Maytree blog

On Human Rights Day we asked: What does the right to housing mean to you?

Published on 10/12/2019

This December 10, Human Rights Day, the City of Toronto’s Planning and Housing Committee is considering the City’s new HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan. In a first for Toronto, the plan expressly recognizes housing as fundamental human right essential to human dignity and wellbeing, and sets out a number of actions and targets to progressively realize the right to housing for residents across the city. If Council votes to fund the plan through the 2020 budget process, Toronto will have a new framework for housing policy that centres people and reorients the City’s priorities towards urgent action on affordable housing.

At the federal level too, 2019 saw Canada take major steps towards recognizing, protecting, and fulfilling the human right to adequate housing. In June, the federal government adopted the National Housing Strategy Act, a piece of legislation that explicitly recognizes housing as a fundamental human right and commits Canadian governments to maintaining and making progress against a national housing strategy, with clearly delineated targets.

To mark an extraordinary year for housing rights in Canada and in Toronto, we wanted to capture the possibilities opened up by the recognition of the right to housing. We reached out to ten housing advocates across the city to ask them what the right to housing means to them.

1. Leadership from the City of Toronto in advancing the right to housing

Everyone has a right to a safe, affordable, and comfortable home. We believe this is the right of all residents of our city. I am proud of the many ways in which we are advancing this goal as a city. This includes our Housing Now initiatives to maximize the use of City lands for new and affordable homes. Our Open Door Affordable Housing Program accelerates affordable housing construction by providing City financial contributions including capital funding and fees and property tax relief. And our new Housing Plan 2020-2030 will help us to move forward towards our goals.

Ana Bailao
Ana Bailão
Deputy Mayor, City of Toronto

2. Legalization and regulation of rooming houses in Scarborough and across the city

For me, as a long-term resident, legal worker and activist in Scarborough, the right to housing means people should be able to afford decent and safe homes regardless of their income or status in their neighbourhoods. To enshrine this right in City priorities, the City should immediately address its unfair zoning by-laws and preserve existing affordable homes by legalizing and regulating Multi-Tenant Homes (rooming houses) in Scarborough and across the city of Toronto.

Furthermore, all levels of government should commit to working through co-design with those with experiences of homelessness and precarious housing to find solutions that work for deeply affordable homes. Affordability should be based on the needs of our Toronto residents, and not on what the market dictates.

photo: Regini David
Regini David
Member, Power in Community: Fighting for Affordable Homes

3. Eviction prevention measures to help tenants keep their homes

This Human Rights Day is the first since the passing of the National Housing Strategy Act, in which the Government of Canada recognized that the right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right affirmed in international law. When we celebrate human rights, we are also supporting the call for adequate housing for everyone. ACTO’s latest report (“We Can’t Wait: Preserving Our Affordable Rental Housing in Ontario”) found that Ontario has lost over a quarter of its affordable housing in the last decade and that no-fault evictions have risen 50 per cent over the last 4 years. Recognition of the right to housing must include new laws that end the financial incentive to displace tenants through eviction. We need a province-wide eviction prevention program that helps tenants keep their homes.

Kenneth Halle
Kenneth Hale
Director of Advocacy and Legal Services, Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO)

4. Housing policy that proceeds from human rights principles, not the political moment

Embedding the right to housing in our laws and institutions means we’re no longer wondering if our policies will protect this fundamental right; rather, it’s a matter of how. To me, recognizing the right to housing means that our elected leaders will make housing decisions based on human rights principles, not the opportunities or constraints of the political moment. Putting the right to housing at the centre of policymaking in this way means we have an enduring and principled vision for the kind of society we want to be, and the role for elected leaders will be to realize that vision.

Eliizabeth McIsaac
Elizabeth McIsaac
President, Maytree

5. Equitable and inclusive new development

When I think about the right to housing, I imagine a city in which Indigenous territory is honoured, current and future neighbours are at the centre of the planning process, the vast wealth generated by development enriches communities instead of displacing them, and every new project is planned and built with the goal of creating a neighbourhood and a city that is diverse, equitable, inclusive, accessible, and sustainable. I think about what was won at the corner of Bloor and Dufferin, picture what could have been, and know we can do better.

Emily Paradis
Emily Paradis
Maytree Fellow and Research Consultant

6. Accessible homes

People with disabilities across the country struggle to find and maintain housing that is accessible. A rights-based approach to housing for people with disabilities would mean that the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and federal and provincial building codes would require that new residential housing meet high minimum accessibility standards, with developers mandated to build units meeting those standards. It would mean that municipally funded housing plans like Toronto’s HousingTO meet similar standards, and prioritize supportive housing options that service people with disabilities. This would be a game changer for the 22 per cent of Canadians who live with disabilities.

photo: Wendy Porch    photo: David Meyers
Wendy Porch (Executive Director) and David Meyers (Senior Manager)
Centre for Independent Living in Toronto

7. Thoughtful implementation of a rights-based approach to housing

My work revolves around advocating for better outcomes and engagement for young people as well as how a human rights framework can be implemented through Canada’s National Housing Strategy Act. Part of a rights-based framework includes how lived experts are meaningfully engaged and compensated. Engagement must go beyond advising; it must include lived experts at all levels of development, implementation, and evaluation. Furthermore, an emphasis on preventative programs and policies is important – this can mitigate the prevalence of persons entering the pipeline into homelessness from feeder systems such as the child welfare and criminal justice systems. The sustainability of promising practices, outcomes, and a functioning strategy will require a commitment from all levels of government, as well as partnerships across systems and sectors. A human rights-based strategy should also be a trauma informed one.

Cheyanne Ratnam
Cheyanne Ratnam
Homelessness, child rights, and child welfare advocate, and founding member, Ontario Children’s Advocacy Coalition

8. Public spaces for people to come together and talk about their housing issues

“Housing is essential to the dignity and well-being of the person and to building sustainable and inclusive communities” — this is now the law of the land and reinforced in Toronto’s new Housing Charter – Opportunities for All. These are laudable and lofty words but the map is not the territory.

We are seeing increasing discord on our streets; established residents are pushing back as homelessness becomes increasingly apparent.

Rather than shrinking away, we should use this opportunity to rally forces and build inclusive, diverse forums to define “housing as a human right” for ourselves; neighbourhood-led initiatives with diversity panels and experts trained to hear all voices and opinions.

These enterprises can reinvigorate the traditional “public square” and can be run by artists, faith organizations, youth groups, newcomers, and our homeless neighbours. Together, we can build the communities we need with a human rights foundation.

photo: David Reycraft
David Reycraft
Director, Housing Services, Dixon Hall

9. Fulfillment of housing rights for newcomers and refugee claimants

Right to housing means access to adequate and affordable housing for everyone. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to adequate housing. In my work, clients, especially newcomers and refugee claimants, face lots of discrimination when looking for an “affordable” rental home. This is against the nature of basic human rights. No one should be discriminated against based on their race and status when trying to access housing. That’s why it is important to have a 24/7 reception centre for refugee claimants as well 24-hour information stations at the different Toronto airport terminals so that newcomers and refugee claimants know their rights.

photo: Loly Rico
Loly Rico
Co-Director, FCJ Refugee Centre

10. Accountability mechanisms to monitor implementation

The City of Toronto has made some bold decisions this year to move closer to fulfilling the right to housing including City Council’s unanimous vote to provide stable funding for Toronto Community Housing, as well as the just released rights-based HousingTO action plan. The right to housing in Toronto will be stronger with robust accountability measures, including the establishment of a Housing Commissioner; targets and designated resources for people in greatest need; and clear timelines within which the City should meet targets. For the right to housing to be fully realized, we need to close implementation gaps.

photo: Effie Vlachoyannacos
Effie Vlachoyannacos
Lead, Engagement and Leadership, Maytree

Gayatri Kumar is a freelance communications specialist.


To mark an extraordinary year for housing rights in Canada and in Toronto, we wanted to capture the possibilities opened up by the recognition of the right to housing.