“All the odds are stacked against me”

March 21, 2022

Stories of discrimination in rental housing are far too common in Canada. Many advocates have long pointed to discrimination in housing as a systemic issue caused by patterns of behavior, policies or practices that are a part of the structures of our society which put certain groups at a disadvantage.

What does systemic discrimination in housing look like in practice? From passive aggressive comments to discriminatory housing posts, three women share their stories about their challenges finding and maintaining safe and accessible housing in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

From left, Dorrett White, Jasmine Jennings, and Sheila Warner.
From left, Dorrett White, Jasmine Jennings, and Sheila Warner.

The first taste of discrimination

Dorrett White is a wife, mother, and working actor who has had roles on several shows, including The Boys, What We Do in the Shadows, and Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.

White remembers first experiencing discrimination in housing when her and her now-husband were looking for a place to rent in the Beaches neighbourhood where they could grow into as a family. White is Black and her husband is Latino. Though they looked good on paper – her credit was great and his job paid more than minimum wage – they endured what seemed like endless rejection.

“Every landlord that we went to, they would tell us, ‘alright we’ll take your information and we will give you a call back’ and we never heard from any of them,” White said. “Even when we offered personal references, a number of employment letters, and people who could vouch for us, we would still never hear back. And we would always get told and reminded that ‘parties can’t happen here’ or not to invite too many people over. I’m not sure what that was about but that was a common thread in every single landlord we met on that journey.”

After a long search, White and her husband were accepted for a one-bedroom apartment, but they would soon find themselves on a difficult rental search again.

Learning to settle for less

For Jasmine Jennings, a 24-year-old former youth in care and crown ward about to embark a Bachelor of Social Work, the challenge of finding suitable housing began when she turned 18.

“For a lot of youth in care, turning 18 is nothing to be excited about and the only gift you are guaranteed on this day is abandonment,” Jennings shared. “While other 17-year-olds around me were focused on finding the perfect prom dress or walking across the stage, I was thinking about homelessness.”

Jennings said that time spent in care often leads to a belief “that putting up with abuse, mistreatment, or just generally being uncomfortable is something that I have to do.” The belief that she did not deserve safe and stable housing was with her when she started to look for a place to rent after being released from foster care.

There were other challenges facing her, as well.

“I am disabled and Black, and I am a woman of low income, so it feels like all of the odds are stacked against me,” she said.

“Because I am disabled, my income is ODSP. And a lot of times, landlords do not want to accept someone who is disabled. In fact, in a lot of housing postings, you’ll see ‘job letter or recent paystubs required’ and this usually leaves me living in spaces that aren’t safe and don’t meet my accommodations,” Jennings shared. “I have had knives pulled on me, I have had inappropriate sexual advances. I’ve been locked out. I have been told that I have to be home at 10:00 p.m. I have paid money in cash then been told that I haven’t paid, so I had to pay double. So, being left to live in spaces that aren’t safe has been really challenging.

White also found herself renting an apartment that she did not feel comfortable with due to discrimination in her rental search.

After enjoying their apartment in the Beaches neighbourhood for a couple of years, White and her husband sought to find a bigger place after having a daughter. Realizing that the Beaches would be too expensive for their budget, they decided to try looking in Scarborough. While Scarborough had more apartments in their budget, it was still difficult for them to find a landlord willing to rent to them.

“We thought it would be easier to look for an apartment as a family, but funnily enough, it felt like it was much harder,” White said. Instead of being told, ‘Oh, we don’t know if you can afford this place,’ we would be told things like ‘Oh, this one-bedroom or this two-bedroom might not actually work for your family’ or ‘no children allowed here.’ ”

After “months and months” of searching, they eventually found someone that would rent to them. Though there were some red flags, such as the landlord only accepting cash as rent payment, they took the place.

“Out of desperation, we decided okay, this guy said we could come in, so let’s go. That ended up being one of the biggest mistakes we ever made,” White said.

Housing discrimination faced by Indigenous People

Sheila Warner is Gitxsan, a member of the wolf clan, and her spirit name is May-may-zey May-ga-zay, Eagle from all Directions. She is a licensed paralegal with Aboriginal Legal Services, working primarily in eviction prevention.  

One major housing issue that Warner sees with the community she serves – low-income Indigenous people in Toronto – is related to Rent-Geared-to-Income (RGI) and the idea of being incorrectly identified as overhoused.  

“If a family has a two-bedroom apartment or a three-bedroom apartment and CAS [Children’s Aid Society] apprehends one or two children then that tenant is suddenly overhoused and they try and evict them for that,” Warner explained.  “However, in order to get their child back, CAS requires that they have a bedroom for each child that are of the opposite sex or if it’s the same sex there is only so many years they can be apart to share a bedroom. So, then your housing is at risk, your children are gone, and now you have no way to get them back because they are not going to give them back unless you have that housing.” 

Troubles with landlords

While she advocates for her clients regularly, Warner said that she finds it challenging to advocate for herself as she also faces discrimination in her housing.

“I am experiencing it this week with my own landlord,” she said. “I have lived in this place for almost 10 years, so my rent is significantly lower than what market rent is right now. The upstairs tenants have just moved out, so he has in turn started harassing me and yelling at me. He doesn’t talk to me, he screams at me, and he seems to think that this is okay.”

Recently, while her landlord was yelling at her for letting a neighbour park in her parking space, Warner told him and his wife that instead of being concerned about a minor parking issue, they should look at the mould in her bathroom that she has been asking them to take care of for years. Warner says that the landlord’s wife turned to her and told her that if she had a problem with the mould, she could move out.

“I know my rights and I can professionally defend myself, but it is so stressful that I can’t,” Warner said. “I am dealing with other people’s housing stuff all day that when it comes to dealing with my own, I end up putting up with it. And also, it is cheap rent, so I let them push me around.”

White, the actor and mother, also reports being treated poorly by one landlord.

After leaving the apartment in Scarborough, her and her family ended up renting an apartment from White’s old college professor. They loved the apartment, but the landlord of the building made it difficult for them to enjoy their stay.

“He would make rude comments to us under his breath. He wouldn’t greet us like he would greet all the other tenants…And if he did talk to us, it was in a really stern, angry, aggressive voice,” White said.

What can be done?

While the three women felt frustrated and disappointed by their experiences trying to rent an apartment in the GTA, they expressed optimism that things can get better for racialized and low-income renters.  

White hopes that discussions like the one at the workshop “can lead to changes and reforms and maybe a bit more ruling for private landlords in terms of how they choose who they are renting to.” 

The Aboriginal Legal Services, where Warner works, has recently begun offering an Indigenous circle where people from all backgrounds can go to engage in alternative dispute resolution.  

“I think when people sit down and they discuss with their landlord what is happening and they can tell their side of the story, the landlord is forced to see them as a person and not a name and number on a file in their office, and that is really beneficial,” Warner said.  

For Jennings, as a former youth in care who is now immersed in social justice work, “it is important to me that a worker understands the systemic nature of homelessness and implements anti-oppression practices whenever possible. It is important that a supporter understands the child welfare system, the realities of youth from care.…And finally, it is important that a supporter is culturally competent and how my race impacts the likelihood of securing safe housing,” she said.  

“I don’t think that stable housing is a want. I think it is a need and is a social determinant of health,” she added. “It is my hope that youth who age out of the system can experience safety and what it feels like to be home.” 

These stories from Dorrett, Jasmine and Sheila were first shared with CERA during a workshop on systemic discrimination in housing that took place on July 6, 2021. The workshop was organized by CERA and the Right to Housing Toronto as part of a virtual workshop series that addresses the critical challenges in advancing the right to housing.

Get the latest updates about the right to housing in Canada