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Sexual minorities fight for rental housing

Report examines homophobia

Queers in Ontario still face discrimination in finding rental housing, says a recent report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

“We heard examples of discrimination and denial of rights to gay and lesbian tenants but particularly to transgendered people, whether it was finding accommodations or how they were treated,” says Barbara Hall, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) and former mayor of pre-amalgamation Toronto.

The report — Right at Home: Report on the Consultation on Rental Housing and Human Rights — was released in July, after public consultations last year during which Hall travelled across the province holding open meetings to hear people’s experiences with rental housing.

“Few people think of human rights aspects in terms of housing,” says Hall, “but there’s seeking housing, how one’s treated when one’s in housing, how one’s treated by other residents and the landlord’s response to how one’s treated.”

The report quotes a number of queer tenants, including one lesbian who sought housing with her partner.

“When together we are generally identifiable as a lesbian couple,” she said in the report. “As soon as we showed up the landlord didn’t want to show the apartment to us. When I insisted the landlord said we’d only want to stay there until we got married anyway, and asked us if we had boyfriends. He went on to make a bunch of other negative comments about other issues, I think just to make us angry and leave. I was very upset and I wondered if this was why we hadn’t heard back about other apartments we had applied for.”

Another applicant was looking for accommodation in a student residence, having just transitioned from a man to a woman.

“Being a woman I phoned up a few places looking for female accommodation,” she stated in the report. “The first phone call, I identified as a woman, and I was told by the person renting that I wasn’t a woman.”

Hall says tenants need to be aware of their rights and that landlords have a responsibility to stop any discrimination by superintendents or fellow tenants.

“If people understand the landlord has a definite responsibility and people make it clear they’re aware of that responsibility, that can be useful,” she says.

Hall says if landlords fail to act tenants can file complaints with the Rental Housing Tribunal or with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, the complaints branch of the OHRC. She admits, though, that immediate action may not be forthcoming.

“There isn’t an instant solution short of saying, ‘I’m aware of my rights,'” she says. “There are options at the tribunal to seek interim relief.”

Hall says that many tenants are scared of losing housing.

“If people are discriminated against in housing their first priority is finding housing, not filing complaints.”

Hall says tenants may also feel they can’t prove discrimination but that the tribunal can investigate past behaviour.

“Often there are patterns and often people know about particular buildings,” she says. “It could be a gay couple or a black couple who are told that the apartment has just been rented. Part of the case can be looking at the tenants in a building. That kind of research can be done and can be used as evidence.”