We have good credit and make $170K. Why won't GTA landlords rent to us? Because we're Black.
Updated: May 14, 2021
When my partner and I decided to move in together, I dreaded the thought of packing boxes. I had just moved a few months earlier and the idea of packing tape and a U-haul truck and those few weeks during a move where you just can't find anything was such a turn off.
I had no idea that these annoyances would be the least of my worries - and that finding a landlord willing to rent to a Black couple with two young children would be the real challenge. We really didn't see the racism we were about to face coming.
Why would we?
Together, we were bringing in over $170,000 annually. My partner had worked as an IT analyst for an IT management company for the last decade. I had worked as a TV segment producer with a national talk show and I had been with the company for five years. We both had post-secondary education and solid credit scores. And we had a healthy, above-market budget of $3,000 for our monthly rent.
We also had pretty humble requests. We were just looking for a home, townhome or the main floor of a home that had three bedrooms, two bathrooms and space for the kids to run around was a bonus. We gave our realtor a huge grid within which our ideal home would be. The abundance of properties that populated within our query made us feel like we would end up with the pick of the litter. Boy were we wrong.
Within a month, we had seen a dozen homes, put offers on half and not one had been accepted. Listing agents called our references and previous landlords who told us they sang our praises. But time after time, it just wasn't enough.
At first, we attributed this to market activity. Each listing agent boasted that they had droves of people coming to see the units and bidding wars were unfolding in front of us. But we stayed cool, calm and collected, matching offers and offering an extra month's rent as an advance, keeping in mind that we were literally applying to pay someone else's mortgage.
It wasn't until the third or fourth home that I started to realize what was happening.
Maybe there are people reading this that think I'm blowing this out of proportion. The market is hot. There's lots of activity and people are fleeing the downtown core to move to the exact places we were looking at. But if you've been discriminated against, you know it. You feel it. And we felt it.
"Is your hair straight or curly in your license photo?" my partner asked me at one point. "Curly," I said in dismay.
I visited the Black Housing Directory (Renting While Black) group on Facebook and found that the experience my partner and I were having was not uncommon. The group is dedicated to racialized and marginalized people who have trouble securing a spot due to racist or homophobic landlords. The group is a designated space for real estate professionals, hopeful tenants, and landlords that are open to working with or renting to people of colour and those who are marginalized for other reasons, such as sexual orientation.
In the group, someone posted a recent CBC article highlighting one Black woman's experience in Kitchener-Waterloo. Her message to a prospective landlord was read and not responded to. So she asked her white friend to reach out. Her white friend received a response within an hour to set up a viewing. She asked a Black friend to reach out, and again, their message was read and not responded to.
In Kitchener-Waterloo, it might not be far-fetched that this type of thing happens. But in Scarborough and Markham, where most of the landlords we were dealing with were Asian and South Asian, it was gutting to be reminded that even within minority populations, anti-Black racism is still so prevalent.
I expressed my concerns about racism to my realtor, who insisted this wasn't the case. Her dismissal of my reasoning frustrated me more. But after being turned down for the sixth time, even she was convinced that we were right.
"I spoke to the listing agent and told them whatever the other people were offering, we would match," she explained. "I didn't even check with you guys but I offered to go as high as $3100 (up from the $2850 asking price) and he said they were still going with the other clients because they made more."
Agents kept telling us it wasn't always about the money, it was about finding "good tenants". But I realized that all these listing agents who used this term were using it interchangeably with "non-Black".
I've owned before. And I've rented before. But never with a partner who was Black. So this really illustrated the burden of being a Black male in yet another way. When I last rented in 2019, I had toured units on my own, letting landlords know I was a young mom with a good job and needed a place for my daughter and I. With a squeaky clean credit report, history and score and no hefty balances on my credit cards, I was considered an ideal tenant. But with a Black male in tow, and an extra child, we moved our way to the bottom of the tenant preference pole.
Also, things weren't so cut and dry this time.
My partner was living in Mississauga, my address put me in Durham. And we were looking to move to Markham to be closer to my daughter's school and my partner's son's school in North York. We're not married so we don't have the same last names - and for landlords, the non-nuclearness of our family was difficult to comprehend.
It was something we could easily explain, but in many cases, we weren't given the opportunity to because it's rare to deal directly with landlords. In fact, the few experiences we did have with landlords were pleasant, at least on the surface. But the homes weren't what we needed. But that direct conversation with landlords at least gives us the chance to show them that we are not whatever stereotype they have in mind.
Our family dynamic isn't uncommon. I know tons of families from a wide range of backgrounds who are in common-law relationships, parenting children who are not biologically theirs, or looking to make a move from one end of the city to another for a host of different reasons.
But when you're Black, you don't have that luxury. All your ducks need to be in a row. And even with matching addresses and identical last names, you're still not considered the ideal tenant for a lot of landlords because you're Black.
I spoke to a former colleague who has been vocal about her struggles with this exact thing.
Her and her husband raked in over $250k annually and her credit was clean and pristine. With enough money to buy a home, but no desire to do so in this market, renting was their preference. But after beginning their search in January and experiencing things like being asked flat out if she was Black over the phone by a prospective landlord and being told that her family "makes too much money", her hope has dwindled. Now, she feels forced to buy because her five month search has come up empty and she fears being homeless because her landlord is selling.
Trying to find a place to rent while Black is stressful. Particularly when you're dealing with tight timelines or budget restrictions. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. It starts to have an impact on your relationship. Arguments begin to take place as you desperately search for a way out of this hopeless pit. You're not spending quality time together because it takes a lot of time to continuously look for places online and go and see them in person instead of enjoy your time together doing something else.
You can't even be as selective as you usually would be. The search becomes more about who will rent to you than what you want. And if you're lucky enough to find a place, it's likely not everything you hoped and imagined it would be and you're left with no choice but to settle.
Despite all this, my partner and I are still in a position of privilege. We make decent money. We have good jobs. We have each other. The same can't be said for countless single parents who have found themselves out of work due to the pandemic, or for any other reason one might lose their income. On top of all this, I am fair-skinned, which inherently comes with a lot of privilege not afforded to women of darker skin tones. So how are they navigating this extremely racist rental market? What about them?
In all the articles I've read, the main suggestion is to launch a human rights complaint. It's something I thought of briefly but a gut feeling doesn't hold up in court. And I know that my experience of being turned down for a few homes is not nearly on the same level of so many hopeful renters who have been discriminated against because of race. Plus, the idea of filing a complaint is more overwhelming than the idea of packing tape and U-haul boxes.
It's overwhelming because it's yet another fight Black people have to engage in. We have to fight for equality in our workplace. We have to fight for equality for our children to be treated fairly in their schools. We have to fight for equality when we're dealing with the police. And now I have to file a human rights complaint just to be considered fairly to pay your mortgage?
The idea that Black people are angry or aggressive is a huge misrepresentation of the fact that collectively, we're just pretty damn tired. We are so busy fighting systems of oppression that we miss out on the simple pleasures of life. We are stuck devoting so much time and energy to this never-ending battle, when all we want to do is simply exist and enjoy our lives.
When does it end?
My former colleague says her goal is to own property specifically to rent to people being pushed out of the market by racist landlords. It's just another example of how we've had to solve our own problems because we can't depend on anyone to help us.
One argument I see made so often by those who simply don't understand is how Black people are forcing themselves back into segregation by establishing all these "Black-only" initiatives. Personally, I don't see any other feasible alternative.
Because as the old saying goes - if you want something done right, do it yourself.