From the Toronto Star
Jul 07, 2009 04:30 AM
SOCIAL JUSTICE REPORTER
At first, Kristen Stewart thought it was just bad timing when several apartments she was hoping to rent were no longer available when she showed up to view them.
But when a landlord looked her in the eye and coldly said he didn’t rent to teens with babies, the truth hit like a slap in the face. As a young, black, single mom on welfare, nobody wanted to rent to her.
And she is not alone.
A groundbreaking study, to be released today, estimates that about one in four black, single parents and households on social assistance face moderate to severe discrimination in Toronto’s tight rental market. The same is true for South Asians.
For those with a mental illness, more than one-third face discrimination when they inquire about available apartments, the study found.
"Even when rental housing is available, thousands of marginalized individuals and families cannot make it through the door," says the report by the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation.
"Any strategies to address homelessness and housing insecurity must address this reality."
The study, one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in Canada, was funded through a $90,000 grant from the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, established by former Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson.
Ontario’s Human Rights Code protects renters from discrimination on a variety of grounds, including family status, age, disability, colour, ethnic background and reliance on social assistance.
To test landlord compliance, the centre created five "renter profiles" – a single mother with one child; a black single mother with one child; a single South Asian man, a single man with a mental illness and a married woman on provincial disability benefits.
Volunteers posing as these vulnerable renters made telephone inquires about 982 apartments listed for rent across Toronto last summer. Each call was followed up within 1 1/2 hours by another volunteer with no discernable grounds for discrimination.
Each pair asked the same 12 questions and the landlords’ responses were recorded and analyzed for mild, moderate or severe differential treatment.
For example, to gauge discrimination against the South Asian man, one caller used a distinct South Asian accent and name, while the second caller had no accent and used a Western European name.
Discrimination against the South Asian man ranged from not having his call returned to being told the unit was already rented when it was still available.
The South Asian man also faced extra application requirements such as being asked for postdated cheques. And 31 per cent of the time, he was offered fewer move-in incentives such as free cable TV, the study found.
"In some cases, the landlord makes the unit so unappealing that he doesn’t have to turn the person down," said John Fraser, the centre’s program director.
The centre’s results are similar to those from studies in the United States, where community-based organizations regularly monitor discrimination in rental housing, Fraser said.
He hopes Queen’s Park will fund local groups to use the centre’s model to track the situation.
The centre is also calling on the province to fund more human-rights cases based on housing discrimination and to beef up support for local agencies that help households facing these barriers.
Education is also key, says Barbara Hall, chief of Ontario’s Human Rights Commission, which held consultations on housing discrimination last year and will release a related policy document this summer.
"I think it’s fair to say most people are not aware there is a human rights component to housing," Hall said in an interview.
"The commission has never focused on this issue and it’s something we and other commissions in Canada are just beginning to investigate."
The study’s findings translate into tens of thousands of Torontonians potentially facing discrimination, including about 6,000 single parents, 2,000 of whom are single black parents like Stewart.
About 10,000 South Asians and nearly 15,000 Torontonians receiving Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program benefits and more than 8,000 people with schizophrenia in Toronto experience significant discriminatory barriers every year, the study says.
And the numbers likely are low because those who don’t face discrimination during the initial phone call could be treated unfairly when they view the apartment or fill out an application, it adds.
That was Stewart’s experience, and the incident two years ago left her hurt and confused. "I was stunned. I couldn’t believe someone would say something like that."
Stewart, now 18 and living with her 2-year-old daughter in a subsidized apartment in the city’s east end, has just completed high school and is about to start college.
"I hope this study makes people more aware so this sort of thing stops," she said.