Ontario’s Human Rights Commission Chief is speaking out about a rental bylaw in Waterloo.
Her concerns include stringent new occupancy standards and burdensome licensing requirements that could discourage landlords from offering much- needed rental housing.
A bylaw change was approved by Waterloo’s City Council two weeks ago, and includes bedroom caps on rentals, and onerous requirements for licensing, including size metrics on bedrooms and extremely high fines for failure to comply. Other bylaws in effect include minimum separation distances which restrict the number of rentals in some neighborhoods.
OHRC’s Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall, in statements prepared to address the City Council, admits that while the OHRC is not in the business of drafting licence requirements for landlords, the office is experienced in identifying legislation that could violate the Human Rights Code.
Waterloo’s council suggests that limiting the number of bedrooms in general rental housing resolves a safety issue, and that greater scrutiny is needed to ensure the safety of people in bigger homes.
But Hall points out, “if you follow this logic, you would need to have systems in place to also regulate the many similar houses in neighbourhoods that are not being rented out. After all, the families living in these homes should have an equal right to a safe place to live.”
The OHRC has repeatedly expressed concern that this bedroom cap could exclude certain Code-protected groups, such as large families with children, or extended families. According to the 2006 census, there were nearly half a million households in Ontario with 5 people or more, and it stands to reason that some of them live and rent in Waterloo.
The city’s response to this concern is to say that such Code-protected groups will not be adversely affected, as they will have access to boarding houses. But the OHRC points out that this is the very type of differential treatment which is one of the first things Tribunals look for when deciding if discrimination has taken place.
The proposed bylaw also includes a per bedroom occupancy limitation which is more restrictive than the existing Building Code. The OHRC expressed concern that it will become difficult, if not impossible, for people to share bedrooms in rental houses in Waterloo.
“People should be able to share a bedroom, if they choose, without the landlord or the City peeking through the keyhole,” Hall notes. “In fact, any related questioning or investigation could lead to human rights complaints.”
There is also concern over the effect of existing minimum separation distances between rentals that could limit where some renters can choose to live.
“Since the rental housing by-law effectively designates any housing with more than three bedrooms as a lodging house, you are basically telling anyone with a large or extended family that there are major limitations – or barriers, on where they can live. We view this as potentially contrary to the Ontario Human Rights Code, and I hope it is not the intent of this by-law,” Hall writes.
Ultimately, the concern boils down to whether there is an ulterior motive to the bylaw. Is it actually a veiled attempt to limit student housing in neighborhoods near college campuses?
Such “people-zoning”, as the OHRC calls it, may be discriminatory.
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