By Nazeefah Laher and Anjana Aery
In a competitive rental market, there are barriers that go beyond high housing costs and limited supply. People in racialized groups, with disabilities, or on social assistance are particularly vulnerable to discrimination.
The Ontario Human Rights Code provides legal protection for people seeking housing, protecting people on 14 identified grounds of discrimination: race, colour, ancestry, creed, place of origin, ethnic origin, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status, disability, receipt of public assistance. This however is not enough to protect individuals from discrimination in the rental market.
A report by the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA) estimated that 1 in 4 households on social assistance experienced moderate to severe forms of discrimination. This report, Sorry, it’s Rented, found that while 14 percent of housing providers provided favourable consideration to those on social assistance, 40 percent of social assistance recipients faced discrimination due to assumptions about the risk of arrears. The report quotes a landlord who refused to rent to anyone on assistance, however, most forms of discrimination are more subtle.
People may be denied rental housing under the guise of other infringements. In the Martinez v. Garcia case at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, the landlord claimed that rent was denied because the applicant was a smoker. The applicant maintained being denied due to being on Ontario Works. In this case the Tribunal ruled in favour of the applicant stating “there would be an intangible harm to the applicant’s dignity, feelings and self-respect from being told that her status of being in receipt of social assistance was preventing her rental application from being given further consideration.” But people rarely report indirect discrimination because it can be hard to prove, can take significant time, and offers little solution to an immediate problem.
Discriminatory practices can severely limit the ability to find a place of decent quality. People on social assistance may face more onerous and stringent requirements when seeking rental housing. Common tenant screening practices such as a credit report or a letter of employment disadvantage people even when they can afford the rent. People on social assistance can also face multiple, compounded disadvantages. For example, a person on social assistance who is also racialized, or living with a mental illness, or has small children, may face additional barriers to accessing housing due to added discrimination and negative stereotypes.
Most people receiving social assistance rely on the private rental market. In 2016, Toronto had 89,895 households on the waiting list for affordable housing with an average wait time for families of almost 10 years. Ultimately, discrimination is exacerbated by the tight rental market. Discriminatory practices interact with structural factors – supply and demand – and limited options in the housing market. It is challenging to enforce legislation against discrimination when vacancy rates are low and demand is high.
The federal announcement of a Canada Housing Benefit can offer more opportunities for people on social assistance. The $200 or more monthly that this would provide could open up a few more options when looking for housing, but ultimately it won’t solve the problem of discrimination.
The enforcement of tenant legal protections requires continuing activity by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, access to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, suitable procedures at the Landlord and Tenant Board, and continued funding of specialized tenant legal services and housing help centres. Strategies to address housing must consider how discrimination impacts equitable access to housing.