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Human Rights: Discrimination in Housing

December 10 is Human Rights Day, which celebrates the United Nations' adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To mark the date, this month's On the Radar talks about one of the most important human rights – freedom from discrimination – in relation to one of the most basic human needs – housing.

The Ontario Human Rights Code

In Ontario, the main law that aims to prevent discrimination is the Human Rights Code. It applies to areas like housing, employment, and buying and selling goods and services. All types of housing are covered except where occupants must share kitchen or bathroom facilities with the owner or the owner's family.

The Human Rights Code says that everyone must be treated equally, and not discriminated against or harassed because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status, or disability. These personal characteristics are sometimes called "grounds" of discrimination.

Most people are familiar with some of these grounds, and would not be surprised to learn that the law says, for example, that landlords cannot refuse to rent to someone because of the colour of their skin, the country they come from, or their sexual orientation. But some forms of discrimination are not as widely known or understood. Below are some examples.

Indirect discrimination:

Discrimination often happens in unintentional or indirect ways: an apartment might be unavailable to someone who uses a wheelchair because the unit or the building is not accessible, or the landlord might have strict noise rules that are unfair to tenants with children.

In situations like these, the law says the landlord must take all necessary steps to meet the needs of those tenants, except steps that would cause "undue hardship" for the landlord. Sometimes this means making physical changes to the unit or building, and sometimes it means changing a rule or practice.

For example, landlords cannot refuse to rent to people with no Canadian credit history, because this is more likely to exclude newcomers and young people. Landlords must use other ways of assessing whether a tenant is likely to be reliable about paying the rent.

Being on social assistance:

There is one ground of discrimination that is prohibited only in housing and that is "receipt of public assistance". This means that landlords cannot treat people differently, for example, by refusing to rent to them or requiring a guarantor's signature, just because they are getting welfare or any other form of public assistance.

New grounds: gender expression and gender identity

The Human Rights Code was expanded in 2012 to expressly prohibit discrimination and harassment against transgender or transsexual (trans), and gender non-conforming people. This protection includes anyone who experiences or expresses their gender identity differently from what society generally expects for the sex they were assigned at birth.

Legal remedies for discrimination

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has the power to make decisions and order remedies in most cases of discrimination.

But in some situations, it may be better for a tenant to raise the human rights issue at the Landlord and Tenant Board, especially if it is connected to something the Board normally deals with, such as eviction or maintenance.

Tenants should get legal advice before deciding which route to take, and to see whether the situation can be resolved without legal action.

For more information about discrimination in housing and where to get help, see the resources listed in the side panel.

This email alert gives general legal information. It is not a substitute for getting legal advice about a particular situation.
December 2012

On the Radar is a monthly email alert from CLEO that highlights timely legal information.


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