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Ontario Human Rights Commission weighs in on supportive housing battle

Dear Mayor Grant and Members of Council:

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) understands that on November 23, 2020, the Council of the Township of Brock (the council) passed Interim Control Bylaw 2994-2020 to “prohibit the establishment of Supportive Housing and Modular Construction, including Manufactured Dwelling Houses” in an effort to suspend a supportive housing project in Beaverton. Council also noted that the bylaw “may be extended by council for an additional one-year period in accordance with Section 38 of the Planning Act, or repealed by council at an earlier date.”

The OHRC is concerned that this bylaw creates barriers to establishing and accessing supportive housing, which may be discriminatory under the Human Rights Code (Code). The Township’s legal obligations under the Code are further supported by provincial planning law, as well as federal and international law. Based on the human rights obligations outlined below, the OHRC calls on council to remove any barriers that have a discriminatory effect as soon as possible, and to allow such supportive housing projects to proceed.

The Ontario Human Rights Code
The Code is quasi-constitutional legislation that has primacy over all other laws in Ontario, including the Municipal Act and the Planning Act. The Code prohibits actions that discriminate based on certain grounds (e.g. disability) in providing housing and services. The Township of Brock has a legal obligation to make sure it does not impose unnecessary restrictions on supportive housing that could breach the Code. Accordingly, the Township must make sure that any planning decisions or bylaws on supportive housing do not have a discriminatory impact on Code-protected groups. Certain groups protected by Code grounds are more likely to require supportive housing. This is particularly true for people who receive public assistance, people living with disabilities, including mental health and addictions, and racialized people. People identified by these and other grounds are often adversely affected when supportive housing is restricted. This is the law – but it also makes good sense. People who need supportive housing face many barriers, both individual and institutional, that prevent them from taking part fully in society. COVID-19 has further exacerbated these challenges and has had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, including people who need supportive housing. Discrimination compounds the daily challenges they face, and is a further affront to their dignity. The Township’s Code obligations are further supported by provincial planning law, as well as federal and international law.

People zoning
For over a decade, the OHRC has engaged various municipalities on human rights and municipal planning issues through policy development, advocacy and litigation. The OHRC works with individuals and communities across Ontario to end discrimination and break down barriers that vulnerable groups face. One such barrier is “people zoning.” “People zoning” or the attempt to regulate based on who will live in the housing often results from opposition to housing projects based on stereotypes or prejudice. This can be a violation of people’s rights to be free from discrimination in housing – which means it can be against the law.

People do not have the right to choose their neighbours
The Township must make sure its bylaws and regulations do not people zone. Planning tools should not target or have a discriminatory impact on Code-protected groups. The Township must ensure that the needs of Code protected groups are accommodated in any planning decisions it makes. This is clearly outlined in the OHRC’s guide, In the zone: Housing, human rights and municipal planning.

The Provincial Policy Statement
The OHRC understands that Durham Region has an urgent need for affordable and supportive housing, and in its 10-year housing and homelessness plan it has committed to ending homelessness by 2024. The Provincial Policy Statement, 2020 (the PPS) supports this commitment, as section 1.4.3 states: Planning authorities shall provide for an appropriate range and mix of housing options and densities to meet projected market-based and affordable housing needs of current and future residents of the regional market area by: a) establishing and implementing minimum targets for the provision of housing which is affordable to low and moderate income households and which aligns with applicable housing and homelessness plans. Section 4.4 of the PPS also emphasizes that the PPS “shall be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

The human right to housing
The international community has long recognized that housing is a fundamental and universal human right that must be protected in law. Since proclaiming the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations has recognized the right to housing in many documents. In 2019, the Government of Canada passed the National Housing Strategy Act. This commits the Government of Canada to further the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Canada is a party to.

Conclusion
As council moves forward in its review of the supportive housing project in Beaverton, the OHRC urges council to make decisions that are consistent with the Code, the PPS and the human right to adequate housing to support the dignity and well-being of all community members. The OHRC welcomes the opportunity to work with the Township of Brock on this important matter and is available if you or your team wishes to get in touch.

Sincerely,

Patricia DeGuire
Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission

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