The OHRC continued to work to eliminate discrimination in housing. As in previous years, we worked with some municipalities, challenged others, sent our housing message across Ontario through public education sessions and speeches by the Chief Commissioner, and called on the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to expand a human rights focus in Ministry policy guidelines. We also took a closer look at rental housing licensing through public interest inquiries.
Some of the key barriers that we see when people call us trying to find housing are landlords’ stereotypes about people who are low income and receiving social assistance … Families with children and particularly families, larger families with children, have a very difficult time accessing housing. Either they have too many kids for the apartment or the landlord is concerned about the noise their children will make and won’t rent to them.
- John Fraser, former Executive Director, Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation
Barriers to housing
Commenting on the “blueprint” for municipalities
Every five years, Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) updates its Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) on land use planning. The PPS outlines expectations and provides guidance for municipalities on the Planning Act. This review is currently underway.
The PPS is the blueprint for municipalities to follow. Adding a human rights lens can lead to significant systemic improvements – before any discrimination can happen.
In November 2012, the OHRC commented for the second time on this review. We were pleased to see proposed amendments in the PPS that respond to our original comments, along with other amendments that advance human rights protections. Positive changes include:
- Recognizing the importance of consulting with Aboriginal communities on planning matters that may affect their rights and interests
- Including “affordable housing” as part of the mix that sustains healthy, liveable and safe communities
- Continuing to recognize the need to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities
- Stating that planning authorities should consider the interests of Aboriginal communities in conserving cultural heritage and archaeological resources
- Implementing the PPS in a way that recognizes and affirms existing Aboriginal and treaty rights
- Redefining “built heritage resources” and “cultural heritage landscape” to recognize that such features may be valued by Aboriginal communities.
While these are positive changes, we noted significant gaps in the PPS. The PPS still lacks overall recognition of human rights and recognition that land use planning can result in discrimination against many groups protected under the Code who, historically and on an ongoing basis, face discrimination as well as socio-economic disadvantage.
As well, the PPS does not provide enough direction to address human rights matters found in land use planning and related litigation. The OHRC has been challenging discriminatory land use planning involving discriminatory neighbourhood opposition (also called NIMBYism); bylaws requiring minimum separation distances between group homes, lodging houses or other housing; and other forms of “people zoning” including restrictions on methadone health clinics or student housing that exclude groups because of disability, age and other Code grounds.
While the OHRC continues to be actively involved in cases with municipalities at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the Ontario Municipal Board, using legal forums is not our first choice to overcome discriminatory planning and zoning bylaws. By the time a case goes to a tribunal or court, the damage to the people wanting to live in a neighbourhood or community is already done. Instead, our goal is to prevent the damage from happening in the first place.
Making the connection between human rights and planning is a relatively new concept for many municipalities. So reflecting human rights requirements in the place municipalities look first – the PPS – is vital.
Over the past year, we worked to put In the zone, our guide to human rights and municipal planning, into the hands of municipalities, planners and advocates. This guide offers municipalities information about their legal obligations and best practices they can apply when making zoning and planning decisions. It also shows municipalities how to further human rights by using tools that they already have to support and increase affordable housing, such as those set out in the Ministry’s handbook, Municipal Tools for Affordable Housing. The Ministry handbook complements In the zone, but it would be even more valuable if it also outlined municipalities’ human rights obligations.
Our detailed recommendation on the PPS can be found on our website at http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/mmah-provincial-policy-statement-review-land-use-planning-ohrc-submission
Promoting and protecting human rights are a key part of building strong communities, a clean and healthy environment and a strong economy. We hope for a new PPS that incorporates human rights goals, so that the Province of Ontario works with us to advance the housing – and human – rights of all Ontarians.
Looking at Toronto zoning
We continued our intervention in an HRTO case, where the Dream Team, a group of people living with mental health issues, is challenging the City of Toronto’s minimum separation distance requirements for group homes.
To reinforce this, we commented on the City’s new amalgamated zoning bylaw several times, including in a deputation to the City’s Planning and Growth Management Committee. We are concerned that both the old and the new bylaws fall short of both the Code and the City’s own Housing Charter, because they:
- Retain a requirement for minimum separation distances between group homes
- Do not allow rooming houses in most parts of Toronto.
Dr. Sandeep K. Agrawal, the city’s planning expert, looked at some of the human rights issues the OHRC has raised from a planning perspective. His recommendations mirrored the position the OHRC and community groups have taken – that there is no sound planning rationale for minimum separation distances (MSDs) for group homes, and that they should be removed.
Dr. Agrawal also looked at whether removing MSDs would cause undue hardship, which is sometimes used as a defence against discrimination claims. He concluded that removing the MSD requirement for group homes would not cause undue hardship – and in fact would reduce the hardship that already exists in the City’s planning process.
We continue to tackle this issue. While the City has stated it will review these issues in a report in October 2013, these restrictions have an ongoing real and significant negative impact on many Code-protected groups – delay is furthering the harm. We will continue our involvement at the HRTO, and advocate for change now, not later.
Lynwood Charlton – stop excluding people with mental health issues
When the City of Hamilton refused Lynwood Charlton Centre’s request to move its housing for eight teenage girls with mental health issues, the OHRC intervened in an appeal of the decision at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). We requested party status to the OMB, primarily because we believe applying a 300-metre “radial separation distance” between group homes is discriminatory “people zoning” under the Human Rights Code and under the Planning Act.
The OHRC has consistently opposed arbitrary separation distances that often restrict housing options for vulnerable people across Ontario. We view them as systemic barriers that should be removed.
In an October 2012 decision, the OMB granted us party status. The hearing began in March 2013, and we are awaiting an interim decision on planning issues before proceeding to the “human rights” part of the hearing.
In recent research that CERA did, we looked at the prevalence of discrimination against people who have an identifiable mental health disability and found out that … of all the profiles that we were testing for … they were the most likely to experience discrimination.
- John Fraser, former Executive Director, Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation
Mental illness and housing
Rental housing licensing inquiries
Rental housing licensing is a fairly new concept – only since 2007 have municipalities had the authority to license and regulate various forms of rental housing. Several municipalities, especially those that are home to colleges and universities, have adopted or are considering rental housing licensing bylaws.
The OHRC has contacted several municipalities on these bylaws, including Oshawa, North Bay, Waterloo and Windsor. We have raised concerns about minimum separation distances, bedroom caps, gross floor area requirements, applying bylaws only in parts of a municipality and other issues that appear to target certain Code-protected groups or result in differential treatment of these groups.
In March 2012, we launched public interest inquiries into the rental housing licensing bylaws in North Bay and Waterloo. These inquiries allowed us to take a closer look at licensing practices and identify possible discriminatory effects on Code-protected groups, find possible solutions, and suggest ways municipalities can draft licensing bylaws that respect and protect the human rights of tenants.
In the past year, we hosted online surveys for tenants, landlords, community groups, advocates and service providers in North Bay and Waterloo, did follow-up interviews with some of the people who responded, and met with student groups in North Bay. We also reviewed documents that each city relied on when developing the bylaws. The process involved regular communication with staff in both cities.
We have completed draft reports and sent them to the cities for comment before releasing them to the public. They will be released in May 2013, along with a new guide on human rights and rental housing licensing. It will feature promising practices to follow – and steps to avoid – so rental housing licensing respects human rights, with features from a number of municipalities including North Bay and Waterloo.