There’s no place like home: Racism and discrimination in the Toronto housing market

DISCLAIMER: some names have been changed to protect identities of sources
Content warning: racism, racist language, police brutality, sexual assault, assault

For Jane, there were two options: an awkward silence, or an awkward conversation.

She met this conversation, spurred by alleged covert racism, in her doorway on May 1 — in her own home, in the City of Toronto.

On the Nov. 1, 2015, Jane moved into her one bedroom apartment at 10 Kingston Rd. Although the management property experienced major disorganization, she said, she was handed her keys, no questions asked.

Jane’s name has been changed to protect her identity. Although the landlord will remain anonymous, she was described a woman in her fifties and of European-descent.

At first, the landlord’s racist tendencies weren’t directed towards Jane, but foreshadowed what was to come.

“[She would complain] about how awful it was that minorities had access to disability claims and… she couldn’t, and she was old and tired and she deserved to retire just as much as the minority,” Jane said.

There were hints of bigotry, but nothing specific that Jane could call out.

On a March morning of this year, Jane woke up with hundreds of bites on her hands, which she could only assume were bed bug bites. After talking to her neighbours in the building, she confirmed this was not an isolated incident but nothing was being done.

Tenant safety was often compromised, Jane added, due to break-ins and neighbourhood violence. Still, nothing was being formally addressed.

She notified her landlord, who agreed to perform a bed bug disinfection of her apartment. Jane went through all the necessary preparations, like packing up her belongings and planning to stay at a hotel while her apartment was being cleaned.

“I unpacked all my stuff a couple days later and it had never actually been done,” Jane said. “They never admitted this outright… I escalated the matter to higher members of management.”

Eventually, Jane decided to pursue a break in her lease, which she managed to get in exchange for her not pursuing legal representation with other tenants, regarding health and safety hazards of the building.

Jane would move out on June 1, 2016.

Leading up to her move out date, she experienced two specific incidents of personal violations. Her landlord entered her apartment unlawfully on May 1.

“[She acknowledged] that I was naked and refused to leave, saying I need to ‘get the fuck out’ because I was not paying for this month and should be out already,” she said.

After being “violently exposed,” Jane knew there was an encroachment on her boundaries that wouldn’t be respected.

“I always have to ask the question [of if] this has something to do with the colour of my skin being identifiable [as a] minority and obviously of African descent,” Jane said. “Would it have been the same if I was a Caucasian person, a white male or white woman in the shower, or is my body worth less just because it’s still perceived with slavery?”

As originally agreed upon, Jane would move out at 3 p.m. on June 1. At 2 p.m. that day, two individuals in the property’s uniform, arrived at her door.

“[They] opened the door, stuck their hand out so that I could not open or close the door to my apartment. They barricaded the doorway,” she said. “I could not leave my apartment for my own safety and I couldn’t hide in the apartment because the door was flung open.”

That’s where the intimidation began, Jane said.

“They started screaming at me that I was supposed to be out, that I was there unlawfully,” she said. “That, and they were going to call the police and have my ‘black ass’ removed.”

According to Jane, the woman, later identified as her European landlord, continued to raise her voice and spew derogatory terms at her. She waved an envelope in Jane’s face, which hit her on the nose multiple times.

The man stood there silently, arms crossed and generally unresponsive, Jane said.

“She just kept yelling and came back to me red-faced, hand-raised and said ‘I am going to slap you,’ she said.

Her landlord refused to back away, Jane said, despite her efforts to move her with words.

“At this point, I could not enter or leave my apartment, so I pushed her out of the way, and she took four or five steps backward and used her wrist to support her,” Jane said.

Jane locked her door and called the police, explaining the situation in full. Her landlord, after being treated at the hospital, now wants to charge Jane with assault causing bodily harm.

Jane’s mother was there consoling her when the constables arrived.

“The police knocked at the door when they arrived [and] my mother opened the door and they said, ‘well she’s not black,’” Jane said. “Obviously, the description of me that had been given had emphasis on the colour of my skin.”

She noted that her skin pigment wouldn’t even be considered “as dark as a European person with a solid tan.” Aesthetically, Jane said, she’s a question mark.

“I think that really shows you how hard people work to be racist and to confirm their racist notions,” she said.

Jane has now been given restrictions to not to go anywhere within 200 yards of her landlord. She can’t return to her apartment or where her friends live; she couldn’t accept a job offer in the area, or go to the yoga studio she was already a part of.

“I feel uncomfortable when people knock at my door, [and have] continued reason to fear the police and to fear Caucasian people in places of authority,” she said. “I had to shift my entire life [and] I cannot leave the country because I’m waiting for court dates.”

Her partner, who she’s now unable to visit, lives in the United States.

While also dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from a sexual assault while on holiday, Jane is now faced with a court trial, likely in June 2017, which will determine whether she’ll serve jail time for the alleged assault of her landlord.

“It’s important as a woman of colour to assert your worth and be unapologetic in that worth because it will be attacked at every turn in the pretty much all facets of your existence,” she said. “So you have a choice, and I choose to exist and I choose to be of worth and I refuse to let that be squandered.”

On Nov. 22, a four-month-long, nation-wide consultation was summarized in a report entitled What We Heard: Shaping Canada’s National Housing Strategy.

In the report, Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said that Canada needs a National Housing Strategy that acts as a vehicle for social inclusion. Social inclusion, as defined by the World Bank, is “the process of improving the terms for individuals and groups to take part in society.”

While the country plans to increase access to equitable housing for vulnerable sectors of Canada, the continued fear is that shelters will not be a welcomed part of certain neighbourhoods.

Where the City may lack in advocacy, there are individuals like Brendan Jowls who fight for tenant rights, in areas specifically in discrimination.

Jowls is a lawyer with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic. Currently, he exclusively represents tenants in housing matters, eviction prevention and tenant advocacy.

There are many pressing issues that individuals looking for housing face, but the most pressing, Jowls said, is lack of rent to income housing.

“There’s been very little new public housing stock that’s been added,” he said, “So the public housing stock that we have now is aging and in a horrible state of repair.”

Jowls says individuals on social assistance face the most trouble in terms of discrimination in the Toronto housing market.

“There are so many factors that are at play [that] kind of lead people to be on social assistance,” he said. “I’ve never met a person on social assistance where I felt that they were exploiting the system.”

There’s an intersection, he said, between social assistance and numerous other grounds of social disadvantage. This is often something that goes overlooked or underappreciated by landlords and renting companies.

Overall, Jowls said private companies and landlords are more inclined to discriminate against people who are less likely to stand up for their rights. But discriminatory actions are not always obvious.

“You’re always going to have problems when one side is guided by a profit motive,” he said. “That’s why I believe in public social housing.”

Public housing, Jowls said, is more receptive to solving problems that tenants face. Having more strong public housing providers, who aren’t driven by profit, will benefit Toronto renters, he said.

“There’s more dialogue that takes place because they understand the situation people are in,” he said.

Joy Connelly has worked in Toronto’s non-profit and co-operative housing sector for 35 years. In the next few years, she said, the City has committed to developing 15 new shelters.

While some individuals educate themselves, Connelly said, others are not as welcoming.

“Sometimes you find people saying, ‘we don’t want those people in our neighbourhood,’” she said. “When people object… against a specific group of people, that’s discrimination.”

Connelly added that the City doesn’t always approach public consultation processes in constructive ways.

“Sometimes the processes that the City uses [for] a public consultation process, end up just creating a platform for people to be at their worst,” Connelly said, “That’s the concern.”

Leonardo Zúñiga is an information consultant at Options for Homes, a non-profit corporation that provides quality housing at reasonable prices. The company’s mandate is to make homeownership available to everyone.

As a first-generation immigrant living in downtown Toronto, Zúñiga saw the financial barriers to getting adequate housing in Toronto and quickly became an advocate for equitable housing.

“I strongly believe that housing is not only a human right, but a basic right. What I mean is, every person should have access to safe, clean, secure and permanent housing,” he said. “As a first-generation immigrant… I realized that it would be nearly impossible to become a homeowner due to high prices in cities like Toronto.”

It’s difficult for most to speculate on the existence of racism in the housing market. Most, in fact, are wary of admitting it explicitly exists at all, without acknowledging the presence of intersectional discrimination.

“It’s okay to speak about racism and other forms of discrimination, with the understanding that we all come from different places and walks of life,” he said.

 

The existence of intersectionality, while a valid point, doesn’t directly acknowledge specific forms of discrimination that can exist exclusively in facets of society — even in the most diverse city in the world.

While understanding one form of discrimination often encapsulates others, it doesn’t do much in the way of starting a dialogue that can directly address issues, like that of racism.

Her looming trial is more than just a court date. It will determine her future. It dictates how she lives in her present. It further solidifies the privilege certain demographics cling to for the illusion of safety, which manifests itself in structural racial hierarchies directly privileging white people.

“[It] really just asserts your place in society as an oppressed minority,” Jane said. “You might fight against that your whole life and work extremely hard internally to confirm your worth inside of the horrible things you’re told through the media, through history lessons within the school system.”

It’s a scenario that, to hear first-hand, doesn’t make sense. How can it be that a woman, in her home, in a space she rightfully lives in for the period she’s paid, can feel so unlawfully violated.

A story like Jane’s to occur in the most diverse city in the world, simply shouldn’t.

“To know that when you’re accosted by two people, and threatened, and despite your best attempts at logic and reason, you can still be the one to get a criminal record,” Jane said, “to continue this perpetuation of the plantation system in North America, for black bodies. And it’s sick.”

Photo supplied by WikiMedia Commons

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