Sarah Boesveld, National Post, October 6, 2011
There’s a two bedroom basement apartment for rent in Toronto’s northwest end–one bathroom, newly painted and renovated with a side entrance. The ad, posted on popular classified site Kijiji.ca, comes with the typical caveats–no pets allowed, no smokers. And then, a less common request: Only Muslims need apply.
It’s the exact kind of specifications the Ontario Human Rights Commission recently warned landlords against putting in their online classified ads–any denial of a prospective tenant due to race, ethnic origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age and disability, among other things, is grounds for discrimination according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s housing policy and the Ontario Human Rights Code.
But for all its condemnation of the practice, the commission this week said they can’t police these online ads, that it’s out of their hands.
Instead, a person would have to call up the prospective landlord and file a complaint if it is clear they were not considered for the apartment because they weren’t Muslim, for example, or Chinese, Korean or Japanese as one other Craigslist Vancouver ad said it would prefer the successful tenants to be.
“If you say ‘Muslim only,’ in the law, you’d be discriminating against Buddhists, against Christians. That could be grounds for an application of the human rights code,” said Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations. Complaints about landlord discrimination regularly trickle into his office and other legal clinics in Toronto, but few are pursued because of the momentous financial and time commitment costs that come with hiring a lawyer and seeing a lengthy tribunal case.
Many such ads appear on sites specifically geared toward one community. But a search Wednesday brought up 32 results for “Muslim only” requests under the real estate category on Kijiji.ca. When contacted by the National Post, one landlord looking to rent a one bedroom apartment in Brampton, Ont., said he “does not want to give the apartment to any other people,” besides Indians or Muslims, as his ad requires. He did not have a specific reason for only wanting to rent to Indians or Muslims, nor did he deny knowing about the Ontario Human Rights Code implications. Another landlord who said in his ad for a two bedroom basement apartment in Mississauga that he would welcome Muslim families said he would also accept other tenants who were not of that faith, so long as they did not drink. The ad says nothing about prohibiting alcohol. Yet another, on Torontomuslims.com, advertises a spacious 1 bedroom apartment for a Muslim bachelor.
Despite the provisions in the Ontario Human Rights Code that say every person has a right to seek housing without discrimination and that no one should announce intention to discriminate against people, ethnicity-specific ads are indeed common enough that the Commission issued guidelines this June about how to write a fair housing ad, said Rosemary Bennett, a spokesperson for the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The move came after the commission yielded numerous complaints, which would not apply to ads for shared accommodations (in those, one can discriminate so to get the kind of roommate they want), but for separate-entrance apartments.
“We haven’t investigated any of these housing things because it’s kind of hard to do,” Ms. Bennett said. “We’re such a small organization with such a large number of possibilities for contravening the code.”
The commission’s mandate changed in 2008 to no longer investigate individual complaints–those would go to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. The fact that the ads are online also pushes it out of Ontario’s jurisdiction and into federal territory, she said, even if the rental address is in the province.
For its part, the commission says it sees fewer cases of favouring a certain race or ethnicity and excluding others than it does those who actively exclude, Ms. Bennett said.
“We tend to usually see the reverse of that, such as ‘no blacks need apply, no people who are LGBT can live here, nobody who’s Chinese,’ so I think that tends to be the larger issue,” she said.
A spokesman for the right tribunal said it doesn’t investigate complaints, but will hear evidence compiled by complainants and their lawyers.
There is such a thing as “positive discrimination” in the Ontario Human Rights Code–renting only to people 65 and older if you’re running a retirement residence, said Vince Brescia, president and CEO of the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario. And while people have a “natural inclination” to seek a certain type of tenant, the law doesn’t give them much control over that, he said.
“If you have bigoted beliefs I think that might be your lost opportunity,” he said. “The law says you can’t do it, but on top of that, you’re turning away prospective customers and that just doesn’t seem like a great business decision.”
Messages to the Toronto landlord went unanswered Tuesday.