There aren't enough protections for Black renters facing discrimination, real estate agents say
SASKATOON -- In Canada, it’s illegal for a landlord to refuse to rent space to a person because of their race, citizenship, ethnicity or religion. But Black real estate agents and renters say it is still happening far too frequently.
Last December, a 27-year-old undergrad student named Michael was attempting to take over someone else’s lease for a Toronto apartment. He was hopeful because he had good credit and steady finances, and he was offering to pay two to three months’ worth of rent in advance, and the outgoing tenant said she was recommending him to the landlord.
But the process abruptly ended after he sent in his photo identification at the landlord’s request. He said he wasn’t given a reason for the rejection, except that: “I didn’t meet the landlord’s criteria.”
“These landlords, they keep doing it and doing it. When it happened, I was depressed for a week,” Michael, who doesn’t want to be identified by his full name out of fear of racial harassment, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “I couldn’t even eat because I just felt humiliated.”
Michael said he has had enough and is now awaiting a decision from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario on whether there was racial discrimination by that landlord. He says he’s let go of many similar incidents in the past, including other landlords showing him units that were not the ones he applied for.
In Canada, housing experts say it’s fairly rare for governments and universities to conduct studies examining landlord bias. A rare outlier was a 2009 study from the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation which found that, in Toronto, Black single parents, as well as South Asian households, have a one-in-four chance of facing moderate to severe discrimination when looking for rental properties.
Black people in the rental industry told CTVNews.ca that anti-Black discrimination has gone unchecked for decades. Now, they’re strengthening calls for stronger penalties for landlords who discriminate, as well as laws to prevent them from requiring photo ID until after a bid is accepted.
Michael is one of approximately 5,700 members of the “Black Housing Directory (Renting While Black)” Facebook group, which is aimed at helping Black people and people of colour find rental accommodations in Toronto and the surrounding area.
The collective also includes landlords, members of the legal profession, and real estate brokers, including Charlene Ann Williams. In her 12 years in the industry, she said she’s seen many of her Black clients repeatedly passed up for listings -- despite having strong credit scores and long-term, well-paying jobs.
“It’s heartbreaking that people get treated this way based on the colour of their skin. It’s rampant,” Williams told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “People just don’t want to rent to Black people.”
“My head explodes when I figure out what’s going on and it doesn’t take long,” she said, noting it’s never gotten easier dealing with the discrimination.
Williams vividly recalls a recent example of a couple giving up trying to land a rental in Markham, Ont. and being forced to look in another city “because if Markham was going to twice treat them that way, they’ll take their money elsewhere.”
Kay Layton, executive director of Black Lives Matter YYC in Calgary, said conversations about prejudice against Black renters in Canada have been happening for decades.
“I’ve seen instances of Black folks specifically asking a white friend to come with them to viewings or meeting regarding a new rental property, in hopes of coming across less threatening,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone.
LEGAL ROUTE CAN TAKE MONTHS
Real estate agents for properties act as the intermediary between landlords and potential renters and brokers. And Williams said in some cases, agents have blatantly admitted to her: “There’s nothing wrong with your clients, Charlene. My client [the landlord] just won’t take them.”
She added other agents have told her: “My clients want to rent to people who speak their language.”
And it’s incidents like this that Williams said she probably should have taken to a higher authority like the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, but decisions there can take months and in the meantime, her clients “still need a place to live.”
Layton, who lives in Alberta, urged people to still file the complaint to a provincial body even if it could be a lengthy process because it “still could help with forwarding change.”
Laura Track, director of the B.C. Human Rights Clinic in Vancouver, told CTVNews.ca in an email that “discrimination by landlords, based on the colour of someone’s skin or any other characteristic, is disturbing and illegal. It also remains a problem in our communities.”
“Of course, in B.C.’s tight rental market, where rental housing is so scarce, landlords have a lot of freedom to choose among what’s often a large number of applicants for a given unit. It’s therefore pretty easy for a landlord to hide any discriminatory intent, and hard for a tenant to prove they were passed over due to their race.”
And because a human rights complaint can take years, Track said “most cases are resolved more quickly through mediation.”
According to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, privacy law does not prevent landlords from asking to see IDs, such as driver's licences – as long as the landlord explains why they’re asking for it.
But fellow Black real estate agent Kenneth Toppin said asking for photo identification or a person’s full name can be a way for landlords to avoid renting to members of a particular community.
“Landlords can find out the face of a person very easily and then turn that person down regardless of how qualified they are,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “And because there are no rules of them having to accept you -- landlords can say no for whatever reason.”
CODED LANGUAGE COMMON
Toppin recalls a Black couple who were repeatedly denied an apartment in the GTA despite making $45,000 a month and had just bought a $1-million home and needed a place to rent temporarily.
When he hears real estate agents say “the landlord is looking to go another route,” he said it’s coded language for anti-Black racism. “It happens so much and it’s a problem.”
“The racism that Blacks face in the rental market is Jim Crow 2.0,” he said, referring to the state and local laws in the U.S. that enforced racial segregation for decades. Toppin said the problem is even worse for people trying to find rentals on Kijiji or other online classified advertising services, which he likened to “the Wild West.”
“Our community, unfortunately, many times is left to fend for themselves,” he said. “It’s actually one of the worst processes a Black family can go through.”
As a landlord himself, Toppin appreciates how others want to be able to choose their tenants, but he wants people held to account if they exhibit a pattern of refusing to accept certain renters.
He and Williams suggested landlords be fined or barred from renting out their units again if a regulatory body finds they’ve discriminated against potential renters. They should also provide financial restitution for the victims, they said.
BLM YYC's Layton encouraged people in the short-term to call out racism online and potentially warn others.
“When all else fails we can always expose racist landlords on social media and hope that will create some sort of change,” he said.
Williams, who also sits on the inclusivity and diversity task force for the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board, says “they’re trying to combat this on the most basic level.”
And this means educating the more than 58,000 real estate agents on the ground and conveying to their landlord clients that discrimination is unacceptable.
“A lot of the reason that they [side] with the landlord is because there are so many of us,” she said, adding that if the landlord “doesn’t like what you as an agent are saying, he’s going to find someone else to represent him.”
Edited by CTVNews.ca's Sonja Puzic and Jackie Dunham