Twenty-two-month-old Ava McCubbin has a toddler's chubby cheeks, blond hair and an infectious smile. She's also a big reason why her parents, Gina and Bruce McCubbin, can't find a place to live.
"When I contacted a landlord and I explained that we had Ava, she abruptly told me that she wasn't welcome." Bruce McCubbin told CBC News.
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The McCubbins moved to Toronto from Edinburgh, Scotland in July. For Gina McCubbin, who grew up in Toronto's east end, it was a homecoming. They had a temporary place to stay with Gina's mother. Bruce quickly found a good, full-time job, and the couple started looking for an apartment to rent.
They immediately started noticing a pattern, one confronting many Canadians.
Euphemisms for 'no kids'
"At first it was … 'professionals only' and it was like, OK, I get it." Gina said. "Then it became more blunt."
The McCubbins soon learned to cross out rental ads targeting those 'professionals' and apartments billed as suiting 'mature individuals' and 'ideal for quiet couples' and even 'not professionally soundproofed.'
But they were surprised at how many stated outright 'Adult Building' or 'Not suitable for children'.
"We really want to settle down, we want our roots in the community and you almost feel like you're not welcome," Bruce McCubbin said. "It felt for me very disheartening."
It's also illegal.
Violates human-rights legislation
"Once a landlord decides to rent a unit to the public, they are obliged under human-rights legislation to do so in a way that does not discriminate," said Cherie Robertson, a senior policy analyst with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).
There are some exceptions.
If the landlord is living in the same place and shares a bathroom or a kitchen with the tenant, for instance, they are allowed to stipulate who they want to live in the unit. The protections against discrimination don't apply.
The same goes for buildings that are seniors' residences or care facilities for people over the age of 65, but that's about it.
The list of reasons why a tenant cannot be refused an apartment includes race, religion, marital status, sexual orientation and disability. Landlords also cannot discriminate based on income source (such as welfare or disability payments) or even, somewhat surprisingly, pets.
Discriminating against families with children is against human rights legislation in every province.
Discriminatory language in rental ads
In 2012, the OHRC conducted an inquiry and found that on some of the more popular rental listing websites, as many as 20 per cent included language that could potentially or intentionally target people who are protected by the human rights code.
CBC News found several examples of ads that contain language that is discriminatory toward families with children.
Ways landlords say "NO KIDS"
- It's a quiet building.
- Adult lifestyle building.
- Not soundproof.
- Geared to young professionals.
- Ideal for a student.
- Seeking mature couple.
- Prefer single professionals.
- Great for working folks.
- Ideal for quiet couple.
- Too small for a family.
Calls to phone numbers listed on those ads were not returned.
Landlords can face thousands of dollars in fines and legal fees if they're found to be in violation of a tenant's human rights.
"It is frustrating. You just hope that landlords realize that it's a painful process to have a complaint filed against them. They want to avoid that and by being proactive in educating themselves they could do it quite easily," the OHRC's Robertson said.
Afraid to complain
While the commission has the power to act on its own, dealing with discrimination in housing is mostly a complaint-driven process.
And that can also be an issue.
Sarah Khoo and her husband were looking for an apartment in Toronto last March. They found one they liked, met the landlord and filled out an application.
He turned them down.
"He just rejected us because I have a child," Khoo said.
In Khoo's case, the landlord actually put it in writing.
He sent her an email — obtained by CBC News — saying the soundproofing is "not very satisfactory" and "Therefore we feel the apartment is not suitable for a family with small children." The email didn't cite any other reasons for rejecting the family.
Khoo works for one of Canada's big banks. Her husband has a government job. She says they have great credit, don't smoke and don't have any pets.
Yet their two-year-old daughter Ella made them unsuitable.
"I was angry. My husband was even angrier," Khoo said.
Khoo didn't file a complaint.
And neither did the McCubbins.
Experts say many tenants don't complain, put off by the process and the possibility of being seen as a problem tenant.
Tip of the iceberg?
"For every one person that comes forward, we don't actually know how many other people are facing the same issue," said Annie Hodgins of the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, an organization that gives advice and information to people facing discrimination in housing.
Hodgins says the centre receives more than 1,500 calls a year from people facing discrimination. She estimates between five and 10 per cent of those involve family-based discrimination.
In a tight rental market, Hodgins says, that can often mean families end up in substandard housing. Not to mention it can be deeply painful for those being discriminated against.
It's not your home, it's a business
"People say 'Well, this is my house, I'll rent to whoever I like.' No, it's not your house. The minute you start to generate revenue, it's a business," Hodgins said.
The fact is though, many of those businesses simply don't want to rent to families.
Three months after arriving in Canada, the McCubbins are still looking for a place to live. And still trying to understand why so many landlords don't want their 22-month-old daughter living in their rental property.
"Families go to bed early. We don't party," Bruce McCubbin said. "Ava's a very, very nice, laid-back kid. She's quiet and good natured. Not all children are little devils."
Online rental ads