How to claim the right to housing in Toronto

May 6, 2021

Finding and accessing an adequate place to call home in Toronto is unattainable for many but especially for renters in a city where nearly half pay unaffordable rents and 20% live in unsuitable homes.

For years, people with lived experience of housing precarity, along with many housing advocates, have been sounding the alarm on the increasingly unequal access to adequate and affordable housing in Toronto. One of their proposed solutions to reverse these trends is to push governments to approach housing as a fundamental human right. The right to housing is an important framework that can enable people to secure adequate, affordable and accessible housing. Canada committed to the right to housing in its international commitments and in 2019 passed legislation that solidifies this commitment. What this means is that governments in Canada have an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to housing. However, without concrete plans or strategies in place, there would be no practical avenues to claim the right to housing.

Fortunately, two levels of governments have developed housing policies that commit to advance the right to housing. Federally, this obligation has been cemented under the National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA), and the City of Toronto is the first municipality in Canada that has committed to a rights-based approach in its ten-year housing strategy, the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan.

These policy decisions and policy tools are historic achievements in and of themselves. Here we explore how they can be used to address systemic barriers and how communities can claim the right to housing.

What is the ‘right to housing’ and what are ‘systemic barriers’?

Under international human rights law, the ‘right to housing’ is recognized as the right of every person to a safe and secure home where they can live in security, peace and with dignity. A set of standards have also been recognized to ensure that a home is adequate for its inhabitants, meaning that it is affordable, secure, habitable, accessible, close to services, in an acceptable location, and culturally appropriate.

All of these international standards apply to housing standards in Canada as the NHSA and the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan recognize that housing is a human right. However, there is much work to be done for this right to be realized for many people across the country.

To understand systemic barriers, let’s use the following example. Several groups of people can face similar housing challenges, not because of their individual circumstances, but because they stem from the same root causes. For instance, people who work a minimum wage job may be struggling to pay their rent in Toronto because they don’t earn enough to afford the rising cost of housing. Similarly, people who have lost their job as a result of the pandemic may also be struggling to pay their rent because of income loss. While the individual circumstances of people in these two groups may be different, the root cause is the same – there is a lack of affordable housing in Toronto.

These are ‘systemic barriers’ and there are several at play that deny the realization of the right to housing for many communities in Toronto who are simply trying to find an accessible, adequate and affordable place to call home.

The National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA)

The NHSA is Canada’s first piece of legislation that identifies housing as a fundamental human right as recognized under international law. It recognizes that all people have the “right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.” This law requires the federal government to develop and support rights-based housing policies to advance its commitment to progressively realize the right to housing over time. It has also created mechanisms to engage with vulnerable communities who are facing systemic housing challenges to ensure that housing policies respond effectively to the needs of communities.

Three key mechanisms have been created under the NHSA to hold the federal government accountable to implement the right to housing:

  • The Federal Housing Advocate
  • The National Housing Council
  • The Review Panel

Each of these mechanisms has a distinct role and a set of responsibilities, while all three interact with one another. Together they provide an innovative and participatory model through which systemic housing issues and human rights claims can be brought forward by affected groups and reviewed outside of the judicial system. Our primer provides further details of the functions and responsibilities of these mechanisms and how they work together.

The HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan

Following the adoption of the National Housing Strategy Act in July 2019, the City of Toronto took an historic step by aligning its own housing policy with a rights-based approach. The HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan was adopted in December 2019 and includes an updated Toronto Housing Charter. The updated Charter recognizes and commits to progressively realize the right to housing, and affirms that all residents have the right to an equal opportunity to thrive and that adequate housing is essential for the inherent dignity and well-being of an individual.

The plan identifies 13 strategic actions that the City will pursue in 10 years. Among its laudable goals, the City has committed to promote better access to good quality, safe and affordable housing for people who need it, as well as enhancing housing stability to keep residents in their homes. The plan aims to invest City funds into strategic measures that prevent evictions, create 40,000 affordable rental and supportive homes, and provide pathways to support better and more stable housing options for Indigenous communities, women, and seniors.

Crucially, to advance the right to housing the plan also commits that the City will establish accountability and oversight mechanisms to ensure that it follows through on its human rights commitments outlined in the plan. One major element of this oversight mechanism is the establishment of a Housing Commissioner’s Office to hold the City accountable to its commitment to advance the right to housing and to address systemic housing barriers.

Key human rights features of the HousingTO Plan include:

Embracing the right to housing framework in line with the National Housing Strategy Act and an updated Toronto Housing Charter based on key human rights principles.

  • Investing the maximum of the City’s available resources to realize the right to housing.
  • Taking concrete actions to combat housing discrimination and reviewing how City policies, programs, and services affect residents’ access to adequate housing.
  • Establishing a Housing Commissioner’s Office

Making a claim to the Federal Housing Advocate and the Toronto Housing Commissioner

While the NHSA and the HousingTO Plan provide important avenues to advance the right to housing over time, it is important to clarify that these are policy tools that do not require the federal government nor the City of Toronto to immediately provide every resident with an adequate home. They also do not provide a pathway for individuals or groups to claim their right to housing or to seek justice for a rights violation through the justice system.

Instead, what the NHSA and HousingTO plan do provide are avenues for impacted communities to bring forward their systemic barrier claims to official bodies that are responsible to look at the complaints. These bodies, like the Federal Housing Advocate or the Toronto Housing Commissioner, would then investigate the issues and send their recommendations to the government ministries responsible. Their recommendations will offer practical ways that the issues should be resolved in order to uphold that community’s right to housing.

The federal government is currently recruiting Canada’s first Federal Housing Advocate. Housing advocates are hopeful that this key position will be occupied by a qualified candidate with human rights expertise. At the municipal level, the City of Toronto’s original plans to establish the Housing Commissioner in 2020 have been delayed several times. It remains unclear when this key mechanism will be put in place. CERA and other housing advocates, specifically as part of the Right to Housing Toronto Network, will continue to urge the City to take this next step and emphasize that the Housing Commissioner is crucial to advance the right to housing in Toronto.

Community engagement and participation is the key to claim the right to housing

Once the Federal Housing Advocate and the Toronto Housing Commissioner are fully installed, it will be up to the groups and communities who face systemic barriers to make their case and claim their right to housing.

To support communities in this important work, CERA and the Right to Housing Toronto network are bringing together communities across the Greater Toronto Area in a series of workshops over the spring, summer and fall of 2021 to discuss the systemic barriers faced by communities. In these workshops we will explore how the right to housing can be claimed together through the mechanisms outlined in the NHSA and HousingTO plan.

The first workshop was held on May 5, 2021 – check out the recap.

The second workshop will be held on July 6, 2021. Registration will open soon – stay tuned!

Get the latest updates about the right to housing in Canada