'It's part of the Black experience': Local woman speaks out about discrimination in housing market
'I knew I wasn't being responded to because of the colour of my skin,' says local prospective tenant
A local woman wants stricter measures imposed on landlords to help crack down on discrimination in the rental housing market.
Jeneka Johnson has been searching for a new rental unit during the pandemic and came across what she believed to be the perfect match on Facebook Marketplace: a one bed, one bath apartment in Kitchener.
Johnson reached out to the lister and requested a viewing – a message that was read by the lister and left without a response.
Johnson didn't think much of it and followed up on her request. Again, it was read without a reply.
"Something just shifted in my gut and it wasn't sitting right," said Johnson, who is a Black woman.
Johnson then asked two of her friends – a white and a Black friend, to reach out to the lister and ask if the unit was still available.
Her white friend received a response within an hour asking to set up a viewing.
The request from Johnson's Black friend was read with no reply.
Lack of training processes
The Ontario Human Rights Code says people cannot be refused housing or harassed by a landlord under several grounds including race, colour, ethnic background, religious beliefs, age and disability. The code kicks in for current and prospective tenants in situations involving discrimination and they can file a complaint through the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario – an option Johnson is pursing.
"I knew I wasn't being responded to because of the colour of my skin," said Johnson.
"There's a lot of implicit bias that exists within people," she said, noting some landlords deny Black people housing opportunities due to stereotypical and racist assumptions such as associating them "with drugs and violence or they have too many kids or they come from low income families so they can't pay rent."
Johnson said she wants to see a vetting process for landlords, harsher consequences imposed in cases involving discrimination and restitution for people unfairly denied housing, especially during the pandemic.
In Ontario, a landlord is required to comply with the Ontario Human Rights Code and Residential Tenancies Act.
"There's really no barriers other than having a place to rent," said Dania Majid, staff lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO).
"There isn't a mechanism that a landlord has to go through like some type of training or certificate program in Ontario. Basically, if you have a property and it's vacant and you would like to rent it out that's pretty much what it takes," she said, noting there is voluntarily training available for landlords.
The only way to crack down on incidents of discrimination is if a current or prospective tenant files a complaint, she said. If a case does reach the courts and is won, there are several consequences a landlord may face, but most commonly they would have to pay financial compensation.
Majid said complaints involving discrimination may also be difficult to prove. "There's an evidentiary burden," she said.
It's easier to prove allegations if there is written history or some form of documentation, she said, adding that there have been cases where "savvy tenants" have asked friends to reach out to listers, just like in Johnson's case.
Experience not uncommon
Unfortunately, Johnson's experience isn't uncommon, according to Majid.
"It's very disappointing but not surprising because we have heard similar types of stories … and unfortunately these situations still occur to this time and it's very disappointing and troubling," she told CBC K-W.
Majid said ACTO has previously consulted with government officials about mandatory training for landlords and even tenants, but there's been no action.
"One suggestion was why not have a mandatory training for all landlords so they understand their rights and responsibilities, best practices before they go out and become a landlord and perhaps by being better informed that that could potentially reduce conflict between landlord and tenants … We would encourage the government to study such a program," she said.
A representative with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told CBC K-W that, "Our government does not tolerate racism or discrimination."
The ministry referred to the development of Bill 184 officially titled Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act, "Which increases protections for tenants and fines for landlords who break the law," according to officials.
In the meantime, Johnson is speaking out about her experiences on her personal Facebook account in an effort to raise more awareness.
"Unfortunately, it's part of the Black experience that we experience racism and discrimination and there's been a lot of times where I just shoved it under the rug and kept going and just shrugged my shoulders," she said. "But with this it just really, really bothered me and I wondered how many other Black friends and friends of colour on my Facebook feed that had experienced this and did the same I did and just overlooked it."
Johnson said she confronted the lister after her friends reached out who said they did not have racist intentions and offered to set up a viewing.
Johnson said the lister later contacted police about her online post describing the incident, but there was no further investigation. Johnson said police told her she's free to post on her personal account as she did.
The listing has since been removed and the lister's Facebook page is unavailable.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.