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Richard Togman is the co-founder of Rent Panda, a platform to search for homes and connect with landlords.

Buying property has long been mythologized as our society’s true mark of success. A vast industry of realtors and high-tech businesses has sprung up to cater to owners’ every desire, and governments of all stripes routinely lavish benefits on the propertied and give incentives to prospective owners. In the early years of Canadian democracy, owning land was even a requirement to vote. Those without property were deemed to be little better than vagrants and without a real interest in the community.

And yet, according to the most recent Statistics Canada data, the experience of being an owner only applies to two-thirds of all Canadian households.

So how come governments and business are paying so little attention to the rest of the households – rentals, and the vastly under-served people who rely on the rental market?

Rental housing is often thought of as the ugly duckling of real estate. Renters suffer from stigma and negative stereotypes – they’re only students or they’re poor – while landlords and slumlords are too often considered one and the same, caricatured as greedy and exploitative. This leads to relative neglect and that has harmful knock-on effects in the form of housing shortages, conflict-riddled relationships between landlords and tenants, and a lack of service providers in the industry.

These national dynamics play out acutely in Thunder Bay. One of the issues here is inadequate or inaccessible housing for Indigenous people, who come to Thunder Bay for education, for health care or for work. Indigenous people have the lowest rates of home ownership in Canada and the highest share of households in core housing need, as reported by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Generations of systemic racism, poverty and abuse have driven Indigenous people into financial hardship, making generating wealth – and especially intergenerational wealth that makes buying a home easier – extremely difficult. It’s hard to save for a down payment, for instance, when surviving residential schools leaves you with trauma, few job skills and little community support.

Negative stereotypes of the rental community are compounded when you’re Indigenous. Because anonymous classified ads remain the primary way to connect landlords with prospective tenants, renters have been plagued by scams and poor-quality housing. Indigenous people have told us that on top of all that, landlords can refuse service or claim that the listing have been rented out once they realize their identity. This double stigma further complicates the already difficult search for a safe place to call home, which can lead to lost opportunities: jobs that can’t be taken, scholarships that can’t be accepted.

Compounding these issues is the fact that Thunder Bay’s rental market is tighter than it should be. City bylaws have largely restricted where rental housing can be built, and many of the safer, more affluent neighbourhoods have effectively banned rental housing, usually under the guise of protecting neighbourhood character. This has the effect of reducing the housing that’s available and ghettoizing low-income renters.

I’m not Indigenous, and even my experience when I moved to Thunder Bay – questionable ads on unregulated websites – was a frustrating affair. So my brother and I started Rent Panda, a professional online platform that verifies and vouches for listed properties, and provides professional tools such as tenant screening services, and leads free community-based workshops about best practices for landlords and rights for tenants.

Now, we’re working with the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce to reform city regulations and zoning bylaws, allowing local entrepreneurs to invest in their community, renew the residential housing stock and create the affordable homes our city needs. More than three-quarters of lower income households are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent – a measure the government deems unaffordable.

With rental housing comprising such a significant percentage of households in Canada, we need a national conversation about what it means to rent, how we can best support the rental housing community – and how we can combat the stigma so that every Canadian can find the perfect place to call home.

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