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.

  • Housing discrimination is rampant, as far as i know. So many people are disadvantaged by such discrimination, particularly the most disadvantaged –single women with children. I wish more people could be educated on their housing rights and on how to seek help.

    It would also be good if rental housing providers could be educated on the human rights aspect of housing. A lot of the front line staff my not be knowledgeable. Thanks.

  • One additional comment to my previous one : I know it’s costly for CERA to provide services like public education on housing rights. What if CERA uses the media to reach out to the public? Publishing an educational article at least once every week in a widely read newspaper/s such as the ‘METRO’ , will go a long way to educate the public. Social media, which is very widely used nowdays, could be another possible vehicle for public education. The two types of media outlets could compliment one another. Thanks.

  • Thanks for your comments Gloria. CERA definitely needs to make better use of the media to get human rights information out to people. We’ve started using social media such as Facebook and Twitter – but I don’t think we’re all that good at it yet 🙂

  • I do believe the education is crucial. That is what can save a person from becoming homeless due to unlawful by-laws and validation, which many buildings and coops are using as their tactics to come out “clean”. I am facing an eviction due to a kitchen cupboards that my coop has put in my unit and half a year later decided to charge me for. I have no one to turn to, as coops don’t fall under the Landlord and Tenant Act, does it mean that myself and my two little boys will be homeless, because there is no law that will protect us? I am having a media involved, papers, television, MP, and a City Counselor, but I need a simple protection in my own home and want the harassment from the outside to stop!!! Please, contact me if you can to come up with ways we can all benefit, as an institution, the public and each person in general.