GoFundMe users raised $100 million toward rent and bills worldwide last year. Are rent relief crowdfunds here to stay?

·5 min read

As many Torontonians continue to struggle financially during the pandemic, a group of youth in the city’s Little Jamaica area came up with a way to help their neighbours make ends meet.

At the beginning of the month, Reclaim, Rebuild Eg West started a fundraiser to create a tenant relief fund, so that their neighbours who were having trouble making rent could have a resource. So far they’ve raised over $9,000 and are able to cover up to $800 per applicant.

“In our community, many families are faced with the tough decision to either put food on the table, or pay their rent and utility costs,” said co-founder Marcus Pereira. “So, as a group, we wanted to do our part to ensure that those who need help and our community feel supported throughout these challenging times.”

The collective’s overall goal is to maintain Black and Caribbean culture in Little Jamaica. Pereira, 20, has seen his neighbours displaced over the last decade as the area is gentrified.

Reclaim, Rebuild Eg West started when Pereira’s childhood friend Jem started a fundraiser to offer Black business grants in June, and as more youth joined, the collective was born.

Both funds are focused on helping Black and racialized residents with the aim to help keep them in the historically Black area.

“We figured crowdfunding through GoFundMe would be a quick, easy way to raise some money and help the people who need it most,” Pereira said.

At the end of last year, GoFundMe created a new fundraising category just for rent, food and monthly bills. In a press release late last year, GoFundMe said in 2020 community members around the world raised over $100 million across thousands of fundraisers focused on basic living expenses.

The company’s move was inspired by two U.S. funds, one created by Fredrick Joseph and another by The Conscious Kid created early in the pandemic that together raised over $1.5 million and helped thousands of families.

In Canada, numerous one-off campaigns have been started by individuals coast-to-coast in need of a few hundred or thousand dollars to make rent, help their neighbours on the verge of eviction or scrape together first and last month’s rent for a home.

Rent funds have been around through different avenues, like the Ontario-funded Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative for a number of years to help people get a loan or grant to pay rent arrears and avoid homelessness. And so have individual fundraisers for someone who is suddenly out of work or has an emergency.

But as job, financial and housing security were rocked by the pandemic, individuals and grassroots organizations have jumped in to help by creating emergency funds.

In Toronto, in addition to the recent Eglinton West fund, groups like Black Women in Motion, Maggie’s Toronto and Butterfly worked together to support sex workers, and Black Lives Matter Toronto started fundraising and doling out emergency grants to members of their communities.

“I think this rise in community funds says a lot about how in Toronto, we look out for one another, even when the government isn’t there to help,” Pereira said.

Cheryll Case, an urban planner, says this kind of tenant organizing often happens when there is a crisis in an apartment building. And the impulse to financially help your community is part of the human experience.

“This idea of community contributing to the wellness of others is a fundamental aspect of the way our society works,” Case said — it’s why we pay taxes for example. But she said unfortunately, the government hasn’t been stepping up to effectively help people meet their basic needs during this time, leading to these kinds of initiatives.

In the midst of a crisis, people have been inspired to pool money to help their communities, but this is not necessarily new.

Caroline Shenaz Hossein is a professor at York University who studies mutual aid and non-profits and has especially focused on different groups of Black women in Canada who pool their money and take turns using the pot. Hossein says big ticket items like a car or housing costs are a common use for the funds these women collect.

“These are the kinds of mutual aid and solidarity systems that many Black and racialized women do across our major cities in Canada,” Hossein said. “With or without a pandemic, people are going to participate in these systems.”

This informal practice has helped these “banker ladies” raise funds when things like bank loans are inaccessible. But it also is a means of connecting with the other women in a group, socializing and feeling the impact they’re having on each other’s lives.

With community-organized rent funds, Hossein sees parallels. Hossein said she can see this translating to a shift in philanthropy and the way people donate. Rather than “trapping people in a cycle of dependency and humiliation,” turning it into a project we’re in together — solidarity and allowing people to maintain their dignity, while meeting their needs.

“People are striving … to try and figure out how do they cobble together money, so that they can afford to live in an exceptionally expensive city,” she said.

While these grassroots initiatives are inspirational to see and a good show of community solidarity, Scarborough resident Michelle Spencer says they are a Band-Aid solution.

“You cannot put a Band-Aid on a festering wound and expect it to heal,” said Spencer who is a community advocate and member of ACORN, which advocates for low-income households. “We need real solutions.”

Things like livable wages and rent forgiveness rather than an eviction moratorium, which doesn’t address the unpaid rent that accumulates.

She said seeing people take matters into their own hands by crowdfunding, “definitely points to the failure of our government to effectively address these root causes of insecure housing.”

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star