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Forum hears of discrimination in housing

Would-be tenants say they were victims of racism

Toronto Star, March 21, 2002

HAMILTON - A superintendent slammed the door in the faces of Awtif Elamin and her husband when they responded to a newspaper ad for apartments in Hamilton recently.

But the Sudanese immigrants were having a tough time finding a place in a good location for themselves and their three children, so they called up the Toronto property manager and pleaded with him.

He offered to put them on a waiting list. It wasn't until they offered to pay a full year's rent in advance that an apartment was suddenly made available.

There's no doubt in Elamin's mind why they were treated so badly. She pointed to the dark skin on her arm, and said it's because of discrimination.

"I am a lawyer and I have a good education and I am polite,'' she said. Her husband has a doctorate in economics. They have money. She thinks there could be no other reason.

"It's terrible. We are very sad.''

They're not alone. Discrimination in housing is a common complaint among immigrants and refugees. It has the potential to get worse in Hamilton's rental market, which has the lowest vacancy rates in more than a decade.

The concern was one of many raised yesterday by newcomers from all countries at a community forum organized by Settlement and Integration Services Organization to coincide with International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The goal of the forum, part of a two-year project called Enabling Peace, was to identify the problems different community members face and to try to come up with solutions so Hamilton can become a more inclusive place.

Hamilton's vacancy rate is at 1.3 per cent. Three per cent is considered healthy. In addition, the average rent in Hamilton has risen by 20 per cent since 1993. These conditions can spell trouble for visible minorities.

"In times of tight rental markets, discrimination does play more of a factor,'' said Jeff Wingard, social planner with Hamilton's Social Planning and Research Council. "We need to start creating more affordable housing in this community.''

Shad Mwarigha of Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, who spoke at the forum, said sometimes the discrimination is based directly on skin colour. But other times, people aren't given apartments for more subtle reasons. For example, immigrants obviously can't provide a Canadian credit history or landlord references.

"(Landlords) won't take your reference from a refugee camp or from Afghanistan,'' he said. "And those become avenues of exclusion for people.''

He said another tactic of landlords - which is not legal - is to ask for six months rent, or more, in advance. If people can afford it, they often comply.

"If you're new and you're vulnerable, your choices are limited.''

He said the problem is not a new one, but it's one that has never been addressed.

"People presume, for some reason, that it's OK for landlords to do whatever they want,'' he said.

One of the solutions is to make the tenant selection more transparent, forcing landlords to tell people why they were rejected or accepted, he said.

Twice Tragi Mustafa showed up at apartments she was told over the phone were available, and both times when she arrived, she was told they'd already been rented. Yet when the Sudanese refugee called back, or had someone call for her, she was told the places were still vacant.

"It's not easy to find evidence (of racism), you just feel it,''-she said. "It's very bad. It is a shock for me. I never expected that.''

Nyabuony Palek found discrimination after she'd moved in. Several years ago, her children, now eight and 11, were beaten up by the neighbour's kids. Their mother swore at her and told her to go back where she came from. "I didn't know what to do - I just took it,'' she said. "Sometimes I cried and I wish I didn't come here.''

But Huda Diab, another Sudanese immigrant, was one of the lucky ones. She and her husband and six kids started out in a bachelor suite, sleeping on mattresses on the floor. But after two months, they were able to find a good home in a subsidized building.

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