The right to housing: Building towards health and wellbeing
This speech was delivered on October 28, 2019 at a forum for the Wellesley Institute’s Solutions Lab on healthy housing quality.
Thank you for the invitation to share some thoughts at the beginning of what will be an important conversation, one that will hopefully have an impact on health and wellbeing through quality housing.
When Greg reached out about this, he was clear that the day was focused on housing for health and well-being. But I think his interest in asking me to share some opening thoughts was because of the connection between this subject and the work we have been doing to realize the right to housing in Canada.
This year we achieved a milestone for human rights in this country with the National Housing Strategy Act. It represented a historic reclaiming of this country’s commitment to social and economic rights, in particular the right to adequate housing; it gave expression to an aspect of our social contract that has struggled to find presence in the structures that make Canada work – our laws, our institutions, our policies.
But for human rights to find real expression, they need to be embedded in the “rules of the game.”
So it means something that we now have this historic legislation. It means that we have a different framework to guide the way we approach the making of housing policy:
- We have an opportunity to set new priorities, targets, and goals that move us closer to fulfilling our social contract – the pact that we have with one another, to see in each other the dignity of being human and the rights that inhere in that being;
- We have a framework that includes mechanisms for accountability, so people are able to bring forward systemic claims where this right is being violated;
- We also have structures for including the meaningful participation of people with lived experience; and
- We have tools for the ongoing monitoring of progress.
I believe this represents a paradigm shift in how we approach housing policy in this country. But the reality of implementation is still ahead of us and so there is still much work to be done to see this through.
But it is against the backdrop of this official shift that I want to share some thoughts on some elements of housing and wellbeing that we face in our city and also more broadly; and how our responses and action should proceed from that human rights framework.
I want to begin with homelessness because this is the sharp edge of the housing crisis we are experiencing. And in a human rights approach, the greatest and most urgent need is where we need to focus.
I recently hosted a visitor from the UK; he’s someone who has worked on affordable housing there for the past 40 years, and in a variety of capacities: from housing trusts to the House of Lords.
We worked with David Reycraft at Dixon Hall to organize a short visit. David had us meet him at the site of their rooming house projects in Cabbagetown, and he then provided a quick overview of the Regent Park redevelopment. But the learning opportunity he focused us on was a newly opened respite centre on Lakeshore Boulevard East, one of our city’s most recent responses to homelessness. I won’t call it a solution.
Upon his return to the UK, our visitor, Lord Richard Best, sent me an email, and I want to share with you his response. He wrote:
“Homelessness is a bigger problem in Toronto than in European cities – despite the extraordinary strength of the city’s economy over recent years. Things may be much worse in the big cities of the United States, but it is shocking that conditions for some citizens in Canada are comparable to camps in war-torn Middle Eastern countries.”
What Richard was responding to there was the sight of 96 men and four women who were living in a military style tent in the city, sleeping on cots with what seemed like less than 12 inches of personal space around their cots, marked off with tape. Some of them had been living there since April; some of them were employed, and going to work while living out of this tent; some of them were dealing with mental health issues and addictions and other health concerns.
I’m not a doctor but I’m quite certain that the lack of privacy and dignity in those living conditions has serious and detrimental consequences for a person’s physical and mental health. I think about the bravery of the four women having to make that space their primary residence — there was no barrier separating the space into different sections.
While the respite centre as a response is humanitarian in the first instance, it is not a realization of housing as a human right.
Every year, we listen to advocates like Cathy Crowe appeal for better solutions and better protections for the people who are going to die in the extreme cold. This is the extreme opposite of health and wellbeing.
But this year, November has rolled around again and we don’t have a plan in place. When the snow comes, we will be unprepared once again. We will let people down, and we will let people die, once again. And this happens in a city of immense wealth and resources.
We shouldn’t be building a city of shelters; we should be building a city with quality housing that is affordable and secure.
So how do we work towards urgent and long-term policy responses that prioritize the health, dignity, and wellbeing of the most vulnerable?
Right now, the City of Toronto is working on its next ten-year housing plan. We have an opportunity to make it a rights-based plan. That means the City of Toronto would commit to fulfilling its obligations to realizing the right to housing for all Torontonians, that it would dedicate maximum available resources to make sure housing needs are fulfilled for those most in need, and that it would set targets and timelines to progressively meet other objectives, including quality housing.
For homelessness, that means we go into this winter with a plan; not a plan B when someone dies. But it also means protecting deeply affordable rental stock, like rooming houses. It means investing in supportive housing. And it also means ensuring quality housing for all.
And this is the focus of our work today; the conditions faced by tenants living in market rental housing. We know there are endemic challenges of people living with vermin and pests, with mould, in temperatures not conducive to their comfort or health, or the comfort or health of their children.
We know that poor air indoor air quality, inadequate ventilation, and mouldy conditions are all risk factors for a host of respiratory diseases, especially for children and seniors and those with compromised immune systems.
We know there are issues with disrepair in our older rental stock — just last year, a residential tower at 650 Parliament Street caught fire due to an old electrical system, causing all 1500 residents to evacuate; these residents still haven’t been able to go home.
We do have a policy response to these problems at the City in the form of RentsafeTO, a landlord licensing program that ensures building owners comply with maintenance standards. It’s meant to apply to all apartment buildings that are at least three storeys high and have ten or more rental units. And it’s intended to be a proactive regulatory measure where landlords are subject to annual inspections and face fines if they are found to be in violation of property standards. The program also has a complaints process – if landlords aren’t responding to requests, tenants can call 311.
Now we have surveys from resident-led organizations like ACORN that show that a primarily complaints-driven process will not work — tenants don’t know their rights, they are scared of reprisals, they might not have self-advocacy skills, or they might struggle with a language barrier.
So in theory a landlord licensing program sounds promising. As a monitoring mechanism, the intent of the program is on the mark. We absolutely need a policy that sets standards and enforces with consequences; something proactive and not solely complaints-driven.
But the program is still not enforced as it should be; many of the key elements of the program are not yet in effect, like increased fines for violations, or the implementation of a grading system that is meant to be part of the program, like the food services program DineSafe.
And there’s still much more that needs to be done in terms of human rights education, educating tenants about their rights. The City is in a position to do more proactive outreach with tenants, more tenant education, and provide more resourcing for this. A person has to know their rights in order to claim them.
RentSafeTO only applies to people who live in apartment buildings of a certain size, but there are a lot of people living in the shadows of these buildings – people in rooming houses or private apartments that don’t meet the RentSafe criteria, who don’t have access to any sort of process to claim their rights. We need more robust policy measures to guarantee their rights.
From a human rights perspective, there are a range of considerations: how can we make RentTSafe TO more proactive and robust? How can we dedicate more resources to human rights education? But also, how can we build this into a systems response at a higher level? How can we set higher standards?
One way to do this is through provincial regulatory mechanisms, like the Ontario Building Code; we know provincial legislation can set and enforce building standards and offer clarity on the roles of different stakeholders.
We have examples from other jurisdictions. Last year Maytree supported research by the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal (you will hear from Graeme later today) to look at the example in Germany where they have implemented progressively more stringent building codes for new buildings and retrofit, leading to better housing quality across the spectrum of housing options.
When we compare our building codes to those in Germany — we see an astonishing gap. Standards for indicators of housing quality like air quality, mould prevention, fire safety, thermal comfort are not enforced for new buildings for the most part, and they are completely overlooked for retrofit. We need to set higher standards to incentivize changes.
And while we’re setting standards, while we’re changing our policy responses to make them more robust, let’s start by asking the people who are most affected; let’s start by asking the people with lived experience of these conditions what they need, and how they would go about designing these things. Let’s start with those who are typically the farthest from decision-making processes.
My third point with regard to healthy housing quality pertains to accessibility and inclusive design. Whether you’re a private developer or City staff or a social housing provider, you need to think carefully about what you are retrofitting for and what you are building toward. Whose needs are we meeting when we build, and who are we leaving out?
And here we have to begin with the reality that we are not meeting the right to adequate housing for people with disabilities.
Accessibility in built form is still a huge issue. There is a huge gap in the private rental market when it comes to accessible apartments or condos; if you are a person who uses a mobility device, it is extremely hard to find a space that is completely barrier-free. If you have friends or family who use mobility devices, they might have a hard time visiting your building. And if you live in an older apartment building or a rental unit in a house, this is almost certainly the case.
Doorways aren’t wide enough for wheelchairs, the counters are too high, there isn’t a roll-in shower, there are no grab bars or assistive devices. Beyond wheelchair accessibility, we need considerations for the needs of people who are visually impaired, or who have episodic disabilities. Not being able to enter or navigate the space you call home independently and with dignity, not feeling comfortable and safe in your space, feeling trapped — this is an affront to human dignity.
Consider affordability and accessibility, and the choices are even narrower. And this continues to happen despite there being protections on the books.
The Ontario Human Rights Code states that disability is a prohibited ground for discrimination when accessing housing — whether private, social, supportive, or co-operative housing. That extends to every aspect of accessing housing, including renting the space, interactions with housing providers, building maintenance, and your general enjoyment of the place you live in.
We also have provincial legislation in the form of AODA, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Under the Act the government has created accessibility standards which include three that are relevant to housing; customer service, information and communication, and the design of public spaces.
But when David Onley reviewed the implementation of the Act earlier this year, he found that the province was almost certainly not going to meet its stated goal of a fully accessible Ontario by 2025; the findings included that AODA’s accessibility standards are too weak, as are the criteria for giving buildings accessibility ratings. Buildings could comply and still have serious accessibility barriers.
So we need to ask if we are setting the bar high enough here. We need to integrate accessibility or accommodation as a core element of housing quality instead of dealing with it as an afterthought. We need to consider housing quality as including ideas like suitability, flexibility, equity, and barrier-free design; to begin with principles of universal design.
There is also a social need to build housing that lets people of all abilities age in place if they so choose, that lets them access the supports they need, that lets them feel a sense of social connectedness. We know that social isolation is detrimental to health and wellbeing, so how are we planning for these needs? How are we planning to meet the rights of those people so that they can live with dignity?
Evergreen’s Housing Action Lab has reported on socially inclusive design in mid- and high-rise housing. It looks at addressing the specific needs of people with mental, cognitive, and developmental disabilities but also looks at examples of what socially inclusive housing could look like for people with different needs and abilities. Let’s use this opportunity to build on ideas like that, to identify what the next steps are in bringing something like that to fruition.
But of course this is not just a matter of building accessible units; we know that retrofitting our aging rental stock will be key to addressing these needs. This is part of your work for today. But let’s not forget that this is a moment of opportunity: with the National Housing Strategy there are new financial commitments to reinvigorating this housing stock. So let’s think about what policy instruments we can leverage to offset the financial costs of retrofitting for accessibility. How can we approach this in as full a way as possible while recognizing some of the financial barriers that exist at the moment? How can we incentivize these changes?
The problem that we’re here to tackle today is a shared problem. It’s a shared problem because we share a city. As a community we are bound by a social contract, grounded in the recognition of our fundamental human rights and our collective responsibility to realize them. But we are not making good on this contract.
Every single person in this city has the right to quality, secure, affordable housing that meets their needs, and that is not happening. People are being left behind. In a city like Toronto, in a country like Canada, awash in resources and wealth, this is not a matter of limited capacity; it is a matter of neglect and complacency.
This is the right moment to change that. We have in this room a wealth of expertise, a coming together of different kinds of policy and research thinkers, people with lived experience, and housing advocates. We have a critical mass of research and policy analyses. We have momentum, built up from the commitments outlined in the National Housing Strategy Act; we have a public policy environment that is becoming more conducive to policies, programs, and initiatives that support the right to housing. We have, I hope, a sense of conviction and a sense of urgency.
So let’s set the bar high. Let’s use our collective expertise, including lived expertise, to address these issues in as thorough and considered a manner as possible so that all people in this city can realize their right to housing, their right to health and wellbeing, and live a life with dignity.
This text has been lightly edited for clarity.