A young wheelchair user has been taken off the waiting list for a publicly subsidized apartment because he is not a member of the Muslim community that established the building — a practice that, while legal, raises concerns that accommodations for cultural and religious groups could be limiting access to affordable housing.
According to a letter that arrived at his mother’s house last week, Austin Lewis, 21, was removed from the waiting list at the Ahmadiyya Abode of Peace building on Finch Ave. W in North York because he is not a member of their faith.
“It was mostly confusing, more than anything else,” he said. “Why would a government segregate its own building?”
The 16-storey building, which provides a range of services to its residents including a prayer room that accommodates 250, was actually approved in the 1990s as part of a provincial program to encourage non-profits and religious groups to build affordable housing, according to its property manager. Before this year, the building was open to anyone and those already on the waiting list maintain their priority, whatever their faith.
Lewis, who has used a wheelchair since a disease attacked his spinal cord when he was 8, says he applied to more than 100 accessible buildings in Toronto, Brampton and Peel Region, and there was no notice that any of them were restricted to a certain community.
“We had no idea. The letter came as a complete shock,” he said.
The city provides a $1.7-million subsidy for 94 rent-geared-to-income units under a five-year agreement, which began Jan. 1, that restricts tenants to “members of the Muslim Jama’at.”
“The City’s mandate policy allows social housing providers to restrict their housing to individuals belonging to an identifiable ethnic or religious group if specific conditions are met,” says a statement provided by city spokesperson John Gosgnach.
There are eight such buildings in Toronto, catering to Muslims, Macedonians, Germans and seniors who are Christian, Chinese, Greek, Hungarian or Lithuanian.
Karin Tahir, Ahmadiyya Abode of Peace’s property manager, said the building does not discriminate on race, colour or ethnicity. "Ahmadiyya is in 200 countries," he said.
"We're not bumping anyone off the list," Tahir added. "The real issue is the 90,000-person waiting list for an affordable unit. Where is the new stock?"
“It does seem incredibly odd. There is housing for people 50 and over, but there is no housing specifically for people in chairs,” he said.
His mother, Laura Whiteway, is incensed that her son could be turned away from a wheelchair-accessible building.
“They’re being given a licence to discriminate. It’s just wrong,” she said.
Lawyer Barry Swadron, who has extensive experience in disability law, says the Ontario Human Rights Code allows for this kind of discrimination.
“Here you have a building for Muslims, and normally that would be discriminatory because other religions could not be accommodated there.
“But the Human Rights Code says if it’s a special-interests organization — religious, philanthropic, educational or social — they can discriminate in that way,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate, but that’s how the law was written.”
While the intention was to create safe spaces for minority communities, this kind of permissible “positive discrimination” inevitably produces collateral damage, Swadron said.
“(Lewis) is an unintended casualty of the system,” Swadron said. “The hope is that he can find other accommodation.”
While he is currently enrolled in an 18-month program to learn independent living skills, Lewis knows he will need a new place to live next year, and despite all his applications, he now wonders how many have him still in the running.
“This one place sent me a letter, but how many other places haven’t?” he said.
Clarification- Aug. 28, 2015: This article was updated with new information to make clear that prior to this year the building was open to anyone and those already on the waiting list retain their priority, whatever their faith.