Mayor Tom Mrakas
Town of Aurora
Council of the Town of Aurora
100 John West Way, Box 1000
Aurora, Ontario L4G 6J1
Dear Mayor Mrakas and Members of Council:
Re: Proposed emergency and transitional housing project at 14452 Yonge St.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) understands that on January 24, 2023, Aurora’s Town Council held a session to hear from the community on plans put forward by Housing York for a five-storey emergency and transitional housing shelter at 14452 Yonge St. The OHRC also understands that Council voted against referring the proposal to the next level, and instead opted for a public planning meeting to address some of the issues raised by the community.
Media reports have included comments from the January 24 meeting, where community members shared their fears that this project may result in increased crime, lowered property values, and a possible threat to child safety. These comments represent discriminatory attitudes towards their neighbours and fellow community members experiencing homelessness and mental health and addiction disabilities. These fears are not a legal basis upon which the Town can make zoning or planning decisions.
The OHRC is concerned that delaying or denying approval of this project may create barriers to establishing desperately needed emergency and transitional housing and may also be discriminatory under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code).
The Town’s legal obligations under the Code are further supported by provincial planning law, as well as federal and international law. Based on the human rights obligations outlined below, the OHRC calls on Council to allow the emergency and transitional housing project to proceed as soon as possible.
The Ontario Human Rights Code
The Code is quasi-constitutional legislation that has primacy over all other laws in Ontario, including the Municipal Act and the Planning Act. The Code prohibits actions that discriminate based on certain grounds (e.g., disability) in providing housing and services.
The Town of Aurora has a legal obligation to make sure it does not impose unnecessary restrictions on emergency and transitional housing that could have a discriminatory impact on Code-protected groups.
Certain groups protected under the Code are more likely to require emergency and transitional housing. This is particularly true for people who receive public assistance, people living with disabilities, including mental health, addictions and complex trauma, and racialized people. Vulnerable groups are often adversely affected when emergency and transitional housing is restricted.
This is the law – but it also makes good sense. People who need emergency and transitional housing face many barriers, both individual and institutional, that prevent them from taking part fully in society. COVID-19 and the skyrocketing cost of things like housing and food has further exacerbated these challenges and has had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, including people who need emergency and transitional housing. Discrimination compounds the daily challenges vulnerable groups face and is a further affront to their dignity.
For over a decade, the OHRC has engaged various municipalities on human rights and municipal planning issues through policy development, advocacy and litigation. The OHRC works with individuals and communities across Ontario to end discrimination and break down barriers that vulnerable groups face. One such barrier is “people zoning.”
“People zoning” or the attempt to regulate based on who will live in the housing often results from opposition to housing projects based on stereotypes or prejudice. This can be a violation of people’s rights to be free from discrimination in housing – which means it can be against the law.
People do not have the right to choose their neighbours
The Town must make sure its by-laws and regulations do not people zone. Planning tools should not target or have a discriminatory impact on Code-protected groups. The Town must ensure that the needs of Code-protected groups are accommodated in any planning decisions it makes. This is clearly outlined in the OHRC’s guide, In the zone: Housing, human rights and municipal planning.
The Provincial Policy Statement
The OHRC understands that York Region has an urgent need for emergency and transitional housing, and in its 10-year housing and homelessness plan it states that it will:
“For people at risk of homelessness, provide supports so they can remain stably housed. For people that do become homeless, provides a safe, temporary place to stay and wraparound supports to secure and retain housing as quickly as possible.”
The Provincial Policy Statement, 2020 (the PPS) supports this commitment, as section 1.4.3 states:
Planning authorities shall provide for an appropriate range and mix of housing options and densities to meet projected market-based and affordable housing needs of current and future residents of the regional market area by: a) establishing and implementing minimum targets for the provision of housing which is affordable to low and moderate income households and which aligns with applicable housing and homelessness plans.
Section 4.4 of the PPS also emphasizes that the PPS “shall be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
The human right to housing
The international community has long recognized that housing is a fundamental and universal human right that must be protected in law. Since proclaiming the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations has recognized the right to housing in many documents.
In 2019, the Government of Canada passed the National Housing Strategy Act. This commits the Government of Canada to further the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Canada is a party to.
As Council moves forward in its review of the emergency and transitional housing project in Aurora, the OHRC urges Council to make decisions that are consistent with the Code, the PPS and the human right to adequate housing to support the dignity and well-being of all community members.
The OHRC welcomes the opportunity to work with the Town of Aurora on this important matter and is available if you or your team wishes to get in touch.
cc: Hon. Doug Downey, Attorney General
York Housing Inc
The Region of York