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The human side of rental housing

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At every step of the consultation, people shared their experiences, feelings and insights. These personal perspectives play a key role whenever human rights issues are considered. Each story offers one person’s glimpse of a larger issue affecting people across Ontario.

Not in my neighbourhood: a non-profit agency’s struggle …

Humewood House has been involved in a housing development for supportive and transitional housing for teen mothers. The process was long, arduous and intimidating. It was stalled many times by local politics. It was so confrontational that it was not safe to invite the potential tenants, the stakeholders, to represent themselves to address their need for safe affordable housing. If the stakeholders are not safe to attend, what is the purpose of such meetings?

As a newcomer to the planning process, I had wrongly assumed that the issues raised at public planning meetings were about housing and zoning and not about the people. These meetings were all about the women who would be living in the housing, their friends and their lifestyle, not zoning issues. I don’t believe that the planning process should be open for neighbours to determine who their future neighbours are and judge them. All people deserve to be housed.

The process also stigmatized the young families. Community leaders created such a hatred at a public meeting that members of the public began yelling at the young women who attended the meeting to "get a husband." It was upsetting, as a professional, to hear the insults and abuse from residents; I can’t imagine how the courageous young women who came to speak felt. The resentment and rage that resulted from the public meetings has polarized the community and will be a real challenge when the young women move into this transitional and supportive housing. This is not a great strategy to build inclusive neighbourhoods and vibrant diverse communities.

Not in my neighbourhood: a psychiatric consumer survivor’s story…

I recently attended a community information session on mental health and a proposed development of supportive housing for psychiatric survivors. The housing met all the zoning requirements and was approved "as-of-right." Even so, the city councillor requested a meeting to update the community.

At this meeting, a number of residents attended and disapproved of the construction of the housing. Despite cautions from the person chairing the meeting to not make remarks about the tenants who would be living there, the area residents did speak out about what diagnosis people might have, if they would be supervised to ensure they took medication, or if they had a criminal record. One business owner spoke about his fear his business would be negatively affected because of the close proximity of the housing. Many spoke about how they had equity in their homes and they feared property values would decrease.

I repeatedly heard how children would no longer be able to walk alone in the neighbourhood, how children would not be safe to wait for the bus, since the stop they used normally was close to the building. And despite being told individual tenants’ diagnosis was a private matter, people persisted in arguing that they had a right to know who was coming to their community. I repeatedly heard people asking whether with this sort of housing there would be pedophiles in the neighbourhood.

Interesting enough, I had lived in the area for 15 years. No one asked me any questions regarding my health, criminal record or medication when I first moved there even though I am a psychiatric consumer survivor. I was offended and deeply hurt by the remarks made at this meeting.

Stigmatization and NIMBYism is rampant in my city. People dealing with mental health issues cannot be treated like second-class citizens because of the nature of our disability. When did one’s mental health status and income become criteria for moving into any neighbourhood?

It baffles me to think these people firmly believe they have a right to have their questions answered. I am disappointed and disgusted this kind of prejudice is as prevalent as it is. The fight for supportive housing in 2007 is not much different than the fight people of colour fought in 50s and 60s.

NIMBYism is cloaked in complaints that city hall is not transparent in its process, is cloaked in the complaint of lack of communication. NIMBYism is cloaked as concern for the future tenants. These disguises of NIMBYism are vile. NIMBYism is manipulative, derogatory, demeaning, pejorative, condescending, offensive, perpetuates the myths and the stigmatization of people with mental health issues, and NIMBYism violates the human rights of everyone who has a mental illness.

Co-op rule awakens bad memories

I recently moved out from a co-op in western Ontario, where I had lived for five years. During all of this time, I experienced racial and religious discrimination almost every day. The co-op seemed to have committees for everything but multiculturalism or youth, and the make-up of the board never reflected the mix of the people who lived there. The co-op’s by-law handbook is 4 3/4" thick, but only contains one and a half lines about tenants’ rights.

The people in power at this complex do not have multicultural competencies. I can feel that there is a lot of tension among tenants, and there is a silent oppression towards tenants who are marginalized and living under the poverty line.

In 2005-2006 there were issues about vandalism in the complex. The Rules Committee and board members decided, without consulting members in general, to implement a curfew. The Rules Committee designated members, who are usually the bullies in the complex, to patrol the co-op premises from 12 midnight until 6 a.m.

This practice made me and my family and many of the new immigrant members very uneasy. Most of us come from war torn countries, and curfew was a way of oppression, manipulation and control from dictatorships. Now here in Canada, even though the implementation of this rule was not specifically targeting us, it made us relive many painful experiences and traumas.

Canada is a safe place for us, and we should not, under any circumstances, feel persecuted or spied on. I believe that the leaders of this complex should be able to come up with different strategies and practices.

"It’s quiet and it’s free"

D. was on Ontario Works and was just finishing up a retraining program. He was living in a transitional housing situation, but people could only stay there for a set time, and his limit expired.

So D. went in search of his own housing. He found an apartment for $450 per month, and approached his Ontario Works caseworker to talk about whether he could move in. The caseworker told him that this was too much money to pay for rent given his entitlement. D. replied that he just needed to continue assistance for a little while, because he was starting a job and would have paycheques within a month or two, and that he could manage the high rent until then.

The caseworker said no, and would not issue him shelter allowance, and he did not get the apartment. So, when he had to move out of the transitional housing, D’s transition was to the street. Once he was on the street, D. had no address – which meant he was cut off from Ontario Works.

Finally, D. found a place to call home – a crypt in the local cemetery. Even though it was a little creepy, it was a place where he could stay, without hassle, until he got his first paycheque. “It’s a little damp, but the cops don’t roust me, it’s quiet, and it’s free.”

Young, Black, evicted

In June 2003, I gave my landlord over 30 days notice that I would be vacating my apartment on August 1st. The landlord acknowledged receipt of my notice and agreed to the terms of vacating.

I then went to visit some relatives. On the last week of July, I returned to my apartment and noticed that the landlord had illegally locked my apartment. When I went to confront the staff, they stated that they disposed of my property and that they considered the apartment “abandoned” because of non-payment of rent.

I was outraged, because the landlord, without due process or an application to the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, illegally disposed of my property in spite of a written agreement to move out on August 1st.

I think this case involved discrimination based on age and race. At the time, I was 23 and my ethnic background is Somali (Black), and I believe that the landlord (social housing) assumed that I abandoned the unit based on their experience with individuals similar to my age and ethnic background. They made stereotypical assumptions, as evidenced by their not waiting to take control of the unit.

An adjudicator for the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal issued an order stating that the landlord had interfered with the "reasonable enjoyment of the rental unit," but only awarded me $200, instead of the $5,000 I had sought to replace my destroyed belongings. I felt that I was betrayed by the very institution that should have protected my rights.

After having an appeal of this decision dismissed, I contemplated appealing the decision to divisional court, but could not find a lawyer to represent my case. So I researched case law to find out if I could sue the landlord in small claims court for compensation for my personal property. I found a few cases that supported that claim, and the case was going to proceed to trial, but I decided to settle out of court for $2,000, because I was mentally tired of going though this process alone and without help.

Home sweet home becomes home toxic home

Having severe MCS [multiple chemical sensitivities] is often like having brain damage. Intermittent, and often prolonged brain damage that can hit you without warning, simply by being exposed to substances the majority of people use on a daily basis. Things do not function as they should when we are suffering from exposures to the chemicals that make us ill. Understanding simple things is difficult if not impossible. Autistic behaviours manifest. Energy levels plummet. Pains and difficulties with breathing develop. Motor and cognitive functions become impaired.

The only way to recover and to have any quality of life is by avoiding exposures. Yet every time I start to improve, someone else nearby uses something that sets me back again. What started as a sensitivity to perfumes and cleaning products has escalated and deteriorated to complete forced isolation, only because I have been unable to secure housing that is safe for me.

The house I live in is set to be demolished soon (actually the whole block is), and proper repairs have not been done for several years, creating mould problems from all the plumbing and roof leaks. We were able to get an extension from the original date we were asked to leave, but I still have found no place safe and affordable to go.

Being a disabled single parent, having to rely on social assistance rates to raise my children, did not leave me with any opportunity to find the kind of housing I’ve needed to take care of my health. I cannot live in an ordinary apartment building. There is no way to control what other residents use, and all air travels great distances.

Currently, there does not exist any social housing that is suitable for people with multiple chemical sensitivities. Nor would any housing agency provide a direct subsidy to anyone with MCS to rent from a private landlord, even though we qualify.

Most of the so-called affordable housing is often situated near industrial sites with high chemical emissions, highways with heavy diesel traffic, garbage dumps, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, high voltage power lines or cell towers, etc., all areas that people with chemical and environmental sensitivities must avoid.

Healthy housing is my medical prescription, and that of many other people. Lack of this housing is actually a constant state of emergency for us. We are being denied basic health care. When there is no safe home, there is only a fresh hell at every turn, with every passing breeze.

If I had safe accommodations, I could become well enough to get out of bed every day, to be able to read whenever I wanted, to read things that are ink and paper, without getting sick, to walk outside again, to hang out with other people again. And even work again, contributing to society, without being an unwanted burden. Those dreams are possible, only if something dramatic happens within the next month or two. Otherwise, I will certainly join the homeless and dead.

"There’s something wrong with this guy"

S. has bipolar disorder, but for many years he led a stable lifestyle, in stable housing, following a stable medication regime. And then came a fire at the supportive housing building where he lived. In just one night, S. saw his stability and his sense of self-worth go up in smoke.

For the first time in over eight years, S. had to search for housing. He saw an apartment for rent advertised in a local community organization’s housing bulletin. The price listed was $450 a month, but when he called the landlord, he was told the price was now $495 a month.

He went to see the apartment anyway. The landlord showed him the apartment in the dark, and then proceeded to raise the rent to $550 a month. Despite his misgivings, because he was desperate to regain some stability, S. agreed and moved in.

After moving in, he realized there was no ventilation in the kitchen or the bathroom, and that mould was growing – but S. was willing to put up with these deficiencies. S. says his real problems started once the landlord found out, from a previous tenant, that he had lived in supportive housing for persons with mental health issues. The landlord proceeded to harass him and tell him he was crazy. Then the landlord ordered him to move out because he was "not normal."

So after three months in his new apartment, S. moved out and has had trouble finding housing ever since. S. is now homeless, and living in the streets and parks over the summer. In the colder months, he stays in an emergency shelter, but he can only stay there for a short period of time.

S. is not as motivated to find new housing this time. He explains, "I’m not looking, I just don’t care. I just don’t want to have another bad experience like that. As long as I have a place to sleep, I just don’t care anymore."

"They gave me two or three places to look, but it’s the middle of the month and I’m not doing anything. When you do try to rent something, either you lie or you have to tell them you’re on government assistance. They’re not really eager to rent to someone on disability."

"I need an understanding landlord who does not attach a stigma to being depressed. I’m quiet and no trouble, but people don’t see that. Everybody looks at me and thinks, 'there’s something wrong with this guy.'"