Ruling bars bias against low-income tenants:

Landlords can't set arbitrary ratios on rent


The Globe and Mail, December 23, 1998 by Margaret Philip, Social Policy Reporter


Toronto -- An Ontario board of inquiry handed down a ruling yesterday that forbids landlords to refuse an apartment to a poor person based on the prospective tenant's low income.

In a decision that housing advocates hailed as a victory for the nearly 2,000 families stuck in Toronto shelters, the special three-member board ruled there was "simply no evidence" that tenants whose rents would exceed 30 per cent of their incomes are at a higher risk of defaulting on their monthly cheques than more affluent renters.

The board found that the widespread practice of ruling out people based on an arbitrary rent-to-income ratio is an act of constructive discrimination.

"This is a stunning victory," said Beth Symes, the lawyer who represented the three low-income tenants whose cases filed at the Ontario Human Rights Commission almost a decade ago launched the board of inquiry.

"It's a really wonderful statement that says, when landlords use a rule that says you can't spend more than 30 per cent of your income on rent, they're using a screen that discriminates on the basis of sex, age and race, and in doing so, they cut out really good tenants."

In Toronto, about 44 per cent of all tenants are paying more than 30 per cent of their incomes in rent.

The board of inquiry was called in 1994, a special three-member panel instead of the usual one person to reflect what at the time was considered the weightiness of the issue. What followed was 59 days of hearings and millions of dollars invested in lawyers to champion the views of landlords and housing advocates alike.

The ruling handed down yesterday comes more than eight years after Catarina Luis, a refugee from Angola with a 3-year-old daughter, walked into a west-end Toronto high-rise and was refused a $585-a-month bachelor apartment because her social-assistance cheque fell far short of the 30-per-cent rent-to-income policy followed by the landlord, Creccal Investments Ltd.

She was forced to resort to homeless shelters, one time being turned away when there was no room.

"I believe, especially in Canada, that it's a very cold country and people can't afford to live in the streets. Today it's so cold. How can I live in the street in this cold?" she said.

The long-awaited decision was delivered after the Ontario government proclaimed new landlord-and-tenant legislation that, while allowing landlords to adopt income criteria in selecting tenants, does place limits on the practice.

Under regulations to the law, no landlord can require income information from a prospective renter without first requesting references and a credit history. The law stipulates that landlords are not to use the income information in a discriminatory fashion. But exactly what would be considered discriminatory was left up to the board of inquiry in yesterday's human-rights ruling.



Renters score pay victory in ruling:

Human Rights Commission agrees landlords

can't discriminate based on income



The Toronto Star, December 23, 1998 by Patricia Orwen, Social Policy Reporter (front page)


Landlords can't discriminate against prospective tenants on the basis of income, the Ontario Human Rights Commission says.

A commission board of inquiry yesterday signed an order awarding three tenants, including a former refugee from Angola, a total of $13,460 in damages from three Toronto-area landlords who refused to rent to them because they didn't earn enough money.

In its 65-page decision, the board stated there was no evidence that people with low incomes are more likely to default on their rents.

However, yesterday's decision appears to conflict with the province's Tenant Protection Act, which came into effect in June. The act says that landlords are allowed to take income criteria into consideration when deciding which tenants to rent to.

Lenny Abramowicz, a lawyer with Neighbourhood Legal Services, who appeared as an expert witness during the board of inquiry, said last night it will likely take further litigation to determine whether the human rights tribunal decision takes precedence over the Tenant Protection Act.

But tenant activists hail the decision as a victory.

``Landlords will still be able to ask questions about income, but they will have to rethink how they use the information,'' said Toronto lawyer Bruce Porter, who argued the three tenants' cases before the commission.

At least 100 similar cases are currently before the Ontario Human Rights Commission, said Porter, who works with the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation.

``This ruling basically gives us more bargaining power,'' said Porter. ``It means that someone could bring their case to our group and we could negotiate effectively on their behalf either with the landlord, or if that didn't work, we could go to the commission.''

Tenant advocates said the decision was an ``historic victory for tenant rights.''

``Single mothers and children, students and other low-income tenants have long been the victims of landlord discrimination,'' said tenant activist Paul York. ``This is a moral victory for people forced into homelessness because a landlord refused them an apartment because they were poor or didn't have a job.''

Catarina Luis, a mother of three children, told a news conference yesterday that she was denied a bachelor apartment listed for rent in August, 1990. The building was owned by Creccal Investments.

Luis, who arrived in Canada from Angola in 1988 with her 2-year-old daughter, said she was told by the landlord that she had to make at least $2,000 a month to rent the apartment.

But Luis only earned about $1,600 from social assistance and a part-time job.

``I am a very good tenant. I always pay my rent,'' said Luis, who is taking a course through Ontario Works to learn how to run a food store.

After being refused the bachelor apartment owned by Creccal Investments, Luis said she remained in the damp, rat-infested basement apartment where she had been living.

It took another year for her to finally locate and rent another bachelor apartment.

``There are so many single mothers like me who are being discriminated against because we are on social assistance,'' said Luis. ``I am very happy that I have won this case. It means that I am right - it is unfair to discriminate against someone just because they don't have a lot of money.''

Luis recalled that she didn't know what to do about what she considered unfair discrimination until nearly two years after being refused the apartment.

That's when she came across a pamphlet at a neighbourhood drop-in centre stating that it was illegal to discriminate against tenants who are receiving social assistance.

She contacted Porter and another Toronto lawyer, Beth Symes, and the pair filed her complaint with the Human Rights Commission in May of 1992.

The board awarded Luis $460 in specific damages for losses arising when she was denied housing at the apartment owned by Creccal Investments, and $5,000 as general damages.

The board also awarded Dawn Kearney of Brampton $4,000 in damages from the landlord Bramalea Inc.

In 1988, Kearney and her husband Michael had been told by staff at Bramalea Inc. that they didn't earn enough money to qualify for an apartment and that they were too young.

Another tenant, who was not named in the decision, was awarded $4,000 in general damages from the landlord Shelter Corp.