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Some Hamilton landlords won't rent to Syrian refugees, volunteers say

Some groups sponsoring Syrian refugee families say discrimination by landlords is making it harder for them to find homes for the new Canadians.
An estimated 300 Syrian refugee families will resettle in Hamilton by February, some of them sponsored by volunteer groups. But two of those groups say that some landlords are making it harder to find housing. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

Aaron Gerrard is excited to be part of sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. But when it came to finding a place for them to live, he got a crushing dose of reality.

When he told landlords he was looking on behalf of refugees, most stopped dealing with him or never called back.

For the minister at Ancaster Village Church, it felt like discrimination directed at the refugee family. And he's not the only local sponsoring group seeking refugee housing to experience a frosty reception from many local landlords.

Gerrard's church is sponsoring a family of four — a mom, dad and two little girls — that arrived last week. 

As soon as that part was found out on the phone, they said, 'OK, we have to look into something and call you back.'- Aaron Gerrard , Ancaster  Village Church

Most landlords didn't say outright that they wouldn't rent to Syrian refugees, Gerrard said. But "implicitly, it was understood.

"As soon as that part was found out on the phone, they said, 'OK, we have to look into something and call you back.' And we wouldn't hear from them again."

For charitable sponsors searching in Hamilton's crowded housing market, those reactions are a problem.

Deal with compassion

Arun Pathak, president of the Hamilton District Apartment Association (HDAA), represents about 150 landlords. He said one obstacle is that sponsoring groups don't know when their families will arrive, and landlords aren't able to hold apartments without rent being paid.

He says he's unaware of landlords discriminating against Syrian refugee families. The HDAA can't force landlords to rent to refugee families. But the HDAA is meeting with the city next week to see how it can help with resettlement.

Pathak will offer to email his members about refugee families who need homes, and educate them about how sponsorship works. 

"I feel confident that as a society, we're going to handle this issue with the sort of compassion it deserves."

Housing shortage

Hamilton has a documented shortage of affordable housing. Its social housing waiting list sits at more than 5,600 people, while the vacancy rate is 1.8 per cent. This fall, the Hamilton Community Foundation warned of a "looming housing crisis."

Meanwhile, Hamilton's housing boom is driving housing prices increasingly upward. In Stinson, for example, housing prices have increased 61 per cent since 2012.

Amidst this, the city is preparing to welcome an estimated 300 Syrian refugee families by February. It's part of the federal government's plan to resettle 25,000 refugees in that time period. The city and various community agencies are working together to find housing, and the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has even offered vacant schools.

As for sponsoring groups, they find and fund housing for their refugee families for one year.

Cheri Weaver, who's searching for housing for a family sponsored by St. James Anglican Church in Dundas, had the same experience as Gerrard. 

She's looking for a house for a family of 14 that could arrive any day. Weaver said she's not sure if landlords hesitate because of the size of the family or a stigma against refugees. She suspects it's a little of both.

'A rude impression'

Like Gerrard, Weaver said there seems to be a rumour that refugees damage houses. That baffles her.

"I don't get that," she said. "They have lived in houses."

Our family has three priorities — learn the language, get a job and try to help people the way they've been helped.- Aaron Gerrard

Gerrard said he's approached about 30 landlords. Five or six were enthusiastic. The rest? Not so much.

"All last week, we were probably going to two places a day," he said.

"Some people gave off a rude impression. As soon as they saw the family get out of the car, you could tell they were no longer interested."​

If landlords are discriminating against refugees, it's against the Human Rights Code, says a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokesperson.

The code prohibits discrimination based on ethnic origin, place of origin or citizenship, among other factors, said Conrad Spezowka in an email. 

Maria Antelo, community development co-ordinator with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, said discrimination against newcomers isn't unusual. When it does happen, the clinic will help.

"They're very discriminated against by landlords, whether it's when they're finding housing or in housing," she said. 

'Eight suitcases to their name'

For both sponsored families, there's a happy ending in sight. After talking to about 20 landlords, Weaver hopes she's found one offering an "ideal solution for our family." Like Gerrard, she said she's also encountered compassionate landlords eager to help.

As for Gerrard's group, they found an apartment and the family is moving in this week.

Gerrard chalks up the judgment to people not understanding who refugees are. His family, he said, was "part of the elite class in Syria, and now they have eight suitcases to their name.

"The stigma is that these are impoverished people who don't know how to work, and that's ridiculous," he said. "The majority are like you and me. They're middle to upper class people who work hard.

"Our family has three priorities — learn the language, get a job and try to help people the way they've been helped."

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