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OP-ED: Why affordable housing is a key human right

Four courageous Canadians and a small but powerful grassroots human rights group have taken a groundbreaking step in the fight for decent, affordable housing in this province. They have applied to the Superior Court of Ontario for a declaration that the Governments of Canada and Ontario are violating their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by failing to address the problems of homelessness and inadequate housing. They have asked the court to order the governments to develop and implement effective strategies to reduce and eliminate these problems in consultation with groups affected by them.
The four applicants—a single mother, an injured worker with disabled children, a homeless cancer survivor and a widow who had to give up care of her children— have all faced enormous difficulties in their lives. These difficulties have been made much worse by the lack of suitable housing that they can afford. Supported by the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, they want to hold their governments accountable for the public policy failures that have caused this harm and to require governments to take steps to prevent future harm.
Homelessness and inadequate housing hurt people in direct and substantial ways. They result in hunger, social isolation, reduced life expectancy and significant damage to physical, mental and emotional health. In some cases they result in death. Evidence filed in support of the application clearly demonstrates this, through the personal experience of the applicants and through the expert opinion of doctors, street nurses, scholars, former United Nations officials and Children's Aid workers. Is the Charter's guarantee of "life, liberty and security of the person" so meaningless that it can allow the federal and provincial governments to ignore this harm?
Some groups of people in Ontario are affected by homelessness and inadequate housing more than others. Aboriginal people, people with mental and physical disabilities, single mothers, racialized communities and seniors are all affected in disproportionately high numbers. The Charter guarantees everyone equality under the law and the right to be free from discrimination based on race, origin, colour, religion, sex, age or disability. The applicants believe that the laws that govern the production and distribution of housing in our province must meet this test, and they are failing.
Although it seems to make sense to see housing as included in the Charter's requirements, there is no explicit reference there to housing rights. This is not the case with the international agreements that Canada has signed. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a United Nations Treaty that Canada ratified over 35 years ago, recognizes the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. It obligates Canada (and Ontario) to "take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right." Many judges and scholars have said that we should be keeping the commitments we have made to the rest of the world in mind when we interpret our own Charter of Rights.
We are used to thinking about housing as something that we buy or rent in the open market, or as an investment, focusing on commercial rights. But those millions of Canadians who continue to suffer from homelessness and inadequate housing need a focus on human rights. Many of us believe that recognizing the right to housing through the Charter of Rights will create a path to ending this disadvantage. Once the basic human necessity of housing has been met, these Canadians can begin to enjoy life, liberty and security of the person as promised by the Charter.
Kenneth Hale is director of Advocacy and Legal Services at Advocacy Centre for Tenants-Ontario.
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