By Laura Track

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Landlord BC’s magazine called The Key.

As landlords, you’re in the business of providing accommodations. You provide homes for all sorts of people every day – that’s your job, and you know it well. But did you know that when you’re providing rental accommodations to your tenants, you also have what’s known in human rights law as a “duty to accommodate”?

BC’s Human Rights Code says that everyone has the right to equal treatment in their housing, free from harassment and discrimination.[1] While it’s probably obvious that people shouldn’t be treated badly in their housing or prevented from renting an apartment for a discriminatory reason – because they’re gay, for example, or a single mom – more subtle forms of discrimination sometimes fly under the radar.

Treating someone badly because of a characteristic protected by the Human Rights Code, such as sexual orientation or gender, is an example of “direct discrimination.” More subtle forms of discrimination are called “indirect discrimination.” Indirect discrimination might be unintentional and not motivated by any prejudice or bias, but it can nevertheless have the effect of creating barriers to equality for people protected by the Code. Consider some examples:

  • A building with stairs up to the front door, but no ramp, will exclude people who use wheelchairs or scooters
  • A laundry room or common space with round door knobs may be inaccessible to a person with arthritis who cannot grip the knob
  • An apartment with an inaccessible shower may force a person who could otherwise live independently to rely on caregivers

These are examples of potential “indirect discrimination” that could give rise to a housing provider’s duty to accommodate.

Your duty to accommodate means that, as a landlord, you have an obligation to meet the special needs of your tenants when those needs are related to characteristics protected by the Human Rights Code. While all of the protected characteristics listed in the Code might lead to a need for accommodation, the need arises most frequently when a tenant or potential tenant has a physical disability.[2] In the examples listed above, the lack of accommodation for the person’s disability is preventing them from enjoying their housing on the basis of equality with others. Even though the landlord did not mean to discriminate against anyone, the effect or impact of their actions is that the tenant faces disadvantage and exclusion. This could be a violation of the Human Rights Code.

The duty to accommodate means that structures, rules, policies, or practices that cause disadvantage and exclusion might have to be changed so that people with disabilities are able to enjoy equal benefit, equal treatment, equal rights and equal access to housing. As the Supreme Court of Canada has reminded us, treating everyone the same way does not always lead to equality. We do not all start out on equal footing, so treating everyone the same may actually result in further inequality. Discrimination can arise, says the Court, “from a failure to take positive steps to ensure that disadvantaged groups benefit equally from services offered to the general public.”[3] “Accommodation of difference is the essence of true equality.”[4]

As a housing provider, you have a key role in creating an inclusive, rights-respecting culture in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

First, you can be proactive in ensuring that the design of your building or rental unit, the rules and policies you put into place, and the practices and standards you adopt are inclusive of people with disabilities, and sensitive to their potential needs. You might, for example, install automatic doors in the lobby, Braille on the elevator buttons, and levered door knobs in the units and common areas. You’ll give consideration to parking stalls and building access for wheelchair users, prioritizing dignity and inclusion for all. After all, no one wants to access their home through the garbage room or service elevator!

As a landlord fulfilling your duty to accommodate, you’ll also respond to individual requests for accommodation in a timely and respectful manner. You’ll give serious consideration to the changes you can make to allow your tenants to live in as independent and dignified a way as possible. You’ll remember that people with disabilities are experts on their own needs, and you’ll seek to involve and include them in the design of an individualized accommodation plan that can meet those needs. You’ll respect their privacy, and seek only the information you need to provide the accommodation – not necessarily their diagnosis or a run-down of their medical history.

Providing appropriate accommodations to your tenants is a process, not an end point.

Now, your duty to accommodate your tenants with disabilities isn’t without limit. The law says you have a duty to accommodate to the point of “undue hardship.” Undue hardship means the point at which you’ve done everything it’s reasonably possible for you to do, and it would be unreasonable to expect you to do more. It’s a high standard – reaching undue hardship implies you may have to incur some hardship, including inconvenience or expense – but you don’t have to provide the moon.

Providing appropriate accommodations to your tenants is a process, not an end point. The “perfect” accommodation might not be possible at first, and could cause you undue hardship. But ask yourself whether there might be an alternate option that could be put in place right away while you explore more long terms solutions. Remember too that while something like a ramp might seem like a considerable investment up front, it will make your housing more valuable and desirable to people with disabilities and our aging population over the longer term.

The purposes behind BC’s Human Rights Code are to achieve an inclusive and fair society where differences are valued and appreciated, and everyone is able to participate and thrive. As housing providers – accommodation providers! – you have a key role in advancing this important goal.

[1] Note that the Code does not apply to accommodations where you will be sharing sleeping, cooking or bathroom facilities with your tenant. See s. 10(2)(a).

[2] People are protected from discrimination in tenancy on the basis of their race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, marital status, family status, age and lawful source of income.

[3] Eldridge v BC (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 624, para 78.

[4] Andrews v Law Society of BC, [1989] 1 SCR 143.