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Right to rent costs plenty
Illegal deposits help immigrants get a place to live

Kitchener-Waterloo Record - August 30, 2001, page A1
by Frank Etherington

Immigrant Asian families are paying illegal deposits of between $4,000 and $6,000 so they can rent at two highrise apartments buildings in Waterloo.

Desperate for housing in a tight rental market, highly educated new Canadians from China and Korea are agreeing to pay the deposits because, without employment or credit records, the only way they can qualify for apartments is to provide up-front cash.

Sang-Young (Tony) Shin, 40, and Zhangbin Yim, 47, are among immigrants who paid $6,000 deposits to rent accommodation for their families at the Richmond Square buildings on Regina Street North.

Shin, a research chemist, came to Canada from South Korea in June with his wife, Theresa, and two sons James, 9, and John 6.

Yim, a computer analyst, arrived from Korea in April with his wife Youngsoon, and three teenage sons.

Both said yesterday they paid the money because they were told that was the only way to get apartments until they learn English and find jobs.

They have contracts showing they each paid the deposits and the cash will be refunded or used to pay rent once they find work.

"We know it is against laws . . . but we hurry to get apartments and we don't like trouble," Shin said. "There are not many places to rent . . . and people here who rented (the units) are nice to us."

Yoke Kennedy, a settlement worker who helps new Canadians once they arrive in the region, knows of at least five Asian families who this year have paid similar deposits to get apartments at the Richmond buildings.

Because the buildings are clean and close to the universities, Kennedy said they are popular with immigrants.

She said some can afford to pay deposits, but most don't have that kind of money.

"It makes me hopping mad because some tie up chunks of money they bring to Canada to live on . . . and end up taking low-paying jobs instead of concentrating on something that matches their qualification," Kennedy said.

She said independent immigrants who come to Canada because they have computer, engineering or science skills, have to bring enough cash to support themselves for six months.

The expectation is they will quickly find work, but nowadays, with fewer jobs available, Kennedy said it can take from seven months to two years to learn English and find work - "and they can't use that $6,000 until then."

John Nagy, manager of the buildings, said immigrants pay four months advance rent - $4,000 to $6,000 - and cash is refunded when tenants prove they have jobs.

Asked about the legality of tenant deposits, Nagy said he does nothing to break the law.

"We don't tell them to do anything," he said. "They choose what to do. We give them choice of a deposit, getting a guarantor to co-sign or bringing us a letter of employment," he said. "What do we do? The only other option is to turn them down."

Nagy said he's not sure how many immigrants paid the deposits but insisted money is there to serve as a security deposit in case the landlord has to take new Canadians to court.

"When something goes wrong, we can't go to China to get our money," he said.

Kennedy, who works with Kitchener-Waterloo's Cross-Cultural and Community Services agency, said she was there as an interpreter when several immigrants handed over $6,000 cheques as they rented apartments.

"We tell immigrants it's illegal . . . but they say they have no choice (and) need housing for families."

Kennedy said immigrants realize that some local buildings willing to rent to unemployed tenants who have no credit histories "are crawling with cockroaches and are very dirty."

Gay Slinger, a lawyer with Waterloo Region Legal Services, said Ontario's Tenant Protection Act makes it illegal for landlords to ask tenants for more than first and last months' rent."

"But (immigrants) are vulnerable and worry they won't get apartments," she said."

"It's a supplier's market."

Slinger said one way around the problem is for a tenant to pay the deposit, rent the unit and then go to the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal to get the cashed returned.

"But often they don't want to do that," she said. "As educated as they are, they don't like the sound of administrative tribunals."

Maria Alvarez, executive director at the cross-cultural agency, said before immigrants agree to pay deposits, workers tell them to get legal advice.

"But many come from countries where they don't trust the state or law . . . and are reluctant to complain."

She said Waterloo Region is one of Canada's most popular destinations for new Canadians and estimated her settlement workers counsel about 180 immigrant a month.

"They quickly discover that apartments are hard to find and demand is great," she said. "Finding housing around here is almost hopeless."

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