Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

In the summer of 2021, my fiancé and I started looking for a new home. We were to be married that September, and had spent most of July viewing two-bedroom apartments in North York for rent. Between us, our income stretched over six figures and our credit scores ranged from mid-700 to over 800. At the time, I worked as a reporter and editor at a public broadcaster while my fiancé worked as a data analyst for the federal government. We were, in my mind, ideal tenants. We were young, had good jobs, and could definitely afford to pay our rent. We are also Black—a fact that I had never considered would play a role in our finding a place to live.

I had lived in New York for three years, and was no stranger to a competitive housing market, but something about our search in Toronto felt eerie. In New York, you were either not fast enough or didn’t have enough money, but in Toronto no one could tell us what we were doing wrong, not even our realtor.

After our second unexplained rejection, I was angry. We were teetering dangerously on the edge of our deadline, and I took to Twitter to share my frustration. In response, a colleague sent me a message to commiserate. “You could be profiled but always so hard to prove,” she wrote. She kindly offered us a place to stay if we needed, and wished us good luck in our search.

A few days later, I found the Renting While Black Facebook page where I read stories that made mine pale in comparison. In the group, members detailed experiences of getting rejected by landlords without reason, despite meeting all the qualifications. Some recounted stories of explicit discrimination, and others expressed frustration at being denied a rental simply because they were Black.

Latoya Williams, who founded the group in 2017, says she decided to start the page after an interaction that she could not describe as anything other than plain anti-Black discrimination. “I found [a] unit, and had spoken to the landlord prior to seeing it and he pretty much guaranteed that I had the unit. We went and we saw it, and I had my deposit ready. Then the next day, I got a call from that landlord who said something to the effect of ‘We’re actually not gonna go with you. We found somebody else, you’re just not the right fit for the unit.’”

Shocked at the encounter, Williams decided to test her theory that discrimination was at play. She asked a friend who was not Black but had a similar job, income, and credit score to apply for the apartment. “She applied for that unit, went inside, she was accepted,” says Williams. “So, that’s what kind of made me think. Hmm, I’m obviously facing challenges, and it’s not because of anything else, but the fact that I am Black.”

While Williams employed the method casually, her plan is formally known as paired testing. The Urban Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit research organization, describes it as “an effective and intuitive way to test whether and in what form discrimination exists.” In 2022, The Canadian Centre for Housing Rights (CCHR) used the method to measure discriminatory conduct against newcomers in Toronto’s rental housing market and found racialized newcomers are more likely to experience discrimination when searching for housing.

“Intersectionality plays a really huge role here,” says Bahar Shadpour, CCHR’s director of policy and communication. Newcomers have historically faced difficulty finding adequate housing in major cities like Toronto. Now, when a characteristic like race comes into play, Shadpour says it further compounds an already challenging issue. “You’re not just a newcomer. People have other characteristics about them that elicit that kind of discrimination, and it really creates barriers for newcomers to access rental housing in Toronto, especially for people that are racialized.”

Discrimination isn’t always not getting the home, says Shadpour. It’s also being given excessive requirements to obtain the home. CCHR found that in many interactions, after a person, by telephone or email, disclosed their newcomer status, housing providers outlined stringent criteria they had to meet to rent the unit in question. By outlining such stringent criteria, housing providers were able to deny housing to newcomers to Canada while not necessarily engaging in conduct the Ontario Human Rights Code would classify as discriminatory. Renters have said requests from landlords can include asking for up to six months of rent upfront. “Nobody is walking around with $18,000 readily available to just dispense like that,” one renter told me.

Nemoy Lewis, an assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, says because landlords have a wide range of potential renters to choose from due to the housing supply shortage, they can rely on misguided stereotypes to make their decision. “As a result, there’s this idea that Black folks are not going to pay their rent or they’re going to be disruptive,” he says. Lewis says this discrimination plays out frequently in the condo market, where landlords don’t even have to see prospective renters, but can easily discriminate against them based on their race after they’ve submitted applications and shared copies of their ID.

I had lived in New York for three years, and was no stranger to a competitive housing market. But something about our search in Toronto felt eerie.

Discrimination like this is pervasive and can have profound impacts on the well-being and economic security of Black people. According to a recent Toronto Social Capital Study conducted by the Toronto Foundation and the Environics Institute, Black residents in Toronto experience more frequent discrimination because of their race and ethnicity than any other group. The study found Black Torontonians often experience people treating them as if they were dishonest, and three out of five Black Torontonians report being followed in stores.

Black renters I spoke to say because they’re aware of this unchecked discrimination, they go into their apartment searches determined to counter any of these stereotypes. Toni, a flight attendant who asked only to be identified by her first name, said when she was looking for a rental unit in January of 2022, she would often show up to viewings dressed in her uniform or a business casual outfit to indicate she was gainfully employed. She brought up where she worked often and tried to build a rapport to show that she was capable of meeting any financial obligations, despite the fact that her income and credit score showed she could. “I was literally, excuse my language, kissing ass. You kind of sell yourself and hope that they like you,” she says.

In a 2011 article titled, “You Would Not Believe What I Have to Go Through to Prove My Intellectual Value!” which looks at the ways academically successful Black mathematics and engineering students handle discrimination, Ebony O. McGee and Danny B. Martin introduce the idea of stereotype management, which they describe as a tactical response to the ongoing presence of stereotype threats.

Examples include feeling compelled to constantly prove that pervasive stereotypes about Black people were false or finding strategies to lessen the threat and effect of the stereotypes. While participants who engaged in stereotype management were often academically successful, researchers found they “maintained a concentrated and constant state of awareness that being Black is conceptualized by others as a marker of inferiority.” The stories Toni and other Black renters shared about performing to counter landlords’ bias reminded me of the study. The truth is many would not believe what Black renters have to go through to prove that they are worthy of renting a home.

“I remember crying because you have no control over how people treat you. And you’re like, this is so unfair and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The effects of this can’t be minimized. In 2018, Taborah Campbell, who has worked in non-profit organizations and higher education institutions, wrote on the Renting While Black Facebook page: “This experience hurt. As a black professional this experience of discrimination [and] racism took a toll on me.”

Campbell says over the years, while looking for apartments in the GTA, she’s been met with a barrage of racist comments. When she was looking for a home with her teenage son, she heard landlords say things like, “Oh, I don’t want baby daddy drama.” Or, “‘There’s no smoking weed here’… And, I’m like, I don’t smoke weed. Another comment was, ‘We’re allergic to a whole bunch of different ethnic foods like your curries.’”

In 2018, when Campbell was pregnant, the discrimination intensified. Landlords would tell her they didn’t want to rent a home to someone with children. So Campbell started to conceal her pregnancy. “I started wearing big sweaters and a big jacket unzipped so then they wouldn’t see [the pregnancy.] And I would say I only had one kid, and that’s actually how I got the apartment I lived in before my current one.”

The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming, says Campbell. “I remember crying because you have no control over how people treat you. And you’re like, this is so unfair and there’s nothing you can do about it. It shouldn’t be like this.”

A 2022 report from the Ontario Real Estate Association found that when there is an instance of discrimination during the home buying or renting journey, people don’t always know how to report it, and enforcement mechanisms aren’t strong. Kenneth Toppin, a Durham-based realtor that works in the GTA, says there isn’t a clear way to hold landlords who discriminate against tenants responsible. “Landlords don’t have to explain why they’re turning someone down,” says Toppin.

Dania Majid, a staff lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, says renters are able to take their complaints of discrimination to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, but the burden of proving that discrimination occurred rests mostly on them. “As racialized people, when we experience discrimination, a lot of times we know it because it’s instinctual,” she says. “It’s happened to us in the past. But it’s very difficult to sometimes translate that instinct into words to convince a decision maker.”

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However, it’s not impossible, says Majid. In Windsor a Jamaican-Canadian man took a case of rental discrimination to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and won. After seeing a unit for rent in the fall of 2017, Chayron Rennie says he never received an application form to apply for the apartment despite being told by the contractor representing the property owner that they would send it over. A month later, Rennie saw the unit being advertised again. This time, he enlisted the help of a friend, a white man, to apply for the unit using Rennie’s credentials. Rennie’s friend’s application was accepted. In 2020, the tribunal ruled in Rennie’s favour stating that “the applicant’s race and colour were a factor in his not getting the apartment.”

While reports, studies, and Facebook groups continue to surface the issue of anti-Black discrimination in the housing sector, Black people say it’s a reality they have been living with for decades. And while more attention has caused people to speak up about it, many hope that those who are just learning of the injustice will do what they can to advocate against it.

“It’s almost like the issue of Black men with cops,” says Davelle Morrison, chair of OREA’s Presidential Advisory Group on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “Prior to social media, and prior to cell phones, we always knew this was an issue. It’s only now that we’ve got cell phones and social media that we’re proving to the world that it’s an issue. But before any of this technology existed, we always knew it was a problem.”

A few weeks before our deadline, my fiancé and I found an apartment. We were ecstatic. We bypassed our realtor and found a landlord renting his home online and made a connection. He interviewed us, and a few days later we were picking up the keys. Unfortunately, almost two years into our stay, our landlord informed us that he was selling the unit because he could no longer keep up with rising interest rates.

We were devastated for so many reasons, but particularly because we would have to re-enter a market that was not only hostile to Black renters, but had seen soaring rents in the last year.

Going back out into the housing market was a reminder of our vulnerability. As increased rental prices continue to push housing out of reach for so many, it’s important to recognize how much harder things will become for those who have always faced difficulty finding a home. “Rents aren’t getting cheaper, they’re getting more and more expensive. Group that together with the fact that when we do find somewhere to rent or somewhere that we would like to rent, we’re turned away because of the colour of our skin,” says Williams, who founded the Renting While Black Facebook group. “It’s definitely getting worse. And it’s definitely taking a toll on our community.”

Our Rent Series is made possible through the generous support of Maytree. All stories were produced independently by The Local.