This Windsor man took a rental discrimination case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and won

When Chayron Rennie was looking for an apartment in the fall of 2017, he felt something fishy was going on with a potential landlord. Rather than ignoring his gut, he wanted to make sure to do his due diligence — eventually taking the case to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO).

Awarded $4,927 in compensation for 'injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect'

Chayron Rennie says he chose to file a discrimination complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario because it wasn't the first time he had been denied a rental application. (Sameer Chhabra/CBC)

Chayron Rennie says he is no stranger to rental discrimination. 

The 25-year-old Jamaican-Canadian said he's had experiences with at least three prospective landlords who initially seemed interested in his applications, only to turn him down when he arrived in person.

So in the fall of 2017, when Rennie was looking for an apartment in Windsor and felt something fishy was going on with yet another potential landlord, he wanted to make sure to do his due diligence —  eventually taking the case to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) and winning.

Experts say the way Rennie defended himself is unique but the type of discrimination he faced, unfortunately, is not. 

"I always had in my head that if this ever were to happen again, they may get away with it, but make sure that they dot their i's and cross their t's, because the next time it happens … I'm catching everything for sure," Rennie said. 

At the time, Rennie had contacted Robert Gong — a general contractor working on behalf of property owner Yuhong Li —  by text message, after coming across a Kijiji posting for a one-bedroom unit in a house. 

During a meeting in late October 2017, Rennie provided employment details to Gong, who told him he'd follow up with an application form. That never happened, and Gong later testified he had forgotten to send it.

... I'm catching everything for sure.- Chayron Rennie

But in November 2017 Rennie noticed the same unit had been reposted on Kijiji, which made him suspicious. He believed race may have been the reason he never received the application. That's when he made another attempt, reaching out to Gong, through email this time, providing more personal details including marital status and income. Gong responded, inviting Rennie to come see the apartment on Nov. 7.

Rather than presenting himself to Gong again, however, Rennie enlisted the help of a friend. Petar Mitrev — a white man of the same age and economic background — went to the unit instead to meet with Gong, presenting him with Rennie's pay stubs and proof of employment.

READ | The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario's decision regarding Chayron Rennie:

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"On paper, I even looked a little better than he did," Rennie said.

"I thought, if me and Peter were equal in these areas, then let's see what happens."

Over the next few weeks, Rennie received and submitted an application, but he would never actually take possession of the unit. His application fell apart after confusion over the move-in date, payment and the signing of the lease. Rennie kept email records of his correspondence with Gong and Li which became evidence during the tribunal.

In a March 17, 2020 HRTO decision, adjudicator Bruce Best said, "The applicant should have moved into the unit without issue on Nov. 20. Instead, the applicant was left without an apartment. I find, as such, that the applicant's race and colour were a factor in his not getting the apartment."

Best ordered Li to pay Rennie $4,927 in compensation for "injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect."

'Interesting and novel way' to gather evidence, says housing rights expert

While Rennie's experience with rental discrimination and the HRTO might seem like a straightforward process, Dania Majid — a staff lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario — said her organization has received quite a bit of feedback from tenants concerned about discrimination, though "very few of them actually make it to the Human Rights Tribunal."

"In the cases involving prospective tenants … many of them are in a time of stress, trying to find a new place to live," she said. "They might have children and they may have job pressures. When they've experienced this, their instinct might be 'I should do something about it,' but the reality is it does take a lot of time, it does take resources and it is an emotionally taxing process to actually go through."

At the same time, Majid said, people concerned about rental discrimination have typically encountered some form of discrimination before. 

"As distressing and as painful and hurtful as it is to have to undergo that experience ... they decide it's better for them to push through, secure a place to live and not get wrapped up in a long and complicated procedure," she said. 

Dania Majid is a staff lawyer with Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario. (Submitted by Dania Majid)

For his part, Rennie explained that he chose to take his case to the tribunal precisely because he was frustrated with the way he had been treated. 

"I was angry," Rennie said. "Me taking it to the tribunal was the final straw. This can't continue."

Beyond choosing to move past discriminatory incidents, however, Majid said that a "big stumbling block" for many current and prospective tenants is simply proving that discrimination took place. 

In Rennie's case, Majid was struck by the fact that he sought help from a white friend to "see how quickly that person got the documentation, compared to the delays that the applicant was experiencing."

... They decide it's better for them to push through, secure a place to live and not get wrapped up in a long and complicated procedure.- Dania Majid, Staff Lawyer, Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario

"I thought that was a really interesting and novel way for this person to gather the evidence to prove that his gut was right," she said. 

Majid said she also thought it was interesting that HRTO adjudicator Best noted that "the landlord didn't have to intend to discriminate."

"It's really about the effect that discrimination had," she said. 

Discrimination verdict in favour of applicant 'quite rare,' says law professor

Despite Best's ruling, however, University of Windsor law professor Reem Bahdi said that statistically, it's not common to see a discrimination complaint before the HRTO end up in favour of the applicant. 

Bahdi said she's not an expert in human rights when it comes to the housing context, but noted that it is "an area that I look at under the rubric of access to justice." 

Reem Bahdi is an associate professor at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law. (Sameer Chhabra/CBC)

She pointed to 2018-19 numbers published by Tribunals Ontario that show that of the overall applications received by the HRTO, only 65 received decisions. Of the 65 cases, discrimination was found in only 19.

"At the end of the day, it's not only just a question of it taking a long time [to process], but for a complainant to statistically get a result that says there was discrimination here and you're entitled to a remedy … it's actually quite rare for that to happen," she said.

READ | Tribunals Ontario Annual Report 2018-19

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Rennie, who has found an apartment that he now shares with his mother and older brother, said he was relieved when the HRTO ruled in his favour. 

"I wasn't wrong, I can kind of move on now essentially,' he said.