Subtle discrimination in Ontario’s rental housing sector over race, age or social standing will be among the problem areas targeted in a new housing policy this fall from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the chief commissioner said Wednesday.
In its first annual report released since widening its mandate to focus on broader societal issues rather than just individual complaints, the commission found that the “issue of discrimination in housing kept coming up,” said Barbara Hall.
It was the first time anyone has focused on the human rights component of rental housing, Hall said, adding the problems were provincewide.
One the one hand, healthy seniors complained they found it hard to secure accommodation because their landlords feared they would require additional assistance.
At the other end of the spectrum students griped about the tough time they had snagging decent accommodations because of landlords reluctant to disrupt the ambience of a mature community.
The commission plans to release a new housing policy in early October which can be used to guide landlords and tenants alike.
“There may be some tools for people who face discrimination in housing to get rid of barriers using the human rights process,” said Hall.
Housing discrimination amid a tough economy is an issue of increasing concern for many.
“The report is showing the pain is not being shared equally. Some groups are bearing a bigger burden,” said Michael Shapcott, director of affordable housing at the Wellesley Institute, an independent policy think tank.
Shapcott said seniors, people of colour and those with physical and mental health issues are among those who find it hardest to secure a decent place to live.
“It’s a real wake up call for people in Ontario,” said Shapcott. “Housing is absolutely a necessity in terms of human health, it’s difficult if not impossible to hold a job if you don’t have a home.”
Shapcott said he had heard, first-hand, stories of available rentals going off the market after a landlord discovered potential tenants had strong accents or were on social assistance.
“In Ontario the forms of discrimination tend to be a little more polite but the effect of discrimination is as sharp,” he said.
At least one housing association warned the commission has to guard against compromising the rights of one group while trying to protect the rights of another.
“It’s really based on one’s perspective,” said Sharad Kerur, executive director of the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association.
“What the commission tends to do is paint a brush across all landlords without actually looking at the nature of those landlords,” he said.
Kerur took social housing landlords as an example, saying they were a group bound by a number of rules which could be falsely interpreted as discrimination by residents desperate for accommodation.
“The commission absolutely has to tread carefully,” said Kerur. “What it highlights is in fact the lack of available supply of affordable housing.”
The commission’s work became something of a political football earlier this year, with two Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership hopefuls floating proposals to scrap the commission and its tribunals.
Tim Hudak, who ultimately won the leadership, argued the commission – established in 1961 by a Tory government – and the Human Rights Tribunal are trampling on individual rights and wasting taxpayer dollars on nuisance claims.
Premier Dalton McGuinty praised the commission’s work Wednesday, saying Canada’s multicultural mosaic made for inevitable clashes between residents which needed an independent body to resolve them.
“Instead of having people in the streets dealing with these kind of issues themselves – in a civilized way, we have a body,” McGuinty said Wednesday. “That’s what a human rights commission is all about.”
The transformation of the commission’s mandate had been an important one, said Attorney General Chris Bentley.
“The restructuring of the human rights system was all about making sure we could better support our human rights,” he said. “The commission’s role would be one of looking at systemic issues. That means that they speak to all.”
The annual report’s emphasis on housing came on the day provincial and territorial housing ministers met in St. John’s.
While Ontario’s Jim Watson could not be reached for comment, a spokesman from his ministry said the commission’s work was much appreciated.
“It’s already illegal to discriminate against people in Ontario,” said spokesman Richard Stromberg.
“Landlords must consider all applications in a manner that’s consistent with the Ontario human rights code, they may not discriminate,” he said.
Stromberg said residents who feel they have been discriminated against should contact the Human Rights Tribunal.
With files from Maria Babbage in Peterborough, Ont.