adequate housing means that people must be at the centre of all municipal decision-making, and that every decision, at every level, must consider its impact on those in housing need. This must be the starting point from which each decision at the City of Toronto is made, whether dealing with zoning and planning issues or matters that at first glance may seem to be unrelated to housing, homelessness, or low-income households, but which may nonetheless have an impact. In a human rights-based approach, where human rights concerns are a primary consideration and take precedence over other factors, the City would take measures to mitigate negative impacts on the right to adequate housing.
A recognition of the right to adequate housing requires a fundamental shift in the City’s approach to, its understanding of, and its attitude towards goals and objectives. As such, the City should take steps to ensure that its staff and officials are equipped with the educational and training supports needed to inform their work and activities. This would include implementing City-wide protocols that would provide staff and officials with the tools needed to assess the impact of their decisions, policies, procedures, programs, plans, and exercises of discretion on the right to housing, and to ensure that these are consistent with the realization of the right to adequate housing. It would also mean that dedicated staff with expertise in the right to housing and the HousingTO plan would serve as a resource, providing guidance, support, and monitoring functions to the City. It is also important that decision-making processes go beyond consultation and include meaningful participation by the individuals and communities who are directly affected.
Not only must City decisions consider their impact on the right to housing, but all initiatives that directly involve the provision of adequate housing in the City must be centrally coordinated. The HousingTO Plan is meant to guide a City-wide approach to housing, and all City divisions and departments should work collaboratively and effectively towards the common goals outlined. As such, while CERA is pleased that the City is taking steps to implement an inclusionary zoning policy that would require new residential developments to include affordable housing units, we are concerned that this initiative appears to be unfolding under a process that is separate from the development of the City’s ten-year HousingTO Plan. Under a rights-based approach to housing, all initiatives that deal in a direct way with implementing the right to adequate housing must be governed by the central strategy outlined in the HousingTO Plan, with human rights considerations taking precedence over other factors during all stages of planning, development and implementation. Optimally, this would mean that one division within the City of Toronto would have primary charge over all such matters. To this effect, the creation of the Housing Secretariat is a promising development and we encourage the City to ensure that it be provided with jurisdiction over all matters that relate to or have an impact on housing.
In its HousingTO Plan, the City needs to set measurable goals, targets, timelines, and mechanisms for reducing and ultimately eliminating homelessness, and ensuring adequate housing for residents over time. In CERA’s view, the City should articulate specific 2-, 5-, 8-, and 10-year targets and mechanisms for reaching its objectives, recognizing the urgency of our housing crisis and focusing in the immediate term on those who are precariously housed and experiencing homelessness. In particular, the City should bear in mind the UN Special Rapporteur’s direction that no one should be left behind, and that rights-based housing strategies must commit to, among other things, ending homelessness by 2030.
A key facet of a rights-based approach to housing is that of meaningful engagement by those affected. This would mean a HousingTO Plan that is designed, implemented, and monitored with the participation and leadership of diverse individuals and communities who are directly affected by inadequate housing and homelessness, along with civil society organizations and other stakeholders. These communities must also have opportunities to provide ongoing input into the City’s decision-making processes that involve the right to housing.
CERA notes that the City has already created an External Advisory Committee whose members include those with lived experience of poverty, housing insecurity and homelessness, as well as experts and stakeholders, to provide advice on the development of its HousingTO Plan. CERA encourages the City to establish a permanent Advisory Committee that can continue to provide advice and input as the Plan is implemented over the coming decade. The Committee should be resourced appropriately to enable its members to perform their duties and functions and should be provided with sufficient administrative support to facilitate its activities. The Committee should have the ability to conduct research, consult with domestic and international experts, and provide recommendations to the City in the implementation and further development of the HousingTO Plan and City decisions. To be effective, the HousingTO Plan itself must incorporate a degree of flexibility, so that the Committee can respond to changing circumstances as they arise and provide advice accordingly. Once approved by City Council, there should be no material amendments to the HousingTO Plan without adequate consultation with and input from the Advisory Committee.
It is also imperative that the HousingTO Plan address the need for a comprehensive accountability scheme that provides for robust, independent monitoring and oversight of the Plan, independent oversight, and individual and systemic complaints recourse mechanisms. CERA urges the City, in consultation with the External Advisory Committee and any successor, to review various right to housing accountability structures, such as the recently created National Housing Advocate, and other similar mechanisms around the world to establish, within a reasonable timeline, the most effective accountability scheme for Toronto. Any such mechanism would need to be adequately staffed and resourced to function efficiently and appropriately, and to reflect the primacy of the right to housing and the City’s commitment to addressing its housing crisis.
As part of a system of accountability, and as has already occurred with the HOT Plan 2010-2020, the HousingTO Plan should continue to provide annual public reports that include detailed
updates on its progress, with specific reference to the goals, targets, timelines and mechanisms outlined in the Plan, and the successes and challenges encountered. To support regular monitoring on the progress of the right to housing under the Plan, there is a need for high-quality data, disaggregated by race, gender, age, income, and other variables, that can assist in understanding the Plan’s impacts on the housing rights of priority populations and equity-seeking groups. CERA encourages the City to seek out the best models for effectively collecting, using, analysing, and distributing such data.
CERA is grateful for the opportunity to have contributed these submissions and is encouraged by the level of engagement that the City has had with stakeholders on this issue.
Toronto is facing a critical moment in housing. We have a rare opportunity to create an impactful human rights-centred public policy that is responsive to one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time. In her presentation to the Planning and Housing Committee on April 30, 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing noted that Toronto has the potential to be a model for Canada and the world on addressing housing challenges.
The path forward is a rights-based approach to housing. Toronto has the resources and the capacity to meet this challenge and, if done right, can prove itself not only as one of the great global cities of the 21st century, but one that is reflective of compassion, dignity, and justice.
“Your immediate problem is not so much the right of the soul to expand, but the necessity for everybody to have a decent dwelling; not to make all homes mansions, but to ensure that none of them will be hovels. It is only a very rare soul that can expand in a hovel. This objective of decent housing simply has to be achieved in our democratic society.”
– The Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson, Prime Minister of Canada, Speech to the Ontario Association of Housing Authorities, 1965
1 Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis & Canadian Urban Institute, “Toronto Housing Market Analysis: From Insight to Action” (2019) at 2, online (pdf) (THMA) https://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2019/ph/bgrd/backgroundfile-124480.pdf.
2 Ibid., at 1.
3 Ibid., at 2-3; Youth Without Shelter, “Youth Homelessness: Statistics”, online https://www.yws.on.ca/who-we-are/youth-homelessness/.
4 THMA, supra note 1, at 1, 3, and 11.
5 City of Toronto Act, 2006, S.O. 2006, c. 11, Sched. A, Preamble.
6 City of Toronto. Toronto Housing Charter – Opportunity for All (2017).
7 City of Toronto, “Housing Opportunities Toronto Plan – An Affordable Housing Plan” (2010-2020) at 9.
8 National Housing Strategy Act: see Budget Implementation Act, 2019, S.C. 2019 c. 29 [NHSA].
9 City of Toronto, “Housing Opportunities Toronto – An Affordable Housing Action Plan” (2010-2020) at 6.
10 New World Health, “Global Wealth Migration Review: Worldwide Wealth and Wealth Migration Trends” (2018) at 20, online (pdf) (GWMR) http://nebula.wsimg.com/2d8c090c4126c000ebc2bbc46d1f78ae?AccessKeyId=70E2D0A589B97BD675FB&disposition=0&alloworigin=1.
NHSA, supra note 7; UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 993, at Article 2 and 11 [ICESCR].
11. NHSA, supra, note 7, Preamble; ICESCR, Preamble.
13 Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, “The Right to Adequate Housing: Fact Sheet No. 21 (Rev. 1)” at 3-4, online: (https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FS21_rev_1_Housing_en.pdf.
14 UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, “We Are at A Critical Moment” (2019), online: UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing www.unhousingrapp.org/why-housing.
15 Reports submitted by CERA to City of Toronto: Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, Housing TO 2020-2030 Consultation: Client Interviews from CERA’s Housing Access, Stabilization and Eviction Prevention (HASEP) program (June 2019); Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, Report on: Housing TO 2020-2030 Consultation workshop with CERA’s Youth Advisory Committee (June 2019).
16 UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, “We Are at a Critical Moment” (2019), online: UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing http://www.unhousingrapp.org/the-shift.