In a city where vacancy rates are at an all-time low, rental housing prices are historically high, and the cost of rent continues to climb, finding the perfect home can be a trying task.
Renting in Toronto has become as competitive as buying, and those who want to succeed in this endeavour usually maintain a high credit score, have great relationships with past landlords to ensure strong references and stash away enough disposable income to make a compelling offer if needed.
As much as we would like to believe we’ve evolved out of the discriminatory ways of the past, prejudice continues to be a problem, and when you’re trying to rent in a competitive market, it can make finding a home feel like an insurmountable task.
But what do you do when your credit, income, occupation, and references aren’t the problem? What happens when it’s who you are that’s the problem? As much as we would like to believe we’ve evolved out of the discriminatory ways of the past, prejudice continues to be a problem, and when you’re trying to rent in a competitive market, it can make finding a home feel like an insurmountable task.
Stephanie Sheehan is all too familiar with this issue; She’s a full-time nurse in the city, has a perfect credit score, and a partner who’s employed as a carpenter with an equally enviable credit history. On paper, Stephanie and her partner were the perfect tenants. There was just one problem — Stephanie’s partner is a woman.
“Even though we had all the necessary documents ready and even bid over the rent price, landlords weren’t receptive towards us,” she says, detailing some of the discouraging and frustrating experiences she dealt with. Stephanie can recall one time where a straight couple was shown an apartment before her, even though she was the first to arrive because the landlord didn’t tell her the entrance was around the back of the building.
And it wasn’t a one-time occurrence — Stephanie and her partner rarely received call-backs, especially if her partner who is more visibly queer went to the open house. She also began to see a pattern: if the decision came down to Stephanie and her partner or a straight couple, the straight couple always landed the unit.
In fact, one time a landlord went as far as to say he “would only rent to men and women.” Stephanie even resorted to hiding the nature of her relationship, referring to her partner as a friend, or hiding the fact that she was a woman. They were eventually able to find a place, after searching for 8 months.
Stephanie and her partner are far from the only people to experience this issue; online communities like Homes For Queers Toronto and Bunz Queer Zone are filled with people with similar problems. It’s why those communities started up in the first place. And it’s not just the LGBTQ community that’s targeted, as people can find themselves discriminated against for a host of reasons.
Discriminating against tenants based on their sexual orientation, gender, race, age, or physical or mental impairment is not only unethical — it’s illegal. The Ontario Human Rights Commission clearly outlines what’s expected from landlords both for dealing with current tenants and when picking a tenant: So why does discrimination happen?
All too often, renters aren’t aware of their rights or the dispute mechanisms that are in place to address any breaches of code. And even when aware, proving that a breach has occurred can be difficult; you might accuse a landlord of discrimination for not taking you as a tenant, but there are a multitude of ways for a landlord to justify picking one tenant over another.
What makes it even more challenging, is that discrimination can come in different forms. We can all recognize direct discrimination from a landlord — when they openly use discriminatory language — but indirect discrimination is much harder to address; when policies or practices apply to everyone equally, but they place you at a disadvantage.
A low-rise property may have a staircase as opposed to an elevator; all residents must utilize these stairs, but if you were disabled then you’d likely be prevented from even renting in that building in the first place. In this example, there’s no justification for an inaccessible building, and therefore, this amounts to indirect discrimination — which the law is quite murky on. Not likely much that can be done about this.
If you have a dispute with a landlord and aren’t being taken seriously, one of the first things you should do is to reach out to the Landlord and Tenant Board, whose express purpose is to assist in resolving disputes. You can contact the board without cost and receive detailed information about your rights, however, don’t expect the phone operators to get into many nuances or interpret the law. They’ll quickly advise you to retain a lawyer for anything beyond a simple answer.
Should you proceed with a case, both sides will be heard before a tribunal. It’s important to note, that filing a case does require the payment of a small fee, and the results of the case are legally binding.
The recourse for landlords who discriminate depends on the circumstance; should you take a landlord to the tribunal, there are a number of possible outcomes — including fines for discriminatory behaviour and allowing a tenant to break a lease without penalty to get away from a discriminating or harassing landlord.
It’s true that proving discrimination took place can be difficult, but if you feel you’ve been a victim of discrimination then it never hurts to reach out and see if you have a case. Those who abuse the law and tenant rights need to understand that they may get away with it on occasion, but eventually someone will seek justice. If you're that person, the calculation you need to do is to weight the cost and your time against potentially achieving that justice. That’s often a complicated question, but one worth careful consideration.