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Municipalities Urged to Eliminate Barriers to Housing Services

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Barbara Hall, left, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, chats with Midland Mayor Gordon McKay and Jacqueline Pegg, an inquiry analyst with the public interest inquiries branch. DOUGLAS GLYNN The Free Press

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is calling on municipalities across Ontario to review their zoning and rental licensing bylaws to eliminate barriers to housing services for people with mental health issues or addictions.

Barbara Hall, the OHRC’s chief commissioner, delivered the message in a recent speech to municipal staff, council members and the public at the Midland Public Library.

“Talking about zoning, housing and bylaws in terms of human rights is pretty new,” Hall said, noting many recent instances of systemic discrimination arose because “people did things the way ‘we have always done’.”

She cited one of the recommendations made in Minds That Matter, a recent OHRC report on the human rights issues experienced by people with mental health disabilities or addictions.

The recommendation urges municipalities “to remove non-legitimate requirements that apply to housing or services for people with mental health disabilities that do not apply to other housing or services.

“From its very beginning in 1962, the Human Rights Code talked about human rights in housing,” Hall said. “In those days the concerns were about discrimination in housing based on colour and religion. If you were black or Jewish there were many neighbourhoods where you were simply not welcome.

Today – as most people know, or should know – it’s against the law to refuse housing to someone based on their religion or the colour of their skin or for any grounds on the Human Rights Code.

“Despite this, the complaints still come in. Some are about direct discrimination, such as a landlord telling someone: ‘I don’t want to rent to your kind.’

“Others reflect systemic discrimination,” she said, “barriers built right into the system often without people understanding what those barriers are and what they mean.

“They could be zoning bylaw amendment that places restrictions on the location of accessory apartments. While it might be designed to spread housing around, it in fact limits the housing options for many vulnerable people protected under the Code.

“Whether discrimination is direct or systemic, whether it is intentional or accidental, it has a powerful impact on the people experiencing it.

“That’s why the OHRC is working with municipalities and other sectors to look at their organizations and decisions they make, and to help them find and get rid of discrimination wherever it exists,”Hall said.

“We provide the tools to help you do that in our guide In the Zone: Housing, human rights and municipal planning, which offers an overview of the human rights responsibilities of municipalities in housing.”

She said the guide was written to capture themes and help send a message to every municipality in Ontario. The themes include:

  • The legal obligation to take steps to overcome discriminatory opposition to affordable housing;
  • Focussing on legitimate land use planning, looking at things like parking, built form, infrastructure — like sewers and roads — instead of ‘people zoning’. In other words, not using zoning to keep people out of neighbourhoods;
  • Making sure public meetings focus on planning issues, not the people who live in the housing;
  • Not using minimum separation distances to limit housing options for people protected under code grounds.

“Many of the recommendations we make to comply with the code are different from the approach many municipalities have traditionally used,” she said. She is encouraging people to read the guide, which is available at

She said the OHRC is involved with a number of municipal housing issues.

“We are intervening in cases, called applications, at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario involving Dream Team, a group representing people with mental health disabilities, and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, against the cities of Toronto, Smith’s Falls and Kitchener.”

Hall said the case involves concerns that minimum separation distances between group homes are discriminatory because they limit the housing options for people protected under the code’s grounds of disability and other marginalized people protected by the code. The Toronto case is pending, while the other two are in mediation.

“We have also written to Hamilton about the zoning rights implications of denying a group home zoning application by the Lynwood Charlton Centre, which is seeking permission to house eight teenage girls with mental health issues,”Hall said.

Lynwood has appealed to the OMB; the OHRC is considering its legal options

“We’re also involved in a zoning case at the Human Rights Tribunal on Ontario involving residents of a group home in Napanee.”

Against the advice of its lawyers, town council voted unanimously to deny the home a zoning compliance letter. The residents, people with developmental disabilities, have been repeatedly harassed and taunted by neighbours.

“One recurring theme we see in most of these cases is the disproportionate level of scrutiny of the people living in group homes and other supportive housing compared to everyone else living in the community,”Hall said.

This is especially the case when looking at housing for people with mental health issues, she noted.

The Lynwood zoning application and the Shelter Now application in Midland also involved asking for police reports when no similar requests are made for most other forms of housing, Hall said.

In October, 2011, Midland Council voted 7-2 to defer a re-zoning bylaw until it received a police report about the number of calls to Shelter Now, a 20-unit transitional housing facility on Hartman Drive.

The bylaw to allow the development of a four-storey transitional housing project with 30 to 40 one and two bedroom units on Hartman Drive was finally passed in December.

Hall said the disproportionate level of scrutiny of people living in group homes and other supportive housing was one of many issues reported when OHRC recently launched the Minds That Matter study.

“Minds That Matter also contains a set of commitments the OHRC has made to advancing human rights for people with mental health issues or addictions,” she said. The commitments she mentioned relate to housing, “including continuing to promote our In the Zone guide and to continue to use our mandate to challenge discriminatory neighbourhood opposition to housing and services.

“As part of the commitment, we are just starting to look at methadone clinics in several communities across Ontario,”Hall said.

“We have seen many municipal council reports and many media stories where people say they don’t have to worry about human rights implications because they are not part of good planning. I beg to differ,”she said.

“The Human Rights Code is considered quasi-constitutional legislation. This means that unless a law specifically says otherwise, the code has primacy or takes precedence,”said Hall.

Under the law, the province and the municipalities it governs, have an obligation to reflect the principles and direction of the code in the laws and regulations they impose.

“This applies to both the Planning Act and Municipal Act, so the code — and the protection it offers — must be a part of planning discussions,”Hall said.

Reproduced from