Navigating the Toronto housing crisis as an Indigenous person

For Richard Peters, trying to move into one of the country's most volatile housing markets as an Indigenous man came with challenges he never anticipated.

For Beausoleil First Nation man, apartment hunting in tight rental market is 'demoralizing and dehumanizing'

Richard Peters and Janine Caster are engaged and decided to move to Toronto in July 2014. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC News)

For Richard Peters, trying to move into one of the country's most volatile housing markets as an Indigenous man came with challenges he never anticipated.

Originally from Beausoleil First Nation, Peters was living in Ottawa when he met his fiancée, Janine Caster, and in July 2014 the couple decided to move to Toronto.

"When we did move here that's sort of when our struggles began with housing," said Peters.

They stayed with friends for about a year before looking for an apartment of their own, a process that took four months.

Peters said his anglophone name would usually get him a quick response to a rental inquiry followed by an appointment to go view the listing, although when he would show up as a visibly First Nations man, potential landlords would start asking for additional documents and information.

Requests for rental history and credit checks are common, but Peters said some landlords would want assurance that the couple wouldn't be drinking on the property upon finding out his Indigenous identity or would say there's no smoking allowed when the couple explained they would smudge and drum for ceremony.

The most troubling was when a rental company requested six months of rent up front, about $9,000, that would completely decimate the couple's savings account.

Peters describes the experience as demoralizing and dehumanizing.

"It was humiliating," he said.

"Having done a lot of political work around racism, I had sort of become aware of brown skin and a white society."

Peters has experienced homelessness. He went through periods in his life where he would sleep on the streets or in shelters and it wasn't something he wanted to experience again.

They kept on with their search, viewing hundreds of apartments. At 10 units, they were asked for a certified cheque for first and last month's rent before their application would be processed, which they declined because if they found a different apartment they liked, they would be unable to cancel the cheque.

Through friends, the couple was able to find a place to rent in December 2015. They told the landlord they wanted to stay in the apartment for five years.

Three and a half years into their stay, their landlord served them a notice that said he would need to move into the unit with his family. After being told they would need to move again, the couple said they felt terror. Their rental search nightmare was beginning again.

In 2018, the overall vacancy rate in the GTA was 1.2 per cent with an average rent of $1,359 a month, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's annual rental market report. The province of Ontario's vacancy rate was 1.8 per cent with an average rent of $1197.

When looking for apartments last summer, Caster said they often weren't able to get into units to view them even if they had pre-arranged appointments beforehand.

"We'd literally walk into the lobby and they'd be like 'Oh sorry, it's closed. It's rented,'" she said.

She said they were turned away around two-thirds of the time when they showed up for their viewings.

Caster said their experiences made her want to look into what were the laws on discrimination in housing.

"I think that is a real conversation that needs to change in Toronto."

Human rights in the rental market

Emily Hill, the interim legal advocacy director at Aboriginal Legal Services, said racism toward Indigenous people is widespread in Canada.

"Part of that racism is stereotypes about Indigenous people that make landlords think that they may not be good tenants," she said.

The Ontario Human Rights Code protects people from discrimination on 14 grounds including race, in five social areas like housing.

Within the code, it's acknowledged that while Indigenous people have many of the same experiences as other racialized groups in the rental housing market, they are also subject to unique difficulties stemming from perceptions based on stereotypes.

If a tenant is denied the option to rent because of their ethnicity, the landlord is violating the Human Rights Code. The potential tenant could go to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal with a complaint.

In a case in Sudbury, the tribunal ruled a complainant had her right to equal treatment by a potential landlord violated based on her ancestry. In 2002, Rosemary Flamand had viewed an apartment then made arrangements to deliver a deposit to the landlord, Marcel Lacasse.

When they met, Flamand alleged that Lacasse commented that she was "Native," made a derogatory comment about renting to Indigenous people ("Once you rent to a couple of Natives, 15 Indians come behind," she and a friend reported he said) and said he was showing the apartment to more applicants. She said he asked her for references, then refused to take her references when she later phoned him to provide them.

In 2005, three years after the events took place, the tribunal ruled that the landlord should pay her $9,000 compensation and undergo human rights educational and sensitivity training.

But Hill said pursuing a complaint is a lot of work when people are already overwhelmed just trying to find housing.

Over the last seven years, about 100,000 residential units were completed in Toronto. Of those, only 5,500 were built for the primary rental market. (Amara McLaughlin/CBC News)

"People who are facing that challenge don't often have the time or energy to actually follow through with the human rights application which can be a very lengthy process," she said.

Hill said Toronto's rental housing market with its low vacancy rates and high rental prices are pushing the power imbalance to the extreme favour of landlords, giving them "free rein" to discriminate.

"They can look at the person in front of them and say, 'Oh I don't like the look of this person, I don't like their last name, I have assumptions about how they're going to behave and so I'm going to say no.'"

Significant shortage of new rental units

The Toronto Housing Market Analysis published in January 2019 found the city's housing and homelessness support systems are overwhelmed and middle-income households are being priced out of the increasingly expensive rental market.

There is a significant shortage of new rental units being constructed and most rentals occur through a secondary market where owners rent out their condos.

Increased demand for rental units is common across the province, more so in Toronto, according to the Ontario Landlords Association, an independent support network of small and medium sized landlords that has been active for the last ten years.

There are definitely landlords who go too far in their screening requests.- William Blake, Ontario Landlords Association

The rules and regulations in place to protect tenants from discrimination in Ontario are easily accessible online. It lists what information landlords are allowed to ask for in the screening process.

William Blake, who has been a landlord for more than 20 years, said the OLA's recommended screening process follows the regulations set out under the Human Rights Code asking for information such as credit check and references, rental history and income information.

He said there are good long-term career landlords across the city who care about their investments and the tenants living in them, but said there are definitely landlords who go too far in their screening requests, like asking for multiple months of rent up front.

"Before we came around, a lot of landlords were unaware there were even these policies for landlords and tenants," he said.

"I think people are doing this because they're not aware of the rules and laws."

'A problem with our system'

The rental housing crisis is also having adverse effects in the area of subsidized housing where the waitlist in Toronto is nearly at 100,000 active applications.

"There's a problem with our system," said Steve Teekens, Executive Director of Na Me Res, an Indigenous not-for-profit organization that offers temporary, transitional and permanent housing as well as cultural support to Indigenous men experiencing homelessness in Toronto.

Steve Teekins is the general manager of Na Me Res, which provides housing and cultural support to homeless Indigenous men. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

The only housing being built is condos, said Teekens.

Over the last seven years, about 100,000 residential units were completed in the city, but only 5,500 units were built for the primary rental market, according to the Toronto Housing Market Analysis.

"These developers are in business to make money but the city has got to put things in place or compel these developers to offer affordable units."

According to the 2018 Street Needs Assessment, 16 per cent of Toronto's homeless are Indigenous, while Indigenous people make up 2.5 per cent of the city's total population.

In February 2019, the federal government announced a plan to spend $638 million on housing for urban Indigenous people. Two thirds will be dedicated to programs that serve those experiencing homelessness and the remainder will be for renovations and improvements to existing units that house Indigenous families.

Critics say that's not enough, since one of the biggest challenges in cities is finding affordable housing and half of the Indigenous population in Canada lives in urban centres.

A place to live

Peters and Caster eventually were able to find a new place to live two weeks before they needed to be out of their previous apartment.

Success came only after Peters took to Facebook at 4:30 a.m. with a plea for help, and friends and acquaintances offered assistance.

Having been homeless before in his life, Peters said he had begun wondering if that was the path he was going to fall back on again.

"There's no way I can even think of a word in English that sort of describes that hopelessness and that helplessness, when you're ready to work, you're ready to pay bills, you have everything except for the wrong skin colour," he said.

Having secured a place to live again, "I can exhale and I can breathe now."


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.