Approved by the OHRC: July 21, 2009
Housing is a human right
Housing is a human right. International law states that Canada must work towards making sure everyone has access to adequate and affordable housing. But some people, based on factors such as race, ancestry, disability, sex, family status and social and economic status, do not receive the housing rights they are entitled to. When multiple factors intersect, the disadvantage increases and people are at even greater risk of discrimination, poverty and even homelessness.
In Ontario, the Human Rights Code applies to both tenants and landlords. Under the Code, everyone has the right to equal treatment in housing without discrimination and harassment. And landlords are responsible for making sure housing environments are free from discrimination and harassment.
People cannot be refused an apartment, harassed by a housing provider or other tenants, or otherwise treated unfairly because of one or more of the following Ontario Human Rights Code grounds:
- race, colour or ethnic background
- religious beliefs or practices
- ancestry, including individuals of Aboriginal descent
- place of origin
- citizenship, including refugee status
- sex (including pregnancy and gender identity)
- family status
- marital status, including those with a same-sex partner
- sexual orientation
- age, including individuals who are 16 or 17 years old and no longer
- living with their parents
- receipt of public assistance.
People are also protected if they face discrimination because of being a friend
or relative of someone identified above.
Where do housing rights apply?
The right to equal treatment without discrimination applies when renting a unit (for example, in a high rise apartment, condo, co-op or house). It covers processes for choosing or evicting tenants, occupancy rules and regulations, repairs, the use of related services and facilities, and the general enjoyment of the premises.
Housing providers are not the only people responsible for making sure tenants’ human rights are respected. Government legislators, policy makers, planners and program designers, tribunals and courts must also make sure their activities, strategies and decisions address discrimination in housing.
A regulation to the Code sets out what business practices are acceptable and what information can be used when choosing tenants:
- Rental history, credit references and/or credit checks may be requested. A lack of rental or credit history should not be viewed negatively.
- A landlord can ask for income information, but they must also ask for and consider together any available information on rental history, credit references and credit checks (such as through Equifax Canada).
- Income information can only be considered on its own when no other information is made available.
- Income information should be limited to confirming that the person has enough income to cover the rent.
- It is illegal for housing providers to apply a rent-to-income ratio such as a 30% cut-off rule. However, income information alone and rent-to-income ratios may be considered when tenants are applying for subsidized units where the rent amount is geared to income level.
- Housing providers can also ask for a “guarantor” to sign the lease – but only if the landlord has the same requirements for all tenants, not just for people identified by Code grounds, such as recent immigrants or people receiving social assistance.
- Regulation 290/98 under the Code permits no other inquiries.
Accommodating tenant needs
Landlords have a legal duty to accommodate tenants when legitimate concerns arise based on Code grounds. If tenants have special needs related to, for example, a disability, landlords may need to make changes to units, a building entrance, sidewalks or parking areas to accommodate the tenant’s situation. These types of changes can also improve accessibility for other people, including families with small children or older persons.
Not all accommodations involve physical facilities. Some tenants may need changes to rules and practices to accommodate changing family situations or religious practices. Sometimes a landlord may have to take steps to help a tenant who may be unwell or who is disruptive towards others, either because of a disability or due to that person being the target of discrimination themselves.
The duty to accommodate involves giving serious attention to requests or needs that are already known or may be suspected. Both the housing provider and the tenant, and possibly others, have a shared responsibility to cooperate in the process, each to the best of their ability. This might involve providing relevant medical or other personal information. A housing provider has a duty to keep this information private.
Sometimes, one tenant’s needs or conduct may conflict with or have a negative impact on others. Landlords must balance and manage the legitimate concerns of all tenants, while not tolerating any discriminatory views and preferences. Even if a tenant’s behaviour is disruptive, a landlord is expected to take steps to determine whether the situation can be resolved by accommodating a Code-related need.
Even when appropriate accommodation is identified, it may not always be possible to provide without resulting in undue hardship in terms of cost or the health and safety of the tenants’ living environment. When the best possible accommodation would cause undue hardship, there is still a duty to put in interim or next-best solutions. Whatever steps are decided on, landlords need to put the accommodation in place as quickly as possible.
Examples of discrimination
Here are just a few examples of the many ways people can experience discrimination in housing:
- A landlord proceeds with an eviction even after learning a tenant has been in hospital for a long time after a work accident.
- A superintendent makes unwelcome sexual gestures and suggestive comments to a female tenant about how she wears her clothes and hair.
- While building security quickly investigates harassment complaints involving most tenants, they never follow up when a transgender tenant raises similar concerns.
- A landlord streams new immigrants and single mothers into older buildings and units that need fixing, because he wrongly thinks these groups are less responsible than other tenants.
- A neighbourhood residency group lobbies for zoning by-laws to keep social housing for psychiatric survivors out of their neighbourhood.
- A woman, who is White, but who has two racialized children, is deeply offended after trying to rent an apartment from a landlord who comments that one of her “house rules” is that tenants not associate with “coloured people.”
- A rental ad reads “suits a working person” implying that people who receive social assistance or are unable to work due to a disability, or other Code ground, are not welcome or need not apply.
Special programs and circumstances for housing
Under the Code, special programs are permitted if they would help a group of people who are disadvantaged based on Code grounds. Examples would include setting up housing designed for older people, people with disabilities or university students with families.
When the Code does not apply
The Code does not apply in the case of a “personality conflict” with the landlord or another tenant unrelated to a Code ground, or if a tenant shares a bathroom or kitchen with the owner or the owner’s family.
Landlords can advance human rights in housing
Housing providers can take a number of steps to prevent and address human rights in rental housing by developing:
- anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies
- plans for reviewing and removing barriers
- procedures for responding to accommodation requests
- procedures for resolving disputes quickly and effectively
- education and training programs.
It is important to make sure that organizational rules, policies, procedures, decision-making processes and culture do not serve as barriers, and are not having a discriminatory impact. Areas where barriers could exist include wait-list and eligibility criteria, and occupancy rules including guest policies and “persons per bedroom” ratios.
The best approach is to follow some key human rights principles:
- design inclusively, and create no new barriers
- identify and remove existing barriers
- maximize integration
- assess and accommodate individual needs short of undue hardship by exploring ideal, interim and next-best solutions using a cooperative process that maximizes respect, dignity and confidentiality.
 More detailed information is available in subsequent sections of this Policy.
 While the Code protects against discrimination in a broad range of situations relating to housing, this Policy focuses on residential tenancies, or rental housing arrangements. See footnote 11 for more detailed information.