Edmonton

Boardwalk promises reduced rents for Syrian refugees

An Alberta-based company is providing some relief for agencies scrambling to find housing for the wave of Syrian refugees about to arrive in Canada.

Up to 350 families will receive $150 break on monthly rent based on a one-year lease

Islamic Family and Social Services Association spokesperson Sarah Hanafi, far left, meets a Syrian family at the Edmonton International Airport in June. She says finding affordable housing for Syrian refugees will be challenging. (Courtesy of Sarah Hanafi)

An Alberta-based company is providing some relief for agencies scrambling to find housing for the wave of Syrian refugees about to arrive in Canada.

Boardwalk Rental Communities will provide discounted rental apartments for hundreds of families resettling in cities across Canada.

Boardwalk plans to offer up to 350 units below market value in Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, as well as Saskatoon, Regina, London and Montreal, to help with the massive resettlement of 25,000 refugees set to arrive in Canada by the end of the year.

"Our goal is to quickly and safely prepare a welcoming transition to permanent housing for up to 350 refugee families in 2016," said David McIlveen, director of community development of Boardwalk.

He said families will receive a minimum $150 discount on their monthly rent based on a one-year lease.

"We're excited about it," said McIlveen. "We think we can do it. It's a tall order and it's a tall order for everyone. And it's a time to pull together."

Finding affordable housing for incoming refugees is "the biggest need and challenge at the moment," said Sarah Hanafi, a board member with the Islamic Family and Social Services Association.

Her organization, which has already facilitated the private sponsorship and resettlement of 54 Syrians in Edmonton this year, is getting ready to support an additional 150 people arriving in January.

'Happy and relieved'

While finding housing to accommodate larger families in a city with relatively low vacancy rates is already difficult, Hanafi anticipates it will soon get even more challenging, as demand increases with the upcoming arrival of 1,500 additional Syrians in Edmonton through the government-sponsored program.

She said news of Boardwalk's plan leaves her "happy and relieved."

"I think this is a very important step in the right direction and I hope that we can continue connecting and all working together to identify the best way to address this incoming need," said Hanafi.

Boardwalk, which has a history of community engagement that includes assisting incoming Bosnian refugees with housing, is still working out the details of what it calls its Refugee 350 program.

But McIlveen said they will work closely with local re-settlement and sponsorship agencies and expect to start accepting rental enquiries next month.

Of those 350 units, he estimated approximately 120 will be made available in Edmonton, 50 in Calgary, 40 in Fort McMurray, Red Deer and Grande Prairie, 25 each in Regina and Saskatoon and 50 in Montreal. But it "will depend where people want to go too," he added.

"We're hoping that our existing resident members of our community will welcome people with open arms," he said, that could include welcoming potluck dinners and ongoing interactions to help connect newcomers with nearby amenities.

Canadians increasingly polarized

In the wake of the Paris and Beirut attacks, Canadians are increasingly polarized about the Liberal government's ambitious refugee resettlement plan, with many calling on the prime minister to suspend the program for security reasons.

Hanafi said she understands the fears regarding security, but pointed out "Syrian refugees are fleeing from the same evils that were behind the Paris and Beirut attacks."

She said Canada's geographic isolation allows this country to develop a way to bring people here while "ensuring security concerns are adequately addressed."

Hanafi, who is a medical student, also emphasized the importance of placing refugee families in neighbourhoods where they will find support from fellow newcomers and other Arabic speaking Edmontonians.

She said those who arrived earlier this year did not speak English or French and faced a seven-week wait for English language classes.

But that strategic placement on the city's north side, where many Lebanese Edmontonians live, allowed them to quickly find employment with small businesses and develop daily routines, also providing connections that promote mental health and wellbeing.

Hanafi said they were also assisted by Syrian refugees who had arrived earlier, even though they were still settling in themselves.

Edmontonians have been "exceedingly generous," said Hanafi.

"I have been receiving requests from people from all socio-economic strata, all cultural and faith groups. Everyone has been wanting to help out in whatever way possible."

Those efforts will soon find even greater support.

In a statement, the Department of National Defence said the Canadian Armed Forces are reviewing accommodations available at bases, but a spokesperson could not confirm whether CFB Edmonton is one of those sites.

@andreahuncar  

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

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