VII. Social housing

Social housing often fills the gap for low-income people by providing supportive housing, government-funded subsidies and rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing that would not necessarily be available to tenants in the private rental housing market.[210] When they are properly funded[211] and operated efficiently, social housing programs have the potential to provide viable housing options to people and families who cannot compete in the private rental market. It is the OHRC’s position that widely-available government-subsidized social housing should be an essential component of Canada’s strategy to fulfill its international commitments to provide adequate housing to Canadians.

As stated earlier, there is a strong correlation between low levels of income and Code grounds such as sex, race, marital status, family status, citizenship, place of origin, disability, age and the receipt of public assistance.

Many tenants in social housing units will be identified by Code grounds. There are several broad categories of social housing tenants: older people applying for the support, community, and income security offered by older persons’ housing projects; low-wage people experiencing a shortfall in earnings; people with disabilities; and people who are homeless or have special needs. This latter group includes many people receiving social assistance.

While many of the issues and examples already identified throughout this Policy also relate to the social housing context (for example, negative attitudes and stereotypes, harassment and systemic discrimination), there are also unique issues arising in this type of housing that merit separate consideration.

1. Waiting lists

Waiting lists for social housing placements are based on date of application, with victims of domestic violence having priority across the province. In mixed-income social housing, the waiting lists are often divided into two separate lists: one list for people on social assistance and another list for people who can afford the market rent. The U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has identified the extreme length of waiting lists for subsidized housing as a concern in its recent observations. [212] For example, waiting lists for subsidized housing with Toronto Community Housing are between seven and eight years long.[213] Excessive waiting times for subsidized units means that subsidized housing is not a viable option for a large majority of low-income tenants in Ontario. In the years between when one applies for subsidized housing and when a unit becomes available, a person’s situation may have changed dramatically. For example, children may have grown up, or, in an extreme scenario, a person may have become homeless.

The chronological order of waiting lists may have a negative impact on people who have a more urgent need for social housing, such as youth and young families. Applicants for social housing are more likely to be people identified by Code grounds than applicants in the private rental market, and it is acknowledged that many applicants will have what could be considered an urgent need for social housing. Social housing providers should try to take individual circumstances into consideration when allocating housing. Where it is clear that an applicant would be at imminent personal risk if they are unable to secure housing immediately, a social housing provider should consider whether it is feasible and appropriate to by-pass the waiting list.

In recognition of the dire shortage of subsidized social housing options, the OHRC supports government programs that facilitate access to adequate housing and that best meet human rights principles such as integration, full participation and respect for dignity.

Example: As part of a pilot project, the government includes a portable housing allowance as a component of social assistance. This would allow recipients to avoid long waiting lists for social housing by opening up a much larger pool of available units in the private rental market. It would allow people to re-locate, if necessary, without worrying about losing a subsidized unit. And, if provided directly to the recipient, a portable housing allowance would allow a tenant to maintain their privacy and autonomy over their income.

2. Eligibility requirements

As in the private rental market, blanket rental rules and requirements for social housing eligibility may have an adverse impact on people identified by the Code. For example, to be eligible for rent-geared-to-income assistance, an applicant must not owe money to a social housing provider. Some social housing providers require a “clean” 12-month rental record and will not consider people for housing until all rent arrears or fees for damages to previous rental units have been paid. However, it should be noted that some people may have fallen into temporary arrears for Code-related reasons, such as the sudden onset of a disability. A blanket policy of this nature does not provide for individualized assessment and does not accommodate people on an individual basis. Unless it will cause undue hardship, social housing providers should take an individualized approach to imposing rental requirements that may have an adverse impact on Code-identified people.

Social housing providers should also try to provide some flexibility in other eligibility requirements. For example, if an applicant has a past incident of rental arrears, a social housing provider should inquire into the reasons for this. Where there is a reasonable explanation, the provider should allow the applicant to show responsibility in other ways (for example, by establishing a repayment plan, providing a guarantor, etc.) The same flexibility should be applied if an applicant is unable to provide the exact information typically required by a social housing provider (e.g. bank account information, specific identification, etc.) Some people identified by the Code, for example, a new Canadian or a person with a mental illness, may not be able to comply completely with these requirements, but may be able to establish their reliability in other ways.

All eligible Ontarians are entitled to apply for social housing. While there are some social housing programs in the province that aim to help specific disadvantaged groups with high core housing needs, members of these groups should not be prevented from applying to other available forms of social housing. For example, an Aboriginal person seeking social housing may be referred to an Aboriginal social housing agency. However, that person should also be allowed to apply to non-Aboriginal social housing programs at the same time.

3. Occupancy policies

A number of common occupancy policies and practices among social housing providers may create systemic barriers for people identified by the Code. Some of these occupancy policies (for example, guest policies and policies stating minimum number of bedrooms) have already been identified as issues within the private rental market and the principles discussed earlier in this Policy apply equally here.[214] Other policies are unique to the social housing context (for example, requirements to report changes in income or household size), but may also have an adverse impact on people identified by Code grounds.

A social housing provider should avoid blanket occupancy policies. Where it will not cause undue hardship, a social housing provider should conduct an individualized assessment of a tenant’s circumstances before imposing a penalty such as the revocation of a subsidy.

Example: A mother receiving a subsidy fails to quickly report to her social housing provider the addition of a child to her household. When she explains to her housing provider that the delay was due to complications arising out of labour and childbirth that required extended bed-rest, the provider uses his discretion to extend the timeframe for reporting.

Many of the occupancy policies used by social housing providers and co-operatives are written down in policies and by-laws that are not easy to modify and are sometimes based on government guidelines. For example, Regulation 298/01 under the Social Housing Reform Act sets out the standard that there has to be one bedroom for every two members of the household.[215] The “National Occupancy Standard,” developed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, suggests that parents should have a bedroom separate from their children and opposite sex children above age five should not share a bedroom.[216] However, it is not consistent with human rights principles for a housing provider to apply and enforce such policies if they do not meet the tests for bona fide requirements established by the Supreme Court of Canada in Meiorin.[217] If social housing providers identify barriers that are imposed on them by government (or others) then they have an obligation to follow up with government to seek changes or the removal of those barriers.[218] The OHRC is also of the view that government, in turn, has an obligation to work with the provider to remove those barriers.

At all times, it must be remembered that the Code has primacy over other pieces of legislation, unless otherwise stated. This means that where there is a conflict between the Code and another piece of provincial legislation, such as the Social Housing Reform Act or the Co-operative Corporations Act, the Code will prevail.

4. Dispute resolution mechanism

Social housing providers should provide an effective and transparent mechanism to resolve disputes that arise in administering and allocating social housing. Social housing tenants should have timely access to a mechanism that will hear and resolve issues about selecting tenants, making disability-related and other accommodations, changing occupancy rules, modifying administrative timelines, denying or revoking subsidies, and any other issues that may arise.

The purpose of a dispute resolution mechanism should be to identify problems and determine ways to solve them that would permit a tenant access to social housing with a minimum of delay. A social housing provider should facilitate this process and provide reasonable assistance to tenants. Dispute resolution procedures that are not timely or effective could amount to a failure of the duty to accommodate. For more detailed information on developing an appropriate internal dispute resolution mechanism, consult the OHRC’s Guidelines on Developing Human Rights Policies and Procedures.[219]

[210] Note that there are various types of social housing arrangements available in Ontario, and not all social housing is geared toward people with low incomes. For example, the main objective of some social housing providers is to provide fully accessible buildings and units for people with disabilities, or to provide supportive housing for older Ontarians.
[211] The OHRC has commented extensively on the serious shortage of affordable housing options in Ontario (see the OHRC’s housing background paper, supra, note 12, and the housing consultation report, supra, note 14). In particular, the OHRC recognizes the significant challenges faced by social housing providers operating within tight budgetary constraints. In this regard, the OHRC has recommended that the Government of Ontario “increase availability of supportive housing and appropriate support services and ensure that social housing providers have sufficient funds to meet their duty to accommodate.” See Recommendation #15 of the OHRC’s housing consultation report, supra, note 14.
[212] Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,supra, note 86 at para. 28.
[213] The Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association’s 2009 Report on Waiting List Statistics for Ontario states that waiting lists for social housing in the province are getting longer, with a 4% increase in 2008. The Association reports that 130,000 households are currently on the waiting list for social housing, but that this number may be a very conservative estimate given that many households, discouraged by the lengthy waiting times, walk away without filing an application. For the full report, see:
[214] See the section of this Policy entitled “Occupancy Policies” for more detailed information, particularly with regard to the specific Code-identified individuals and groups that are most likely to be affected by such policies. For example, “minimum number of bedrooms” requirements will have an adverse impact on a lone mother of two opposite-sex children who cannot afford a three-bedroom apartment.
[215] Social Housing Reform Act 2000, O. Reg. 298/01, s. 28(2)(a).
[216] Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, “Housing in Canada Online,” online: See also Industry Canada, Audit and Evaluation Services, Co-operative Housing Programs Evaluation (2003), online:
[217] Meiorin, supra, note 177. See also: Fakhoury v. Las Brisas Ltd. (1987), supra, note 52; Desroches v. Québec (Comm. des droits de la personne) (1997), supra, note 52; and
Cunanan v. Boolean Developments Ltd. (2003), supra, note 52.
[218] Iness, supra, note 66, at paras. 302 to 335.
[219] See the OHRC’s Guidelines on Developing Human Rights Policies and Procedures, supra, note 204.