A Toronto mother is furious that her disabled son was taken off the waiting list for a city-subsidized accessible apartment because he does not meet the requirement that tenants be practising Muslims.
Austin Lewis, 21, who has used a wheelchair since he was eight years old, told the Toronto Star that he has applied to more than 100 accessible buildings in the city and was shocked to learn that he was no longer on the waiting list at the Ahmadiyya Abode of Peace building in North York.
The Muslim-only apartment building is one of eight social housing projects funded by the city and permitted to restrict tenancy on religious or ethnic lines.
Neither Lewis nor his mother Laura Whiteway was immediately available for comment on Thursday.
But Whiteway contacted Global News after she received the notice at her Brampton home. Sent by Housing Connections, the form letter explains that the community’s vision for the building “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.”
Safwan Choudhry, a spokesman for Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at Canada, said people in his community were saddened to hear of Lewis’s story and struggle to find housing.
“We completely empathize with Austin,” Choudhry told Yahoo Canada News. “There’s absolutely no discrimination at all when it comes to individuals’ backgrounds. It’s just the fact that the city looked at the management of this building and how it was structured and recognized that a tenant would probably have a very difficult experience if they were not Muslim because of the way it is designed and the living experience it provides.”
Choudhry explained that the Ahmadiyya Abode of Peace building features specific amenities geared toward Islamic adherents. The entire lobby is a dedicated worship space, the building is an alcohol and smoke-free zone and the call to prayer is broadcast in every unit five times a day.
“We never intended to discriminate against anybody. Our motto known around the world is ‘love for all, hatred for none,’” he added.
The city policy, which has been in place since Jan. 1 of this year, is under scrutiny this week after Lewis and several others came forward to say they had received a notice that they would be removed from the building’s waiting list if they were not Muslim.
“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,” wrote City of Toronto communications manager John Gosgnach in a statement to Yahoo Canada News.
“Social housing providers administered by the City have been granted mandates to serve a number of identifiable groups including seniors, artists, aboriginals, 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.”
Choudhry added that for immigrants arriving in Canada looking for a place to feel comfortable as they find their feet, community-oriented buildings like Ahmadiyya Abode of Peace are a privilege and honour that Canada and, specifically the City of Toronto, provides.
“We only received this special status this year. Some buildings have had it for decades,” said Choudhry. “That’s why we were surprised to hear there was a story out there that our Muslim community was trying to discriminate against people and not provide them housing. This was never, ever the intention when the city offered us this opportunity. We never imagined it could be misinterpreted in this way.” He also mentioned that leaders in his community were in discussion on ways to work with the city to help find Lewis housing.
Toronto human rights lawyer Shane Martinez believes the housing conditions set for the Ahmadiyya Abode Of Peace, while exclusionary, are likely legal under section 18 of the Human Rights Code.
“Affordable housing restricted to the Ahmadi [Ahmadiyya Muslim] community should not be used as an excuse for fallacious claims of ‘reverse discrimination,’” he said in an email. “If one is upset about a lack of housing options it would be prudent for them to direct their discontent not at the Ahmadi community, but rather at the city for its refusal to invest more money in the creation of affordable social housing.”
Choudhry agrees wholeheartedly.
“The problem is way bigger than a handful of people trying to get into the Ahmadiyya Abode of Peace. The problem is the 90,000 qualified people waiting for housing. What is the city’s long-term and short-term plans to accommodate them?”
Still, the issue has riled some residents.
Jesse McKinnon, a University of Toronto student and ardent believer in the separation of church and state, heard Lewis’s story and felt driven to get involved. He has organized a protest at city hall for Sept. 12 against what he calls “city approved segregation,” despite never having met Lewis or Whiteway in person.
“I was shocked at the news as I thought segregation was an evil practice of the past. At least in Canada. This deeply worried me as I think that politicians will sometimes approve stupid policies to appease intolerant community demands. The building that denied Austin did it because he wasn’t Muslim and there are other buildings that discriminate based on ethnicity. All of that is wrong period. We shouldn’t tolerate that mindset,” he told Yahoo Canada News in a Facebook message.