“Airbnb for refugees” launches in Toronto

Roof for Refugees Canada wants Toronto residents to consider renting out spare rooms or houses to Syrian refugees

As the city continues to try to find a way to regulate Airbnb, a local volunteer-run group dubbed “the Airbnb for refugees” has quietly launched in Toronto. After running a pilot project in Ottawa last winter, Roofs for Refugees Canada has started working with local shelters and settlement agencies to help place refugees in homes across the GTA.

“The idea came about when the government had announcement we’d be taking in an influx of Syrian refugees,” says Yusra Uzair, who volunteers as the Toronto coordinator. “Our national coordinator Steve Day was working with settlement agencies to see how to address the housing issue. He reached out to Refugees Welcome International in Germany to start Roofs for Refugees Canada, which is an affiliate of that organization.”

In Ottawa, Roofs for Refugees received more than 150 housing offers from local landlords. Volunteers helped vet the offers through phone interviews and home visits before they were added to an online database. Only workers at refugee settlement agencies and housing shelters had access to the information.

So far, 10 large families have found housing, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but Uzair explains that many factors go into making a match.

“It depends on the budget each family has and how much negotiation is possible with the landlord,” she says. “It also depends on what kind of housing they’re providing, like if it’s a single room, a small apartment or an entire house.”

Other considerations, such as accessibility to public transit and proximity to grocery stores and government services are also taken into account.

Yusra Uzair.jpg

Roofs for Refugees Toronto coordinator Yusra Uzair.

Unlike Airbnb, which is typically used for short-term rentals by vacationers (anywhere from one night to a few weeks), housing offered to Roofs for Refugees must be available for a minimum of three months. Most of the housing matches in Ottawa were based on year-long rental agreements.

While Uzair could not disclose the cost of rentals, she says housing offers ranged from “free to affordable,” with affordable meaning that price was negotiable. As with other instances of Canadians supporting Syrian refugees, residents offering their homes to Roofs for Refugees have largely been driven by kindness over revenue.

In the GTA, some 15 housing offers have already been added to the system. Toronto residents interested in providing free or affordable housing to refugees can apply on the Roofs for Refugees Canada website. 

Uzair says that while Syrian refugees are the main focus right now, the group plans to eventually expand the program so it can be a permanent tool used by all refugees entering Canada. So far, it seems, there’s been an outpouring of interest from Canadians.

“It provides an avenue for a person or family to support somebody else in a new chapter of their life,” Uzair says. “Also, it’s an opportunity to learn from each other.”

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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