Housing Discrimination in Toronto is Making House Hunting a Nightmare for Marginalized People
When Zandile Chiwanza decided to move to Toronto back in June, she figured that five months of apartment hunting would be more than enough time to find a place.
But when October finally rolled around, rather than living in her own apartment, she found herself crashing on her sister’s couch. Despite being fully employed and having a sound record of tenancy, every landlord she contacted seemed to have a reason why they couldn’t rent to her. In some cases, she was told her credit score wasn’t good enough while other times, upon arriving at a viewing, she’d suddenly be told the apartment was no longer available.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Chiwanza suspected her skin colour might be the issue. She began taking notes and saving her correspondences with prospective landlords. After one particularly difficult day of apartment hunting, she emailed them to me and suggested I consider it for a story idea.
“I’d write about it myself, but it’s too personal at the moment,” Chiwanza, an editor, told me. “But I bet you there’s a story there.”
In Ontario and across the country, housing is a human right. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), under the Human Rights Code, every tenant has the right to “adequate and affordable housing” and the “right to equal treatment in housing without discrimination and harassment.”
But even with clear laws like these, for many people of marginalized communities, discrimination remains a significant barrier when looking for housing in Toronto. According to The Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA), a not-for-profit organization that works to preventing evictions and end housing discrimination across Ontario, one in four South Asian households, households that receive social assistance and those headed by a single black parent experience “moderate to severe” discrimination when inquiring about available apartments in Toronto.
The number of tenants who experience housing discrimination every year is unknown. In 2012, housing discrimination complaints accounted for only six per cent of all complaints filed to the Human Rights Commission. But according to CERA, in reality this number is much higher, as most people who experience discrimination are unlikely to pursue legal action. Instead, they simply move on to the next available apartment.
Rising rental costs across the city have done nothing to curb these experiences. In fact, they’ve managed to only exacerbate them as the housing market has become a bidding war in which the most qualified come out on top.
Back in August, I was invited to join a Facebook group for black people in the Greater Toronto Area searching for housing. As I started researching for this story, I began looking through the group’s recent posts. Nearly all of them were from black residents across the city inquiring about available spaces, while others offered house hunting advice and tips.
One post in particular caught my attention: “Same sex couple and a friend looking for a 2 bedroom apartment for rent within 80 minutes to down town Toronto. We can’t seem to find a place and all people doing to us when we go view a place is Lie! Is there anyone with a very powerful organ call a heart? Who will rent to us and not see our color, race, sexual orientation or O.W money? Please let me know.”
The post wasn’t at all surprising. For members of the LGBTQ community, housing searches can often be a daunting experience riddled with discrimination. As Tyler Morden, LGBTQ Youth Housing Support Services Coordinator at The 519 explained, despite sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression being protected under the Human Rights Code, biphobia and transphobia remain “significant barriers” to housing for LGBTQ community members in Toronto.
“There are some landlords who will directly tell prospective tenants that they do not rent to ‘people like you,’ or encourage them to rent elsewhere because ‘this is a family-friendly building,’” he said during an email interview with me.
Landlords who are aware of their obligations under the Human Rights Code will often avoid outright refusing to rent to a tenant and instead, will opt for more subtle tactics, like telling a person that the unit has already been rented or suddenly changing the rental rate.
Other times, the refusal is shockingly blunt. When speaking about the experiences of some trans women, Morden says he’s heard of a landlord who outright told a prospective tenant that this “is not a brothel and you cannot do your work here.”
During my interview with GTA resident Ashley Virtue, she shared the one question she says landlords always ask her.
It can be difficult to understand how in a city as multicultural and diverse as Toronto, so many marginalized people continue to face such significant barriers when searching for a place to live.
For Quincy Carter, it’s still a shock. After recently moving to Toronto from the Caribbean, she only recently found an apartment in the city. Though fortunate that her search only took two months, she says the discrimination she experienced left her feeling “terrible.”
As a black and gay woman, Carter found herself caught in the tangles of intersectionality, unsure whether her skin colour, gender, sexual orientation—or all three— were the cause of the discrimination she faced. This isn’t a shock. For marginalized people whose identities span across more than one social category, it can be impossible to know exactly which identity is the target.
Though Ontario acknowledges housing discrimination and its impact on marginalized communities, some say the province should take further steps to stop it, such as educating landlords. While some discriminate against tenants without regard for the law, Morden believes others wouldn’t be so bold if they knew the financial repercussions.
Housing discrimination isn’t confined to Toronto , but its prevalence is nevertheless disheartening. If racialized and LGBTQ tenants are faced with such discrimination here, it’s hard to imagine they’d have better chances somewhere else.
“Back home, it was my sexuality, here, it’s my sexuality and my colour,” said Carter. “It’s like I’ve run from one big problem to another.”
But that’s just According to Adrienne.
Disclosure: Zandile Chiwanza is a close friend of the writer.