Nova Scotia

Auditor general singles out Cape Breton housing for doing 'Google checks' on applicants

Justice advocates say the Cape Breton Island Housing Authority was placing another hurdle in front of people already facing barriers by denying public housing to applicants after searching the internet looking for criminal records.

Justice advocates say using internet for criminal record checks on housing applicants is inappropriate, unfair

Nova Scotia's auditor general singled out the Cape Breton Island Housing Authority for inappropriately doing 'Google checks' on public housing applicants to look for criminal records. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Justice advocates say the Cape Breton Island Housing Authority was placing another hurdle in front of people already facing barriers by denying public housing to applicants after searching the internet looking for criminal records.

In a report to the provincial government on Tuesday, Nova Scotia Auditor General Kim Adair said oversight and governance of publicly owned housing is severely lacking. In one section, Adair mentioned that the island authority was doing inappropriate "Google checks" to deny housing to applicants.

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Cape Breton complained years ago about the practice of using internet searches on housing applicants to check for criminal records and thought it had stopped, said associate executive director Julie Kendall.

That practice does nothing to help people avoid contact with the justice system, she said.

"It's not uncommon for the clients we deal with to be treated unfairly and stigmatized due to having a criminal record," Kendall said.

"I often look at the chicken-and-egg analogy when talking about criminalization and housing issues, as it's hard to tell which came first. Lack of safe and affordable housing can very well be the social issue that causes a person to become criminalized to begin with."

Julie Kendall, associate executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Cape Breton, says internet information can be incomplete or inaccurate and should not be used in housing applications. (Submitted by Julie Kendall)

In addition, information posted on the internet can be incomplete or inaccurate, Kendall said.

It could also point to a completely different person and in any case likely wouldn't provide the context needed to understand someone's criminal history.

"The social issues that individuals struggle with day to day that can lead to criminal records usually are not included in the Google searches," Kendall said.

Everyone should have the right to safe and affordable housing, she said, and the best way to help someone move past a criminal record is to remove the barriers that put them at risk.

Those can include housing, education, mental health and other health supports and employment.

"It's very difficult for people to move forward and be pro-social when a criminal record is the final say if someone should have a roof over their head," Kendall said.

"It is inappropriate and it's not fair and it's not right, because people cannot move forward in their lives if they don't have a safe place to lay their head at the end of the day."

Tammy Wohler, a staff lawyer with Nova Scotia Legal Aid, says housing is a human right and no one should be denied accommodations because they have come in contact with the law. (David Burke/CBC)

It's not illegal for landlords to ask prospective tenants for a criminal record check in Nova Scotia, but denying housing based on that should be considered discrimination, said Tammy Wohler, managing lawyer for the social justice office of Legal Aid Nova Scotia.

"I believe it's inconsistent with the view that housing is a human right," she said, adding that view was established last year in the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission report.

Denying that right to people with a criminal record also further harms people who are vulnerable and marginalized, such as African Nova Scotians and Indigenous people who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, Wohler said.

She also said the results of a check could be inaccurate and would provide no context for a prospective renter.

"Simple criminal record checks or Google searches say nothing about the individual and about how they would be as a tenant," Wohler said.

Concrete steps needed

The provincial government needs to take concrete steps to implement the housing commission's recommendations and needs to update human rights legislation to recognize housing as a human right, she said.

"We need to specifically tackle the issue of landlords, including the housing authorities, looking at a person's criminal history, or alleged criminal history, before granting them housing."

In her report, Adair said the executive director of housing indicated the Cape Breton authority had previously been instructed to stop a similar process.

Asked about the practice, the auditor general did not say what she thought about it.

Instead, Adair said it was surprising to find that in about half of the 150 files tested at three housing authorities across the province, applicants did not meet eligibility requirements or the records were incomplete.

In 23 cases, applicants had incomes that exceeded the level allowed.

It's an issue of fairness, says AG

"This all points to the issue of fairness and consistency across the system that needs to be addressed," Adair said.

Neither the Cape Breton housing authority nor the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing would provide anyone for an interview on the question of criminal record checks.

In an email, the department said provincial housing is inclusive and available to anyone who qualifies based on income.

It also said Googling applicants to check for criminal records "should never have been happening and it ended when it was brought to our attention. We can advise it is no longer happening in [Cape Breton] or any other housing authority."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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