Grassroots initiative helps find low-cost rentals for frontline workers during pandemic
An intake nurse waits for patients at the COVID-19 testing centre in Toronto on Saturday April 4, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
TORONTO -- For health-care workers on the frontlines battling the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest challenges is self-isolation, staying far enough away from their loved ones so that if they do contract the virus, they don’t carry it home with them.
That concern has prompted a grassroots movement across Canada where property owners are offering up short-term accommodations at reduced prices to nurses, doctors and long-term care staff.
Health Worker Housing was first launched in British Columbia, after a nurse posted to social media pleading for help finding low-cost accommodations for herself and a co-worker because there was nowhere for them to safely self-isolate at home.
Shortly after, a website was created to help facilitate partnerships between health-care workers and property owners who have vacant units available during the pandemic.
In Toronto, realtor Sohail Mansoor saw someone mention the need for housing for frontline staff at a news conference and offered up his basement apartment at a pay-what-you-can rate. He went to the Health Worker Housing website and saw that they were asking for volunteers to help launch the project in other cities.
“Being in real estate and being like-minded, I thought this was a good opportunity to help,” he said.
After a few weeks Health Worker Housing became a national movement. The different websites were amalgamated to create a one-stop landing page where property owners can list their units and be matched with front-line workers in need.
“What’s amazing is that this is being done by volunteers from all walks of life. We have a navy officer, a lawyer; we have people in healthcare, software developers. Strangers are coming together to work on this initiative and do what we can,” Mansoor said.
“I had said from the outset that even if we are able to help a few people it will still be a success in my mind.”
Stigma makes it hard to find housing, nurse says
For Tijana Cota, a registered practical nurse in Mississauga who works with COVID-19 patients, the decision to find a new place to live was necessary to protect her father, who is living with terminal brain cancer.
She’s now paying close to $40 a night for a place in Guelph and commuting an hour to work.
Before the pandemic hit, Cota was living with her dad and was one of his caregivers. She said when patients with the virus started to arrive at her hospital; she started looking for another place live in order to protect her dad from the virus.
“I had to wear a mask around him. Couldn’t hug him. Couldn’t kiss him. (It was) very hard for me. He was given a short life expectancy as well,” Cota said.
Cota put up an advertisement online, but said she got rejected twice due to what she believes is a stigma around health-care workers and COVID-19.
“I found a room in Oakville, I messaged whoever was renting it out and they said ‘sorry we can’t have you here, you’re a nurse and we don’t want to put our lives at risk. You have to find somewhere else to go.’”
Cota said she found another place, this time a short-term basement rental, and said the person listing the property asked her if COVID-19 can travel through the ventilation system.
“I said ‘no, it can’t,’ but everyone was pretty hesitant to let me in.”
The place Cota is now staying at in Guelph was offered to her at a reduced rate because she is a health-care worker, but the distance to work and cost ratio, which she said is not covered by her employer, is a challenge.
“It’s really hard,” she said, adding that she is paying two rents during this time. “I’m alone so I can’t live with anybody else. I feel lonely and I wish there was a better way.”
Cota said she knows she’s not the only health-care worker in this situation and hopes Health Worker Housing can find her a better solution.
More housing is needed across the GTA
Mansoor said that about 60 workers have signed up to the website and about 40 property owners have listed available units. He said that while he has received a lot of positive responses to the initiative, there is still a need for accommodations across the Greater Toronto Area.
“We have nurses and doctors and other staff that work in hospitals in Scarborough, Markham, Mississauga, whereas a lot of properties we have so far are downtown in the core. We are trying to encourage property owners in other areas of the city to step up.”
Once a property owner fills out a form on the Health Worker Housing website, volunteers put the information into a database. Throughout the process, Mansoor said they look into the properties to make sure they are being listed at a low-cost.
“We had some people listing their properties on our site but it was at market rent. People thought they could rent out their suite but that is missing the point of this initiative,” he said.
After a worker is matched with a property owner, Mansoor said it was up to the two parties to come to an agreement over price and duration of the lease.
Properties being accepted by Health Worker Housing include houses, apartments, camper-trailers, hotels, and motels. Both furnished and empty suites are available.