When Nancy Watson Willborn's long-term tenants gave notice that they were moving out of the three-bedroom townhouse that she rents out in Ladner, B.C., she knew exactly what she had to do.
The ESL teacher and mother of two, who volunteers Fridays at a charity thrift store in the picturesque Vancouver suburb, could have given the property a quick refresh and rented it out for $1,600 a month.
Instead, Ms. Willborn approached a local charity group and offered it as housing for a family of Syrian refugees – some of the roughly 3,000 set to arrive in B.C. after years spent in brutal war zones and refugee camps. Needless to say, the answer was a very enthusiastic yes.
"I thought, 'Rather than put tenants in there, let's do a good thing,'" says Ms. Willborn, who expects to receive roughly $700 a month in rent – $900 less than the market rate. "This is our chance to be good citizens and help out."
Ms. Willborn is one of hundreds of people across B.C. who are offering to house refugees in their rental properties, from basic garden suites to entire apartment buildings.
Vancouver developer Ian Gillespie – whose projects include the Shangri-La, the Fairmont Pacific Rim and the redevelopment of Woodward's – offered a 12-unit west end apartment building for transitional housing and called on others in the industry to follow suit.
Daljit Thind, a developer who has been building homes in Metro Vancouver for 16 years, offered seven units in East Vancouver for long-term housing. An immigrant from India who arrived in Canada in 1993, Mr. Thind was trained as a pharmacist, but was not allowed to practise here; so to make ends meet, he worked in construction – painting, drywalling, tiling – and eventually began building houses himself. Now, 20 years later, his company, Thind Properties, is building multimillion-dollar condos and townhouse developments.
The townhouses that will house Syrian refugee families would normally rent for roughly $2,200, meaning his donation amounts to more than $15,000 a month. He's also calling on friends in the businesses community to donate what they can, and many have come forward – including the local produce chain Fruiticana, which is donating more than $15,000 in food hampers to the new families.
Mr. Thind says giving back to the community is part of his Sikh religion ("These people need help, so you help them," he says), but it's also a way of giving thanks for the opportunities he has been given in Canada.
"We've done well, and the community has given us so many good things," says Mr. Thind, who has been especially troubled by the images of young children going days and weeks without food or shelter, and having nowhere to go. "So that's what motivated me to do this."
According to Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of BC, when it comes to bringing in refugees, housing is the most important piece – and the single greatest challenge.
Over the past nine years, real estate prices and rental rates across the Lower Mainland have skyrocketed, but the shelter allowance for refugees has remained unchanged – just $800 per month for a family with two children under 19.
Mr. Friesen also emphasizes that refugees must not be given preferential treatment over the poor and homeless in Canada. "That races us down to the lowest common denominator and places refugees against B.C. residents who are also suffering," he says.
In the longer term, he hopes the government will increase that allocation and create a comprehensive national housing strategy. But for now, Mr. Friesen, who has worked with refugees both in Canada and overseas for more than 30 years, is relying on the generosity of homeowners, real estate investors and developers who are willing to take a financial hit in order to help out.
So far, he has been floored by the outpouring of support he has received – nearly 1,000 offers of housing, from rooms in homes to entire buildings, and in a wide range of areas, from urban hubs to sleepy suburbs to rural properties.
"The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The only thing that's keeping me awake is listening to all the voice mail messages and reading all the e-mails," Mr. Friesen, who is working non-stop because of the tight arrival deadlines, says jokingly. "They're saying, 'We want to open up our homes, and we're willing to accept little or no rent. Tell us how we can help.' I don't know how all of this happened. I'm still pinching myself."
More housing is still needed, he adds, and anyone interested should go to the ISSBC.org website, then click on "How can I help?" The organization is also scheduling information sessions for prospective landlords. Mr. Friesen says the experience of housing refugees is one of the most rewarding and life-changing that people can have.
"It will be an amazing experience for those who have not had the opportunity to sit down with somebody who has been forced to flee their homes and their jobs and pull their kids out of school," he says. "It gives you a new appreciation for what we have. And even though there is a lot to complain about, when you put it into perspective, it's a pretty great country."
Jim Short is one of the people who contacted Mr. Friesen. Recently named Delta Citizen of the Year, the Lander United Church minister served as a chaplain with the Canadian Armed Forces and spent eight months in Afghanistan, where he saw the fallout from armed conflict firsthand.
When he saw the Syrian refugee crisis unfolding, and in particular the tragic image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach, he was deeply moved. At the Citizen of the Year dinner, he spoke about what he witnessed in Afghanistan – people who risked getting shot at to vote, or whose children risked death just going to school – and said it was time to act.
Two days later, Ms. Willborn approached Mr. Short with the donation of her townhouse; a few days later, Sean Hodgins of Century Group, a local real estate development and property management company, offered a three-bedroom apartment close by.
"Within a week, in this community where it's almost impossible to get housing, we got the two three-bedroom places," says Mr. Short, who says he is hoping to secure two more homes as well as donations of money and services, ranging from translation to dentistry. "I'm a bit stunned, because I thought the accommodation would be the hard part. I guess it just goes to show what people do when they feel it in their hearts."
Back in Ladner, Ms. Willborn is busy sprucing up her townhome – repairing the carpet, putting a fresh coat of paint on the walls, clearing out the garden and replacing old windows. ("The heating bills have been quite high, and we want them to be comfortable," she says.) She's also gathering furniture, some of which was donated by her outgoing tenant, who wanted to help give the Syrian family a head start.
Ms. Willborn doesn't yet know who will live there, but she's been told it will likely be a family of four – a mother, father and two kids under 19 – who will arrive before Christmas, and she is excited about helping them launch their new lives in Canada.
"I am so fortunate. I am just so lucky that I was born in Canada," she says. "And now it's time for me to pay it forward."