Access to cooling during extreme heat waves is a human rights issue. As temperatures rise due to climate change, extreme heat waves have and will continue to disproportionately impact groups protected under Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code).
At most risk are people with disabilities, older people and low-income, Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities that have little or no access to air conditioning and are more likely to live in areas with fewer parks and shaded outdoor areas. People experiencing homelessness also face increased risks of exposure-related illnesses associated with the rise in temperature. This is especially true in urban areas where heat is more extreme.
People with disabilities, children under the age of four and older people are at particular risk for heat-related illness and death. This vulnerability is also compounded by social isolation and poverty.
Housing provider obligations
Tenants (including renters, co-op residents and people living in condos) with medical conditions that are affected by extreme heat have a right to accommodation without discrimination in housing based on Code grounds.
Recent media reports point to a concerning trend of housing providers denying tenants’ ability to install air conditioning units and threatening rent increases or eviction, or both, if they do so. Any situation where a housing provider issues a complete ban on air conditioners and cooling devices without exceptions likely violates the Code and could lead to a human rights complaint.
As the number of extreme heat waves increases, the right to accessible, adequate and safe housing should include air conditioning. Landlords and housing providers should remove blanket bans on air conditioners and cooling devices. Any policies that prohibit these products must contain human rights-based exemptions and reflect the duty to accommodate.
Setting a provincial maximum temperature
Under the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006 (RTA), tenants must have access to vital services such as heat, hot and cold water, electricity and fuel (such as natural gas). A landlord or housing provider cannot shut off these services, even if a tenant has not paid their rent. Landlords and housing providers might pay for vital services or tenants might pay for them depending on the lease agreement.
Currently, the RTA regulations do not include air conditioning as a vital service. Only housing that has central air conditioning may be required by the municipality to maintain a maximum temperature of not more than 26°C between June and September.
This leaves many Ontario tenants without protections against extreme heat.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission calls on the Government of Ontario to include air conditioning as a vital service, like the provision of heat, under RTA regulations and to establish a provincial maximum temperature to make sure that vulnerable Code-protected tenants are protected against threats of eviction for using safely installed air conditioning units.
Extreme heat caused by climate change is killing people from Code-protected groups disproportionately and will continue to get worse. A human rights-based approach to air conditioning/cooling is required to make sure all Ontarians have accessible, adequate and safe housing.