A landlord’s refusal to allow a brother and sister to share a one-bedroom apartment was found to be discriminatory by B.C.’s Human Rights Tribunal, and the siblings were awarded more than $30,000 in damages.
Tribunal member Devyn Cousineau found that the decision not to allow the siblings to live together while also allowing two adults in a marriage or common-law relationship to share a suite with a single bedroom constituted discrimination based on family status, a characteristic protected by the province’s Human Rights Code.
The claim was brought by Alireza Zarei and his sister Maryam and dates back to 2018 when Maryam moved to Canada from Iran after being approved for a student visa, the tribunal’s decision explains. At the time, Alireza lived alone in a unit he was renting from Austeville Properties Ltd.
“Their plan was that she would live with Mr. Zarei when she arrived, so that he could support her transition to a new country, new language and challenging new educational field. They had no other family in Vancouver,” the decision says.
The issue arose after Alireza contacted the leasing manager to ask about adding an additional tenant to the rental agreement, something that was explicitly required in the terms of his lease if anyone other than him was going to stay in the apartment for longer than 14 days.
In a response, Alireza was told what he would need to do to add his sister to the lease and was also told that his request was unlikely to be approved.
“I feel obligated to advise you that in the six years of managing this property, Austeville Properties has never approved an application nor made any exceptions where siblings or roommates live in a one-bedroom suite,” an email reviewed by the tribunal said.
“Our suites are designed for single occupancy, or a matrimonial/common law relationship couple. We cannot allow beds nor pull-out sofa couches in the living room.”
Three hours after the siblings sent in all the documents required to add a tenant, the application was denied. Because Maryam had already been there for 11 days, she was given three days to leave.
“Our one-bedroom apartments are designed for a single person, or a matrimonial couple,” the email denying the application said.
Three days after the deadline, the leasing manager contacted Alireza to say that the property manager had seen the siblings together and would like a meeting to discuss the issue. The landlord held firm to the decision not to approve the application to add Maryam as a tenant, and she eventually moved out to live in a single room for which she paid $1,140 a month, according to the decision.
Cousineau noted that there was no dispute that Maryam’s application was denied but that in order to prove discrimination, the Zarei’s would have to show that the decision was related to a protected characteristic and that it had an “adverse impact.” The company argued that, ultimately, there was none because Alireza continued to reside in the unit.
The tribunal disagreed.
“Mr. Zarei’s tenancy agreement contemplated a method by which he could apply to live with a co-occupant. He wanted to live with his sister, to support her transition to Canada,” Cousineau wrote.
“Austeville’s denial of that request adversely impacted him regarding how he could use the space he was renting. It prevented him from living with a family member. This was an adverse impact regarding his tenancy.”
The landlord, for its part, argued that the application to add Maryam as a tenant was denied because it would have led to a violation of the “makeshift bedroom policy,” which was in place to prevent people from moving in to living rooms or “any other non-bedroom areas.”
The company said that the decision not to allow the pair to live together was justified and based on the reasonable assumption that they would not share the bedroom because they are not a couple.
Again, Cousineau disagreed.
“This argument acknowledges that Mr. Zarei and Ms. Zarei’s family status was a factor in Austeville’s assessment that they were likely to create a makeshift bedroom and therefore were not suitable co-occupants for a one-bedroom suite,” the decision said, adding that there was no evidence the Zarei’s intended to create a “makeshift bedroom” and that no attempts were made to find out how they planned to share the space.
The tribunal also found that the company’s suggestion that the Zarei’s move to a two-bedroom unit was not the same as meeting their obligation to take “all reasonable and practical steps” to prevent the discrimination.
“It is not an answer to say that they should have simply left,” the decision says.
“It is generally not reasonable to expect or require people who face discrimination in their housing to have to leave that housing in order to mitigate the impacts of the discrimination for the benefit of the landlord,” Counsineau later elaborated.
The tribunal awarded each of the siblings $7,500 for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect. Those damages were to compensate the pair for the impact of the discrimination, including the emotional toll it took and the disruption and hardship it caused in their day-to-day lives.
“The discrimination in this case was serious, impacting the ability of a brother and sister to live together at a critical time in both their lives. Ms. Zarei was denied the opportunity to live with her brother as she transitioned to a new life in Canada, and Mr. Zarei was deprived of the opportunity to provide the support he had envisioned for his younger sister,” Cousineau summarized.
In addition to this award, the tribunal ordered the company to pay Alireza $16,156.31 to reimburse him for the rent he paid for Maryam’s room. An additional $300 in compensation was ordered to pay some expenses related to counselling and medication.