How two women founded a female-centered real estate startup after struggling to find a safe place to rent

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When Sherrill Song first moved to Canada in her 20s, she didn’t think finding a safe place to live would be a struggle. But when she turned to online marketplaces like Craigslist, Kijiji, and Facebook Groups, she faced a depressing predicament: unreliable landlords, racist remarks, and sexual harassment.

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“Earlier I used to live in a room without a window. It looked completely different from what I saw on Kijiji, and when I tried to get out of it, the owner didn’t give me my deposit back,” Ms. Song said.

On another occasion, a potential landlord wouldn’t stop calling to ask her out on a date. As a woman and a recent immigrant from China, Ms Song, now 32, said she felt unsafe. And without being with a circle of female friends, she felt socially isolated.

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In 2019, she met KD Dao, a real estate analyst who had moved back to Toronto after working in Alberta. She too had turned to online marketplaces to find a place to rent, but stopped looking because she felt insecure.

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The pair saw a business opportunity to save other women from similar conflicts. In January, 2020, he founded Rayna, a real estate leasing service that allows individual women to meet each other online and rent shared apartments.

Rayna works directly with real estate companies – including Minto Group Inc., BentlGreenOak, Minnet Capital and Forum Equity Partners Inc. – to advertise apartments and accept applications from renters. Then, it manages background and credit checks, arranges for apartment viewings and matches potential roommates with in-depth questionnaires. Room rentals start at $1,000.

“It’s a little more than just solving a housing problem,” she said. “We want to empower our tenants to lead their own way.”

To date, Rayna has matched more than 100 applicants with rooms. Ms. Song and Ms. Dao said they are now receiving about 30 applications a day, with more than 550 people on the waiting list.

His timing was accidental. The pandemic, which hit just a few months after starting the company, prompted an exodus from downtown apartments as tenants moved in with parents or in the suburbs. This left many landlords with vacant properties. Some started offering incentives such as free parking or one month’s free rent.

Ms. Song and Ms. Dao stepped in to fill some of those empty houses.

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Rayna targets women between the ages of 20 and 40, but Ms. Song said she has also matched some men with apartments.

According to Paul Baron, senior vice president of operations at Minto, the partnership with Rayna has helped his company reach a younger demographic. So far, Rayna has filled 15 vacant rooms at Minto’s 39 Niagara St. property.

“Rayna helped us get two people to rent together, which means they can comfortably be part of the community, where perhaps in-person rentals may be a little out of reach,” Mr. Baron said.

The Toronto-based company now employs seven women, and is preparing to expand its offerings to Ottawa and Montreal this fall. The founders said they are looking to raise seed capital early next year to take the company internationally. They hope to begin offering career development and networking programs for tenants.

Ms. Song, who previously worked in commercial real estate, said she believes the problems Riana tries to solve come from the lack of representation of women in real estate leadership.

“You go to an event, it’s all gray hair and black suits, and there are very few minorities and women. So it’s clear who are the decision-makers. The women’s experience is overlooked in getting hired, Ms. Song said.

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According to David Hulchansky, a University of Toronto professor who studies housing discrimination, women, and especially single women, face great difficulty in the rental housing market. Women could be sexually assaulted, he said, or ostracized by landlords who followed unfair principles.

“They may have a stereotype that the proper woman gets married and settles down with a man. If you’re a young unmarried woman, the landlord and superintendent wonder about you, and how you’ll pay the bills,” said Prof. Hulchansky. “It’s an additional layer of discrimination they have to overcome.”

Although rental discrimination is illegal under the Ontario Human Rights Code, instances of it are often not reported because it is difficult to prove and rarely appears, according to the Center for Equality Rights in Accommodation, an organization advocating for housing equality. In the policy manager Bahar Shadpur said.

“In a housing market like Toronto, where there is a low vacancy rate, renters are all competing with each other for adequate rental homes. So it would have been even more difficult for those facing discrimination to find a safe and suitable place to live. It is,” said Ms. Shadpour.

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