Student Rental Discrimination

August 26th, 2009 by Potato

A recent post at Toronto Realty Blog hit on a touchy issue: discrimination against rental tenants. The Star reports on the goings-on at the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

This is something that is important to me, as I am (a) male, (b) a student, and (c) have a cat. That puts me into several categories of discrimination, as it seems every landlord wants a female professional with no pets.

And I have to say: I can see the other side on that, as there are students (especially some males) who can just destroy a property — ruin a whole neighbourhood, for that matter. Broken bottles in the street and driveway, holes and graphitti on the walls, kitchens and washrooms that don’t get cleaned for years, and bass music to rattle your teeth all through the night. That’s not fair to anyone, the landlord in particular. There have been a number of student neighbours through the years that I would have love to have had evicted, and I wish sometimes that it was just a little easier for landlords to evict truly destructive tenants. However, not all males/students/pet owners are like that, so it’s also not fair to discriminate based solely on those surface features — and there are girls who are every bit as destructive (as Ben would surely demonstrate). I’m a good tenant: my cat is clean (and declawed), I pay rent on time, I keep the place in good repair, and just fix minor things on my own rather than bug my landlord.

I also have good references and credit to prove it.

And I think that’s where the first fine line starts to form: everyone has to live somewhere, and it’s not fair to discriminate against people and prevent them from renting or evict them just because of their race, gender, age, or pet. You have to actually evaluate the individual. As a landlord, especially a small one where the number of units you control wouldn’t form a valid statistical sample, I don’t think the government is ever going to force you to take a tenant you don’t want, as long as you give them a fair shake. But telling a person to buzz off just because of their race, age, pet, or other such factors is discrimination, and it’s not right.

In his post, D. Fleming says:

You know what else? I don’t rent to guys either. Boys, males, men, or gentlemen. […] Women are cleaner, quieter, and less likely to have ten friends over for UFC 101 and have a spontaneous ten-man tag-team match and put holes in the wall. I only rent to women, no questions asked.
[…]Is this discrimination?

[emphasis mine]

And of course: Yes, it is. I don’t want to begrudge a business person’s ability to make money, and I don’t want to force them to accept bad tenants or bad risks, but as commenter Dave (#6) pointed out, how is this different than a business not wanting to hire a woman because she’ll just get preggers and go on mat leave? There’s a line where prudent risk management slips into blanket discrimination, and a “no questions asked” policy is definitely on the discrimination side! Individual businesses may have to accept that to live in a society free from (or with a minimum level of) discrimination, they might have to be a little flexible in their standards to be more inclusive, and that might come with costs. As taxpayers, perhaps we should consider sharing those costs: it would be hella hard to enforce, but a default/excessive damage insurance fund for landlords from the government might be something to consider, similar to how EI helps pay for mat leave benefits.

Landlords in Ontario can’t demand security deposits, and I’ve seen enough abuses of those that I can see why — it’s very easy to inflate repair costs (especially when it’s your own time you’re charging for), and to include things that should be considered normal wear and tear. Once the landlord has the deposit, it’s very difficult for the tenant to get it back. There are of course issues from the other side, for landlords to seek reimbursement for damages from bad tenants after the fact, but they can do that. Especially if there is a lot of damage, like what’s seen in the student ghetto every spring around campus, then it becomes worthwhile to pursue the small claims court/tenant tribunal to get the money. With students and other low-income tenants there is the “you can’t get blood from a stone” issue, but by the same token, you probably couldn’t ask for a $10k security deposit, either.

However, the rent is negotiated on an individual basis, so landlords can charge more (or discount less off asking) to account for the increased risk, the same way that car insurance policies are way more expensive for boys under 25. People with bad credit, no job security/history, or poor references might have to take a risk-adjusted (advertised) rental rate, whereas better prospective tenants might be able to negotiate a discount.

I am not a lawyer, but as far as I know the government can’t force a landlord to take a tenant they don’t want for whatever reason — if for no other reason than the relationship would be soured after the proceedings to make that happen. They can fine people though. There are issues with the OHRT, the rules, the processes, and the protections for both sides — nothing is perfect after all — but the fact that blanket discrimination is wrong isn’t one of them. However, the focus isn’t on these minor issues of preferences for gender or against students, where often a person can get a place to call home, even if not a particular unit. Rather, the OHRC is focusing on the people who can’t get housing at all: those on welfare, or with mental illness, so I don’t think D. Fleming has anything to worry about, even after publishing his discriminatory rental practices. “Where there are legitimate reasons for particular housing providers to deny housing to an individual, there still remains a societal and governmental obligation to make sure that this person is adequately housed.” The human rights guys are not out to go after individual landlords (especially small ones with just a handful of units), except in the cases where specific, egregious complaints have been made, but rather are looking at the problem society wide.

Some final quotes from the primary source:

Screening practices were a major concern for both tenants and landlords. Both
tenants and housing providers noted that the Code does not clearly set out
specific acceptable and unacceptable requirements and questions.

The Commission recognizes that housing providers have a legitimate interest in
being able to use non-discriminatory tenant screening techniques to select
tenants. The Landlord’s Self Help Centre noted that the process of screening
prospective tenants is a fundamental business practice used to manage risks and
stave off potential financial loss. A wide range of housing providers indicated that
it was important for them to be able to assess whether tenants would be able to
pay for rental units and keep them in good repair.

Housing providers were also concerned that they could be viewed as having
discriminated against someone because of a Code ground even if they have
rejected the tenant because of legitimate reasons such as bad references or
obviously inadequate income. Accordingly, there was an interest in having
greater certainty about what is and is not allowed. As the CMHA, Ontario noted,
the requirements must be flexible and balanced to protect the human rights of
tenants while at the same time protecting landlords from potential hardships.

So it looks like we’ll just have to wait to see what they decide on as they mull these issues over.

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