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Cultural and other groups have the right to associate

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August 28, 2015

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Recent media articles have looked at the issue of housing that is limited to people belonging to a certain community group.

Section 18 of Ontario’s Human Rights Code says:

The rights under Part I to equal treatment with respect to services and facilities, with or without accommodation, are not infringed where membership or participation in a religious, philanthropic, educational, fraternal or social institution or organization that is primarily engaged in serving the interests of persons identified by a prohibited ground of discrimination is restricted to persons who are similarly identified.

The OHRC’s Policy on human rights and rental housing recognizes that section 18 of the Code allows certain types of organizations, which may also provide housing as part of their services, to limit access to people based on Code grounds. This might be a seniors’ residence, for example, that is meant to foster the religion and culture of its residents.

The purpose of section 18 is to recognize that cultural and other groups have the right to associate so they can join together to express their views and carry out joint activities.

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has recognized this and recently dealt with a similar case involving a non-Greek couple looking for subsidized seniors’ housing in a Greek home for aged persons. The HRTO concluded that “section 18 of the Code is applicable to this Application. Since this section of the Code is a complete defence to what would otherwise be a discriminatory practice, the Application had no reasonable prospect of success.”

Currently, Ontario municipalities support social housing to meet the needs of many different groups including:

  • seniors’ housing groups
  • people with disabilities (including mental health and addictions)
  • women escaping domestic violence
  • homeless people
  • newcomers
  • groups relating to ethnicity or creed
  • people with chronic illness
  • at-risk youth
  • Indigenous peoples
  • Performers (Performing Arts Lodge)

Social housing often fills the gap for low-income people by providing supportive housing, government-funded subsidies and rent-geared-to-income housing that would not necessarily be available to tenants in the private rental housing market.

At the same time, the OHRC has commented extensively (in its Right at Home report, for example) on the serious shortage of affordable housing options in Ontario. This shortage disproportionally affects certain groups including Indigenous and racialized communities as well as women, people with disabilities, older people and others. Organizations like the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has identified the extreme length of waiting lists for subsidized housing as a major concern.

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.

Municipalities who manage centralized waiting lists and subsidies for social housing units should do so in a fair, balanced and non-discriminatory way. They should take into account the diversity of needs within the community. They should also make sure that people do not wait longer, on average, for housing based on their ethnic origin, ancestry, place of origin, creed, disability or other ground.

For more information, see the OHRC’s Policy on human rights and rental housing (2009) and, Right at home: Report on the consultation on human rights and rental housing in Ontario (2008).