Mississauga woman alleges she was blocked from buying a Guelph-area home because she is Black

Mississauga woman alleges she was blocked from buying a Guelph-area home because she is Black

A Mississauga woman who alleges she was prevented from buying a townhouse in Fergus, Ont., because she is Black has brought a complaint against the homebuilder to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Michelle Walkes, a registered practical nurse, is seeking $50,000 and an apology from Cambridge, Ont.-based Reid’s Heritage Homes as well as Carmen Rocha, a new homes sales consultant for the builder.

Both Reid’s and Rocha deny the allegations, which have not yet gone before the tribunal.

In her claim, Walkes says she felt like she had been “punched in the face” after her encounter with Rocha on April 11, 2017, in Fergus, north of Guelph.

Walkes alleges in the claim that Rocha switched from helpful, “warm and bubbly” on the telephone to “detached” and “much less welcoming” when Walkes showed up later that day to view the model townhouse unit in a new subdivision called Westminster Highlands.

Rocha had told her on the phone the $461,000 unit was available, Walkes says.

According to her claim, Walkes says that after driving for an hour from Brampton with her partner Terrence Thomas and arriving at the sales centre in Fergus, Rocha told Walkes she would need to provide the entire $22,000 deposit for the unit that day. But minutes later when Walkes told Rocha she had her chequebook and was ready to pay, Rocha refused to accept the money, Walkes says in her claim.

“Ms. Rocha said that she could not sell the unit to (my partner) and I. She (Rocha) claimed that a man had visited the previous day who was very interested and that he would perhaps be making an offer on the following day and for this reason she could not sell the unit,” Walkes says in her application to the tribunal.

Walkes says after she and her partner Thomas, a correctional officer who is Black, left the sales office, Thomas later called Rocha back on the telephone asking about and expressing interest in the unit.

“Ms. Rocha stated that the unit was still available to be purchased, not knowing that Mr. Thomas was the same man that had accompanied me to the viewing earlier that day. I heard the entire conversation, as Mr. Thomas had placed the call on speaker,” Walkes says in her filing to the tribunal.

“On discovering who Mr. Thomas was after asking him a few questions, Ms. Rocha sounded very uncomfortable and rushed to end the conversation,” Walkes says in her claim.

“I’ve heard stories of this happening to other people, but this was the first time I experienced this type of injury. This injury was serious and this type of harm, of being discriminated against and … denied a home has led me to feel powerless,” Walkes says in her claim.

In their response submitted to the tribunal, Reid’s Heritage Homes and Rocha deny all of Walkes’ claims and say she isn’t entitled to damages. Reid’s says it prides itself on “strictly enforcing and nurturing a culture of respect and maintaining a discrimination-free environment” for its employees, customers and potential buyers.

Reid’s and Rocha say there was a cancellation and on April 10, 2017, Rocha spoke with another interested buyer, and a meeting with that person was scheduled for noon the next day. Reid’s and Rocha say a meeting was scheduled with Walkes for the same day, but at 2:30 p.m. The other buyer secured the unit with a deposit during his earlier noon meeting with Rocha, Reid’s and Rocha say in their filing to the tribunal.

“While the timing was unfortunate for Walkes, neither Reid’s nor Rocha engaged in any discriminatory conduct,” Reid’s and Rocha say.

When Rocha spoke to Walkes that morning, before the meeting in Fergus, Rocha advised there were other parties interested in the unit, the builder and sales agent say in their reply.

“At no time during that telephone call or otherwise was Walkes advised that she was the only interested buyer or that she was guaranteed to be the ultimate purchaser of the property,” the builder and agent say.

Rocha denies that her demeanour or attitude changed when Walkes showed up at the Fergus sales office, but if there was a change it was because she felt badly about the fact Walkes had travelled an hour only to learn the property wasn’t available.

In the response, Rocha denies having a subsequent conversation on the phone with Walkes’ partner. And Rocha says she has sold properties to people of all races and nationalities — including one to a Black friend or family member of Walkes — although the claim does not specify where that property is located.

Walkes, 40, also claims she was told by Rocha that the unit was only available to people 50 years old and above, but Rocha and Reid’s deny that.

“Walkes’ race, colour, ancestry, ethnic origin and age had no bearing on the events of April 11, 2017. Walkes was not denied the property on the basis of any prohibited ground pursuant to the Human Rights Code,” the respondents say.

In an email to the Star, Rocha referred any inquiries to Neena Gupta, the lawyer representing Reid’s. In a statement to the Star, Gupta said as this matter is still before the tribunal it is not appropriate to comment in detail.

“Reid’s emphasizes that it does not discriminate on any basis. The company has a rich 43-year history of selling high-quality homes to people of all backgrounds, cultures, religions, ethnicities, lifestyles and traditions. Reid’s is deeply saddened that anyone would feel otherwise,” Gupta said.

Walkes’ lawyer Selwyn Pieters declined to comment in too much detail about his clients’ complaint except to say he believes it’s a strong case on its merits.

He says his client’s complaint is “bolstered” by a research report prepared for the case by University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski, an expert in housing and urban/regional planning, as well as socio-demographics.

In his report, Hulchanski says there’s a body of research that has looked and tried to explain why some locations have so few Black residents in regions where there is a significant Black population.

He says there is related literature on the role of real estate agents and homebuilder’s agents as “gatekeepers” when it comes to housing transactions — part of process called racial steering.

For his research, Hulchanski used up-to-date census data about the ethnocultural characteristics of people who live and don’t live in and near Fergus, the largest township in Centre Wellington, which is part of Wellington County.

In his report, Hulchanski says based on the 2016 Census, Wellington County, with a population of 219,415, has about 3,300 Black residents. That’s about 1.5 per cent of the population. Yet Fergus, with a population of 20,400 people and 8,150 households only has 100 Black people (roughly 0.5 per cent).

The professor goes on to say these facts “would alert most researchers to consider residential discrimination, in the form of racial steering and racial exclusion as part of the explanation.”

In his report, Hulchanski goes on to say that in an area that is “highly homogeneous in ethnocultural terms, a real estate agent who introduces change is taking a reputational risk — the risk that some or many will be offended by the change.”

The professor goes on to say a particular agent might not themselves be prejudiced “but if they believe others might be, for example, about the community reaction and the property value impact of introducing change, e.g. more Black families where there are few, if any” the agent might think it best for business to leave well enough alone.

“This is one mechanism through which nearly exclusively White areas like Fergus remain that way,” Hulchanski says in his report.

Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent

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