Discrimination in Rental Housing in Ontario

June 30, 2021

Discrimination In Rental Housing crossed out

What is discrimination?

Discrimination is the differential and unjust treatment of people based on personal characteristics. It often occurs when people judge others based on stereotypes, prejudice, and biases. In the context of renting a home, renters can experience discrimination by their landlords. This can occur at many stages of the housing process including when a renter is searching for housing, when they apply for housing, or while the renter is living in their rental home.

Marginalized communities face higher levels of discrimination

Black people, Indigenous peoples, newcomers, those living on lower incomes, single mothers, members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, young people, seniors, and families with children generally face higher levels of discrimination in housing. Many people can face multiple forms of discrimination based on their intersecting identities. For example, an Indigenous woman does not experience the world as an Indigenous person and as a woman separately. Instead, these identities intersect and she may experience multiple forms of oppression and discrimination at once as an Indigenous woman.

Discrimination can sometimes be overt. For example, a landlord who tells a single mother with two children that a two-bedroom unit is best suited for a couple without children is discriminating against her in an overt way based on family composition and marital status. However, discrimination can often be very subtle and difficult to identify. For example, a landlord requiring co-signors or guarantors for a newcomer renter is making renting difficult because most newcomers will not have a community or family to support them on that front. This form of discrimination is more indirect. It is referred to as constructive discrimination, where a policy or rule indirectly creates barriers for particular groups of people.

Other examples of discrimination may include:

  • A landlord harassing renters because of the type of cuisine they cook in their home
  • A landlord evicting a renter because their disability causes them to make noise at night
  • A landlord imposing a strict noise limit policy on renters with young children
  • A landlord putting renters into a unit that needs repairs because they do not expect younger renters to make a complaint or to know their legal rights

The lack of available rental property in both Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has forced many renters to put up with discrimination as they fear not finding another place to call home. While the vacancy rate in Toronto increased in 2020 to 3.4%, the vacancy rate for affordable rental units remained low. The vacancy rate for purpose-built rentals with rents ranging from $750 – $999 was 1.4%. This means that for every 1,000 affordable rental units in the city there were only 14 units available for rent. The low vacancy rate of affordable rental housing means that a landlord has access to a larger pool of renters to choose from and may base their choice on discriminatory grounds. Additionally, when rental housing is scarce, renters are more willing to stay in housing situations where they are being discriminated against by their landlord.

How does the Ontario Human Rights Code protect against discrimination?

The Ontario Human Rights Code seeks to ensure that all people are treated equally and that their rights are protected. The Ontario Human Rights Code (“the Code”) prohibits discrimination in housing based on the following protected grounds:

  • Age
  • Ancestry, color, race
  • Citizenship
  • Ethnic origin
  • Place of origin
  • Creed
  • Disability
  • Family status
  • Marital status (including single status)
  • Gender identity, gender expression
  • Receipt of public assistance
  • Sex (including pregnancy and breastfeeding)
  • Sexual orientation

In addition to the Code, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects peoples’ rights to be treated equally under the law. Canada also has obligations under international law, in particular, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Charter, to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and that their human rights are respected. Canada has also signed several international treaties which commit the government to protect people from discrimination.

How can renters file a claim based on discrimination in Ontario?

If a renter believes they have been discriminated against, they can file a claim to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (the “Tribunal”). This claim must be made based on a protected ground under the Code and filed within one year of the event. Once the claim is filed, the application will be sent to their landlord who may then respond to the claim. The renter is then given the option of mediation before a hearing takes place. In mediation, the Tribunal will hear both sides of the dispute and try to find a resolution that satisfies both parties – the renter and the landlord. If a settlement is not reached or the renter chooses not to pursue mediation, their claim will go to a hearing. During the hearing, the parties will each present evidence to support their position to the adjudicator who will consider both sides and make a final decision. This process can be quite lengthy and onerous on renters. The Tribunal aims to hold a hearing within a year of an application being filed but this may take longer depending on the circumstances. Additionally, final decisions are usually given to the parties three to six months following the hearing.

What is systemic discrimination?

What makes discrimination a systemic issue is when it is caused by patterns of behavior, policies or practices that are a part of the structures of our society, organizations and institutions which put certain groups at a disadvantage. We can determine whether systemic discrimination is occurring in different ways. We can look at data to see how many marginalized people are represented in an organization and how they are treated. We can look at the policies and decision-making of institutions to see if they exclude certain groups. This is because although policies may seem neutral on the surface, they do not affect everyone equally. We can also look at the culture of organizations to see if that leads to certain groups being marginalized or excluded.

Examples of systemic discrimination in housing may include:

  • In a co-operative that houses a diverse group of people including racialized communities, evictions of its racialized residents are in far greater proportion than its non-racialized members.
  • A building that has a policy of only renting to people who are employed. This policy would likely exclude people who receive social assistance, people with disabilities and seniors.
  • A building that has a policy on what types of cultural events can be celebrated in the common areas. This type of policy may exclude certain groups.

How can systemic discrimination in housing be addressed?

In 2019, the federal government passed the National Housing Strategy Act (NSHA), Canada’s first piece of legislation to identify housing as a fundamental human right. Under the NHSA, the federal government is required to ensure that vulnerable groups can participate in developing housing policy. To encourage participation, the NHSA establishes several mechanisms allowing for systemic issues, including those related to discrimination, to come to the attention of policy makers.

Three mechanisms created under the NHSA are meant to hold the federal government accountable to implement the right to housing:

  1. The Federal Housing Advocate
  2. The National Housing Council
  3. The Review Panel

The National Housing Council has been established, while the Federal Housing Advocate is yet to be named. The Federal Housing Advocate role in particular, creates an opportunity for people and communities to bring systemic issues to its attention by allowing them to make a submission. The Federal Housing Advocate can then investigate these issues and make recommendations to the federal Minister responsible to find policy solutions.

Claims to the Federal Housing Advocate are different from claims at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in the following ways:

  • The Human Rights Tribunal is part of the judicial system while the Federal Housing Advocate is not.
  • Claims to the Federal Housing Advocate are based on submissions brought by a group or an individual about common systemic barriers to housing. A claim to the Human Rights Tribunal is a legal application that someone makes based on discrimination they experienced individually.
  • The Federal Housing Advocate assesses submissions and gives recommendations and advice to the Federal Housing Minister. A member of the Human Rights Tribunal can make a legal decision about a renter’s application and order a solution for them.

In addition to the federal mechanisms in place, the City of Toronto has also made a commitment to a rights-based approach to housing policy through its 10-year housing plan, the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan.

The plan includes the establishment of the Housing Commissioner’s Office that will hold the City accountable for the right to housing and to its promise of addressing systemic housing barriers. The Commissioner will help the City create policies that are consistent with the right to housing and will monitor its progress in reaching its goals. Additionally, the Commissioner will ensure that vulnerable groups are consulted about housing policy and that the systemic issues they face will be brought to the attention of City Council. Similar to the Federal Housing Advocate role, the creation of the Housing Commissioner will provide an opportunity for groups to bring forward their experiences of systemic discrimination in housing. The City of Toronto’s Housing Commissioner has yet to be established.

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