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Ontario Human Rights Commission urges Aurora council to allow proposed shelter, avoid 'people zoning'

‘People do not have the right to choose their neighbours,’ OHRC says
March 31, 2023
Melissa Wallace

Concerns raised over a controversial emergency and transitional housing project in Aurora has prompted the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) to weigh in on the issue, suggesting any attempt to regulate housing based on stereotypes or prejudice is discriminatory.

In a letter to Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas and members of council, the OHRC urged the town to allow the project to proceed as soon as possible based on human rights obligations. The letter stated that comments from community members at the Jan. 24 planning meeting represent discriminatory attitudes toward people experiencing homelessness, mental health and addiction disabilities.

“Community members shared their fears that this project may result in increased crime, lowered property values, and a possible threat to child safety. These fears are not a legal basis upon which the town can make zoning or planning decisions.”

The letter goes on to say that under the Ontario Human Rights Code, the town has a legal obligation to ensure it doesn’t impose unnecessary restrictions on vulnerable groups, such as people who require emergency and transitional housing. It must also make sure its bylaws and regulations do not attempt to regulate who will live in housing based on stereotypes or prejudice, a term known as “people zoning.”

This isn’t the first time the OHRC has raised concerns on housing, it said in response to questions from The OHRC sent a letter to the Township of Brock in October 2021 about a supportive housing project in Beaverton and also wrote letters to the Town of Kingsville in June 2022 and August 2022 regarding plans for housing for migrant workers.

Mrakas responded to the OHRC on March 28, saying council was committed to supporting community members with accessible housing and that “providing residents with an opportunity to express their opinion in an open public forum is a key pillar of our local democracy. This does not necessarily mean, however, that all perspectives expressed by residents factor into the decisions made by council.”

Kathy Kantel is a longtime advocate for vulnerable groups who has worked in the development of shelters in Sutton, East Gwillimbury, and Newmarket. She hoped pressure from the OHRC would propel the project forward.

“It's a shocker to see this lengthy letter saying it’s against the law to discriminate against people and that we don’t get to choose our neighbours,” she said.

In her 35 years of experience working on various affordable housing programs, she has heard countless community members express frustration, fear and anger over proposed shelters like this one, but the difference with the others was that they had the support of the municipality.

“I’m very disappointed in our council. There is no justification whatsoever for not allowing this application.”

Len Bulmer, who has lived in Aurora for 27 years, pointed out that Mrakas voted in favour of the proposed shelter three times at regional council, and if he changed his mind, he should have done so sooner to save taxpayer dollars.

“If he had concerns, why didn’t he say something earlier?” said Bulmer. “Did he not understand what the mood of the community might be? Instead, we feel as though the first time he heard about the project was at that meeting? No.”

In March, a group called “Aurora Residents” mailed brochures to neighbours, asking them to “join the opposition.” Listed action steps at include keeping informed via a mail distribution list, signing a petition and emailing all councillors to oppose the planned shelter.

“While we are not opposed to the purpose of a men’s homeless shelter, as local residents, we believe that rezoning these lands from ‘Oak Ridges Moraine’ to ‘Institutional’ is not appropriate for multiple reasons. It will impact community safety, will change the character of our community, is an unfit location for occupants and is against environmental protection.” The group did not respond to a request for an interview.