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Where you live should not harm your health

RentSafe outreach resources and baseline research reports in production

For people of comfortable means, home typically means well-being and security. Statistics confirm that wealthier people are healthier with lower levels of chronic disease, including precursor conditions like stress and hypertension.

Outdoors there are probably trees, parks, and limited traffic or industry. The home or apartment is newer; statistics also show that as age of housing increases, income levels drop. Indoors, health is sustained by good air quality, limited drafts, leaks, excess moisture or mould. In older homes, higher income can ensure regular upkeep to prevent indoor environmental health problems. Tenants can shop around with their rent dollars and avoid poorly maintained units.

For lower income tenants, a rented home or apartment may not provide similar refuge and may threaten their health. Lower income translates to less housing choices and often rental units in need of major repair. 2016 census data shows that over 317,000 Ontario households live in homes requiring major repairs, of which over 136,000 are renters. Tenants’ lived experience in poorly maintained housing can include mould, bedbugs, roaches and other pests. Related health concerns include worsening of asthma and allergies, itchiness and rashes from insect pests or feeling sick after pesticide treatments, lack of proper heating all contributing to illness, high levels of stress, and so on.

Poorly maintained units can and do occur where property standards by-laws are inadequately enforced. As well, lower-income households in rent-geared-to-income (RGI) social housing units can bear the brunt of the capital repair deficit in this sector because of underfunding.

There are clearly broader policy issues that negatively impact how those with less money put a roof over their heads and whether their housing affects their health.

Finding out whether rental units should not harm a tenant’s health has sent me down a complicated path touching on at least four Ontario statutes and myriad local property standards bylaws. Different opinions exist about the law and its enforcement among dozens of relevant social service and public health agencies. Across many rules and players there is very little integration. Like most aspects of the law, the whole “system” is inherently reactionary; rarely preventative.

While the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) is key, so are local property standards bylaws, authorized under the Building Code. Like the RTA, local bylaws address repair and maintenance issues but rarely, if ever, refer to “health” or “healthy housing.” The Building Code is focused on new construction or major renovations (where a building permit is required). It is silent on the content of bylaws applicable to existing buildings. Unlike the Fire Code, applicable to all buildings province-wide, local property standards bylaws can be weaker than provincial law.

The Fire Code also states that where multiple rules exist about fire safety the most stringent rules apply. While a maintenance regulation exists under the RTA it only applies to areas without municipal government; it does not set a provincial standard and nothing exists, as in the Fire Code, to set a provincial maintenance standard or to say that the most stringent provisions across multiple rules should apply.

Likewise under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, “health” is not defined. Implicitly, and for understandable historical reasons, this Act focuses narrowly on health matters related to infectious and communicable disease. The result in residential tenancies can be limited inspection and enforcement activity to address health issues that arise from stress, poverty, sub-standard housing, and so on. There is also inconsistency. Like enforcement action on property standards, the RentSafe research has found widely different activity by health inspectors in tenancies, including whether they think they have a role to play at all. Some do, some don’t.

All of this work is made more challenging by the multifactorial complexity of issues that arise – mould, hoarding, mental illness, etc., alongside literacy challenges, poverty, fear of landlords and more. And while the lack of consistency in the law and enforcement at the local level has much to do with differences and challenges in local tax bases and budgets, it seems clear that access to justice with respect to healthy housing is not universal across the Province and is denied for many tenants.

Innovative and progressive work is happening in some health units such as in Grey-Bruce where their Above Standard Housing Project seeks to address housing and health, brings landlords into the dialogue, and gets health and property standards inspectors talking and working together.

These are only a few findings of a multi-year effort. Outcomes from the RentSafe project will be available soon including detailed reports with recommendations for reform, and summary materials for public health and property standards inspectors, legal clinics, social service agencies, and landlords, with case examples. A short whiteboard video has already been produced and a longer video is now in development.

RentSafe is an exciting project that has attracted interest and engagement from tenants and tenant advocacy groups, and diverse stakeholders across public health, clinical medicine, housing and anti-poverty groups, legal clinics, environmental and other public interest and social justice groups, and diverse academics. Find more details online.