Jane Schweitzer says writing an ad for an available rental property has become a minefield thanks to the glaring eye of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).Schweitzer, a Hamilton resident who owns several rental properties and Assistant Moderator of the Ontario Landlords Association forums, says the commission’s recent campaign to address “discriminatory housing advertisements” goes too far.
On June 14, the OHRC announced it was going to ask media outlets and housing websites that run ads seeking tenants to address what they see as a growing trend toward discriminatory housing advertisements.
Ad descriptions that include wording such as “adult building,” “must provide proof of employment” or “No ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program),” are deemed by the commission as being discriminatory.
“The Human Rights Commission has some nerve telling people who they can and can’t rent to,” says Schweitzer. “We all know the eviction process in Ontario is a difficult one so what control does a landlord have? They are telling us who we shouldn’t discriminate against and yet I’m dealing right now with a former tenant who is on social assistance who did $10,000 in damage to my home. I was getting the rent cheque directly from Ontario Works, but all it takes is a call from the tenant and it can stop, and it did.”
Landlords also cannot deny a tenant housing because of age, including 16 or 17 year olds independent of their parents. Family status, sexual orientation or disabilities are also areas that can’t be discriminated against by property owners looking to lease units.
Other phrases that may seem innocent or used simply as an attempt to attract people who may be interested in a particular building end up discriminating “by accident,” according to the commission. Wording such as “ideal for quiet couple,” “suitable for single professional,” “perfect for female student,” and “suits mature individual or couple” are all viewed as possibly discriminatory.
The same goes for statements such as “not soundproof” which could indicate a bias against families with children.
“We learned from landlords and housing groups that people felt they were being discriminated against,” says Afroze Edwards of the OHRC.
In response to the complaints they had received about discriminatory online ads, the commission looked at 28 sites that offer housing listings, and then did a detailed review of four of the largest websites that provide rental housing listings for Ontario. On some sites, it found that up to 20 per cent of online ads for smaller units contained statements that were either directly or potentially discriminatory. The research also showed that often the public is not aware of the full range of housing protections under the Human Rights Code.
The OHRC has been working on the issue with the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, the Housing Help Association of Ontario, the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, the Housing Help Centre in Hamilton and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.
However, landlords like Schweitzer say the OHRC is failing to understand the landlord’s position in the rental relationship.
Schweitzer says she rented her $950 a month 3-bedroom house to a young couple and their 2-year-old daughter last September knowing they were on social assistance. She did a credit check but found they had no credit. She rented to them anyway on the basis their Ontario Works cheque would cover the rent.
“I had some reservations when we rented to him, but he provided first and last and set up the utilities in his name,” she says.
But Schweitzer soon had concerns when she tried scheduling a biannual inspection of the home to check the furnace, windows and smoke alarms, and had a difficult time arranging a visit with the tenants. She then saw garbage piled up around the house and the tenants changed the locks, which is illegal. She issued an eviction notice in early June.
After her experience, Schweitzer says the property is up for sale.
“I’m tired of it. We have other properties, but it’s becoming very difficult to be a landlord. People in this business are becoming very afraid to say what they want to say when it comes to applicants.”
But the OHRC insists research shows that people living on social assistance, pensions or retirement income are just as likely to pay their rent as people who are working. It emphasizes there are many ways tenants can prove that even if they don’t have steady earned income they can and will pay the rent, such as through credit checks and rental history or a guarantor.
As a result of their findings, the OHRC has developed a fact sheet that outlines how to write a non-discriminatory housing ad, provides examples of discriminatory statements and suggests fairer alternatives. Other support materials include brochures. An online learning tool on human rights and rental housing has been developed and posted online: www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/factsheets/fairads.
Edwards says the OHRC isn’t about to start “policing” rent ads in newspapers and on websites, but he hopes landlords will become cognizant of how they describe their units and encourage all prospective tenants to seek out their properties.
“It’s intended as a resource to become more aware,” says Edwards. “We learned most people want to comply with the code, but they’re not exactly aware of the rights and obligations under the code.”
When asked if there were exceptions, say if a female landlord wanted to only rent to a female tenant, Edwards said that would be okay if facilities, such as kitchens or bathrooms were being shared, but not if separate units existed.
“In a shared situation, you can stipulate whatever you want, and there are exceptions such as women’s shelters and homes for seniors,” she said.
Tips from the Ontario Human Rights Commission on how to write housing ads that don’t discriminate:
• Describe the unit, not the tenant.
• Instead of naming the ”ideal” tenant, list the rent, size and other information about the unit itself, the building and nearby services that may appeal to tenants.
• Example: Renting a smaller basement unit. The wrong way: “Perfect apartment for a student” or “ideal for a single professional.” The problem: Others who may also wish to rent it, such as a couple, a single parent, a senior or a person on ODSP, may think the landlord will not accept their application, even if they are able to pay the rent. The right way: “Bright, cosy bachelor basement apartment, new kitchen cabinets, full bath, access to storage locker, shared laundry in friendly 5-unit building. $750 per month including hydro and heat. On two bus routes, close to university, park, shops, community centre.”
Think about the many ways tenants can pay rent. Residents don’t have to be working to have money to pay the rent. Research shows that people living on social assistance, pensions or retirement income are just as likely to pay their rent as people who are working. Tenants can provide many kinds of information to show they have income and are reliable. The Human Rights Code says that landlords can ask for:
• Rental history, credit references and/or credit checks. But do not view a lack of rental or credit history as meaning that a person cannot pay their rent. Young people, newcomers, people returning to the workforce after long periods of caregiving or the end of a marriage may have little or no rental or credit history, which is not the same as a bad credit rating. Other information, such as references or income, must be considered.
• Income information, but you must look at this together with any available information on rental history, credit references and credit checks (such as through Equifax Canada). You can only use income information to confirm that the person has enough money to cover the rent. The only time you can base a decision to rent on income information alone is when the person makes no other information available
• A “guarantor” to sign the lease, but only if you have the same requirements for all tenants. Don’t just ask some people, such as recent immigrants, young people or people on social assistance.
Don’t apply rent-to-income ratios. Housing costs are often high in relation to income. Unless you are providing subsidized housing, it is illegal to apply a rent-to-income ratio, such as a 30 per cent cut-off rule.