For retired librarian Sandra Onufryk, finding affordable rental housing for the Al Balkhi family – Syrian refugees she helped privately sponsor – meant stepping into the Greater Toronto Area's red-hot real estate market and experiencing the bitter sting of disappointment.
She called 15 landlords around Oakville, Ont. – an area west of Toronto with a vacancy rate hovering around 1.6 per cent.
The conversations started off well. "And then when I mentioned seven people and Syrian refugees, the tone changed. So we didn't even go and look," she said.
The landlords switched from enthusiasm to downright discouragement. They described the bedrooms as small, or said they preferred long-term tenants, she recalled.
"This is a humanitarian crisis. … My feeling was that people should just step up and do that little bit extra," said Ms. Onufryk, who is part of a sponsorship group called Abraham's Children Together that is a partnership of a church, a synagogue and an Islamic association.
One landlord told her he would not rent to Syrian refugees and then hung up.
"Being an affluent, blonde white woman, I've never really experienced any prejudice in Canada. And so when someone told me they wouldn't rent because I was asking about Syrian refugees, I was flabbergasted," she said.
While some landlords and businesses have been generous, private sponsorship groups responsible for housing Syrian families face stiff competition in parts of the country with tight rental markets and high rents. They also face landlords reluctant to rent to refugees. And the pace of arrivals is expected to increase in the coming weeks.
Nearly 7,000 refugees – most privately sponsored – have arrived in recent months. The government is aiming to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of February, although many of them are government-assisted and would be housed on military bases initially.
Real estate agent Lena Ohannessian, a member of the Armenian Community Centre of Toronto, is trying to find a home for 52 recently arrived Syrian Armenian families currently staying in a hotel.
Landlords of eight buildings near the centre in north Toronto are notifying her when an apartment becomes vacant. But the vacancies are coming in a trickle.
Other landlords are asking for proof of income and employment letters from the newcomers; some want deposits of up to six months' rent, she explained. "They're asking for way too much documentation that the newcomers don't have," she said.
East of Toronto, in Ajax, Ont., retired school principal Michael Monk is putting up curtains – the final touches – at a furnished two-bedroom apartment for a family of five currently staying in the basement of a church in Jordan and being sponsored by a group connected to his parish, St. Bernadette's Catholic Church.
Instead of paying to store donated furniture while they waited, the group chose to get an apartment ready.
One landlord told Mr. Monk to "get out" when he learned that the $1,500-a-month unit Mr. Monk was about to view would be for a refugee family.
Bothered and slightly discouraged, Mr. Monk went to view another property. The Lebanese-Canadian manager at the second building, who speaks Arabic, was more supportive of renting to Syrian newcomers. The two-bedroom unit costs $1,100 a month, including utilities.
"The people are lovely here," he said. "The price was right, the location was right, but it was the receptiveness of the people in the building to this family."
Refusing to rent a property to a person based on citizenship status – which includes being a refugee – is a breach of the Ontario Human Rights Code. Would-be tenants can file a claim at the Human Rights Tribunal and seek damages.
Asking for more than one month's deposit up front is against the rules outlined in Residential Tenancies Act in Ontario.
Landlords can ask for employment and income information – including credit checks and landlord references – but cannot use a lack of history as reason to reject a tenant, said Megan Evans Maxwell, a lawyer at the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.
For every landlord reluctant to rent to refugees, there are myriad stories of generosity.
In Calgary, Mainstreet Equity and Boardwalk REIT are setting aside a combined 550 apartments for refugees at discounted rates. Vacancies have shot up to 5 per cent because of Alberta's economic downturn, but rents can still be high.
However, the units all have two bedrooms, which is not good for large families, said Anoush Newman, Syrian refugee project co-ordinator at the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.
In the Vancouver area, with its high rents and low vacancy rates, the Armenian community needs to find homes for the 55 Syrian newcomers that arrived recently and are staying with community members and other residents, said Father Hrant Tahanian of St. Gregory Church.
"The rent is very expensive, that's the main difficulty," he added.
After 15 calls and five viewings – and many sleepless nights – Ms. Onufryk got a break when one of her book club contacts led her to the Toronto-area builder the Daniels Corporation.
The company offered to rent a Mississauga townhouse with three bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms for $1,600 – less than the $2,000 market price.
The Al Balkhi family moved in this week. "The home is great," Ms. Onufryk said. "They're just thrilled with it."