‘Staying home’ during COVID-19 isn’t possible if you don’t have a home

OPINION: Housing is a human right, writes Ena Chadha, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. So how can we ensure that marginalized populations will not be exiled to the streets during a pandemic?
By Ena Chadha - Published on Nov 02, 2020
A tent city at Nathan Phillips Square, in downtown Toronto, on June 27. (Dominic Chan/CP)

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If there is anything COVID-19 has taught us, it is that housing means more than just a physical space: it lays the foundation for our safety, security, and dignity.

Being able to access housing free from discrimination has long been codified as a human right in Ontario law. This protection was initially recognized over half a century ago in one of the first Ontario Human Rights Commission cases to be litigated. The 1963 case of Khoun v. Rosedale Manor involved an Indonesian student who was refused rental accommodation because of his race. The student and the respondent landlord eventually resolved the case based on a comprehensive settlement, laying the groundwork for an alternate-dispute-resolution approach to human-rights cases.

Decades after this 1963 case, we find ourselves amidst a pandemic, and a key defence against the deadly virus is staying home. While we know that “housing is a human right” and that it is vital we remain home as much as possible to limit the disease’s spread, “staying home” is difficult or virtually impossible for the thousands of Ontarians who are homeless or at risk of eviction. After all, how can you stay home if you do not have one or are being kicked out?

During the early days of COVID-19, the Ontario government instituted a ban on evictions, illustrating that it understood that the pandemic has (and continues to have) a detrimental impact on people whose housing, health, and/or employment status is precarious. Even prior to the onset of the pandemic, securing safe, accessible, and affordable housing had been a serious concern for people with disabilities, seniors, Indigenous peoples, Black communities, low-income people, and other marginalized groups in Ontario. For some, the pandemic has intensified the desperation to find adequate housing; for others, it has meant exile to the streets. 

Recent research from the Wellesley Institute, a policy and research organization that works to improve health equity, shows that there are disproportionately higher rates of evictions in Black neighbourhoods and that they are increasing. According to the Wellesley report, low-income neighbourhoods where the majority of the residents are Black have been among the worst hit by COVID-19. Black people account for 23 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in Toronto, even though they make up less than 9 per cent of the total population. Concerningly, the report further highlights the fact that Black people have experienced the worst eviction-filing rates, signalling systemic racial bias in evictions.

With the lifting of the province’s moratorium, tenants are again facing evictions through Landlord and Tenant Board proceedings. Legal clinics representing tenants in these proceedings catalogue serious barriers to participation because the tribunal has shifted to web-platform hearings due to COVID-19. In submissions to the tribunal, legal clinics note that low-income tenants are being denied justice because they cannot participate in digital hearings owing to the lack of technology or of reliable internet for reasons of poverty, disability, or remote location.

Most troubling are reports that, as a result of the shift to online operations, the tribunal is not offering mediation or facilitating resolution discussions between landlords and tenants — even though the majority of the cases are evictions. As seen in the original 1963 housing human-rights case, mediation affords parties an opportunity to craft solutions to serve their mutual interests. It is highly problematic that, in the face of this second wave of the pandemic, the tribunal cannot coordinate expeditious arrangements to provide parties with mediation to resolve eviction disputes.   

With bleaker COVID-19 outcomes for vulnerable populations, we know that what is at stake when individuals face the threat of homelessness can far exceed the consequences of a missed rental payment; the former is a matter of life and death. If housing is indeed a human right, how do we manifest this as a reality? How can we act on this pledge and ensure that marginalized populations do not become even more exposed and disenfranchised by being sent into the streets, where they could contract COVID-19 at alarming rates?

The Wellesley Institute found that subsidized housing is linked to lower eviction-filing rates. In situations where there was no subsidized housing, eviction rates were two times higher. Providing more options for subsidized housing is only the tip of the iceberg: myriad systemic factors need to be addressed. The proper starting point lies in adopting a rights-based approach to housing in Ontario.

If we can shift our focus to recognizing that safe, accessible, and affordable housing is an equity imperative rather than just a financial commodity, we can begin to protect those who are most vulnerable and shelter them from the risks of wrongful evictions —and this pandemic.

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