Sunday, March 31, 2013

Housing: Room for Rent…Or Not?

United Nations Human Rights Council logo.
United Nations Human Rights Council logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most stressful aspects of arriving in a new country is trying to get a clean and safe place to live. A lot of newcomers come to Canada with children. The school they select is based upon where they live, so finding good, affordable accommodation quickly becomes one of the most important decisions any newcomer makes while trying to put down roots in Canada.
It is important that newcomers read a bit about the laws that govern housing in Canada. There is a Human Rights Code or Human Rights Act for every province that governs the way accommodations are leased and rented in that province. For instance, according to the Ontario Human Rights housing code,  anyone - be they newcomers or citizens - should be able to get good housing that they can afford. To this end, both tenants and landlords (or housing providers) have clearly defined rights and responsibilities.
To find out more about the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords, I approached John Fraser, Program Manager at the housing advocacy group Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA). He guided me through the minefield of legal terms which are often confusing rather than enlightening.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
CNMag: How will newcomers learn about your organization CERA, as usually they are referred to you only if they have a problem?
JF: Right off the bat I would like to reinforce the fact that as a tenant, newcomers have the right to equal treatment in housing without discrimination and harassment.
The Ontario Human Rights code is very clear that you cannot be refused an apartment, harassed by a housing provider or other tenants, or otherwise be treated unfairly because of your race, colour or ethnic background, religious beliefs or practices, ancestry, place of origin, citizenship, including refugee status, sex (including pregnancy and gender identity), family status, marital status, including people with a same-sex partner, disability, sexual orientation, age, or because you are receiving welfare.
You are also protected if you feel you have been discriminated against because you are a friend or relative of someone identified above. That said, the facts on the ground are different. People do face discrimination in housing over some of the above issues. It is when they are turned down for accommodation that they approach us through a settlement agency.
CNMag: So you are their last resort?
JF: Yes you can say that. We are the people they turn to before they take any legal action. Although we try and avoid doing this as it is a costly and time consuming affair. The way it works is like this: the settlement worker usually talks to the housing provider on behalf of the potential tenant. It is when the landlord or property management firm tries to avoid solving the problem that we intervene at the request of the social worker.
CNMag: Can you help us understand your advocacy work better with an example?
JF: Sure. I know of this physician from Bangladesh who came here as an immigrant. He came alone and stayed with his brother for six months. He did odd jobs for a few months and got laid off. He is now on social assistance. It was all okay until his brother's wife joined them in Toronto. It was then that the physician decided to look for another apartment. Although there was availability in the same building, the property manager declined him tenancy based on the fact the physician was receiving social assistance. The settlement worker contacted us and we got involved. We spoke to the property management company suggesting to them the different courses of action we could take, including filing a human rights complaint if they did not change their stance. The outcome was positive as the client was offered accommodation and is now quite well-settled.
CNMag: What are the rights of of the housing provider or landlord? After all, they must be sure of the tenants' ability to pay.
JF: The Ontario Human Rights housing code is fair both ways, as after all, the housing provider must be sure of the tenant's ability to pay rent as they are in the business of renting and not a charity. When renting accommodation there are certain rules and regulations which must be observed. Landlords are well within their rights to ask for rental history, credit references and/or credit checks. However, a lack of rental or credit history in the case of an immigrant should not count against you.
CNMag: In general what has been your experience working at CERA?
JF: We commissioned a discrimination audit across Ontario in 2009.  The findings show that 1 in 4 people or 25% were not offered housing because they were on social assistance. 1 in 3 or 35% were discriminated against because of mental health issues, single parents were denied housing 14% of the time, while people with Caribbean accents denied housing 28% of the time and south Asians were discriminated against 23% of the time. We have been doing advocacy work since 1987 and despite the human rights code the barriers that keep disadvantaged people from getting and keeping their home are in no way gone. Housing discrimination most often affects marginalized communities and our aim is to promote and enforce human rights in housing for people across Ontario.
For more information on the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA):
Visit: www.equalityrights.org
Call 1-800-263-1139
Email: cera@equalityrights.org.
Their CHER site provides housing workers and advocates across Canada with tools and information to overcome barriers.
For Human Rights Codes in your province, click these links:

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