WATCH ABOVE: At 21, Austin Lewis of Toronto lives his life in a wheelchair. Now, as Sean O’Shea reports he’s also dealing with another obstacle when it comes to getting a subsidized apartment: he has the wrong religion.
TORONTO — A disabled Toronto man had his name removed from the waiting list of a subsidized city apartment because he does not meet the main criteria for living there: being Muslim.
“It doesn’t make any sense; I lived in Texas, that doesn’t make sense even there,” said Austin Lewis, 21, who is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.
Lewis is attempting to find subsidized, rent-to-income accommodations in Toronto. He has applied to dozens of apartments through Housing Connections, an organization that manages a waiting list of applicants applying for subsidized housing.
This week, Lewis received a letter from Housing Connections, informing him he would be taken off the list for an apartment at 3001 Finch Ave. West, operated by Ahmadiyya Abode of Peace Inc.
The letter reads, in part: “The vision of this community includes providing housing for households in which at least one person is a member of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at. This means if none of the individuals of your household are a member … you will be removed from the waiting list.”
“It’s prejudiced, it’s racist,” said Laura Whiteway of Brampton, Lewis’s mother. “It’s wrong on every single level: this goes against everything Canada represents to me.”
Whiteway contacted Global News after receiving the letter, which she says unfairly discriminates against her son because he is not Muslim.
“If it’s legal, it should not be legal; it’s insulting, that’s what it is,” she said.
Under provincial law, renters aren’t supposed to be denied accommodations on the basis of religion.
“The purpose of the Human Rights Code in Ontario is to make sure people feel as though they are part of the community and that their dignity and their worth is protected,” said Shane Martinez, a Toronto criminal defence lawyer who specializes in human rights issues.
“The Human Rights Code for the province still applies and is really the paramount legislation that needs to be given consideration in a situation like this,” Martinez added.
But the city of Toronto says the practice of allowing only certain ethnic or religious groups is legally acceptable.
“Ahmadiyya has received approval under Council authority to enter into an Agreement to establish a Mandate to restrict tenancy to ‘members of the Muslim Jama’at’ in accordance with the requirements approved by City Council in November 2002. The Agreement to Establish a Mandate has been executed by both parties and has a five year term with an effective date of Jan 1, 2015,” according to John Gosgnach, communications manager for the City of Toronto.
“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,” Gosgnach said.
“The housing provider must provide the City with a legal opinion that they are meeting the requirements of Section 18 of the Ontario Human Rights Code by providing services and facilities to support the members of the identifiable ethnic or religious group.”
Gosgnach said the same provision allows other groups to do the same “including seniors, artists, aboriginal, homeless/hard-to-house, individuals with AIDS and ethnic and religious groups including Christian and individuals of Lithuanian, Macedonian, Greek, Chinese, Hungarian and German origin.”
But Whiteway says her son is already facing an uphill battle to find housing because of his physical disability; having another option taken away makes a bad situation worse.
“I thought we were moving forward,” she said. “We are a melting pot; this does not reflect that.”
Lewis says he “wouldn’t mind a bit” living in a building that was predominantly occupied by Muslims, or anyone else.
“People are people, they do what they do: they can pray to a tree, I don’t care, it doesn’t impact me,” he said.