‘A very long journey’: Another challenge for newcomers — finding affordable housing

The housing crisis is top of mind for many Ontario voters. Experts say newcomers face an additional set of challenges that the next government will need to address
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Aug 26, 2021
Tetiana Karbovanets (right) and her family moved to Canada from Ukraine in 2016. (Courtesy of Tetiana Karbovanets)

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Tetiana Karbovanets and her family have moved three times in the past five years. Karbovanets, who works as an immigration consultant, moved with her husband and son from Ukraine, in 2016, as part of Canada’s express-entry program for skilled workers. The family arrived in June and rushed to find suitable housing in Toronto. After securing a short-term rental, they moved into an apartment, where they stayed for two and a half years. 

But when they started looking into buying a house, they realized they couldn’t afford anything in the city. “So that’s when we started driving around Ontario looking at smaller towns and smaller cities,” she says. The family ended up purchasing a home in Kitchener, in 2019, and then COVID-19 hit. During the pandemic, Karbovanets says, her family’s needs changed. “We both were working from home, with a child studying from home ­­­— it was really crowded — so we wanted to find something larger,” she explains. “We started looking around in the area, and we realized that we couldn’t afford anything larger in a good neighbourhood.” 

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Last month, the family moved to Alberta, where they bought a home and now pay a mortgage that’s half of what they paid in Ontario. Research suggests that the challenges the Karbovanets faced are familiar ones for Ontario newcomers: according to a July housing-affordability report from the Ontario Real Estate Association, 46 per cent of new immigrants in Ontario have considered moving to another province in the past year, and 42 per cent say they are “likely” to or will “definitely” move out of the province to find more affordable housing in the next few years. That has experts and advocates calling on government to address the housing challenges facing newcomers — and to make them part of the federal-election conversation.

Last year, the federal government announced an immigration-levels plan that could see more than 1.2 million newcomers arrive in Canada by 2023. On the campaign trail, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Canada will resettle 20,000 refugees fleeing Afghanistan. And, in his party's recently released recovery plan, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole promised to reform Canada’s immigration system to “welcome the best and brightest from around the world” to fill critical gaps and support economic growth.

But data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation shows that in Ontario — which has proven to be the most popular province for newcomers — 35.1 per cent of recent-immigrant households between 2011 and 2016 were already in core housing need. Per CMHC’s definition, this could mean a few things: major repairs are required and residents don’t have the means to move elsewhere; there aren’t enough bedrooms for the residents; or current housing costs are unaffordable, and there are no alternatives within financial reach in the community.

“You have folks doing everything that we presume one needs to do to acquire and sustain quality and affordable housing, whether it’s in the rental market or moving into homeownership,” says Abe Oudshoorn, an associate professor at Western University. “Yet, [despite] these intentions, we’re still seeing newcomers struggling to obtain sufficient rental accommodations for families or to move into homeownership.” 

Olawale Oladapo started looking for a place to live almost immediately after he arrived in Toronto from Nigeria with his family, in 2018. “Little did we know it was going to be a very long journey,” says Oladapo, who had been an accountant in Nigeria and hoped to find related work in Canada. Rental apartments were expensive, but the family had arrived in Canada with about $13,000 saved up and were confident that they would be able to afford rent for six months while he looked for a job. But, Oladapo says, landlords refused to rent to him, as he hadn’t yet received an offer of employment. “A job offer is not a condition for moving to Canada,” he says. “So I would expect anyone to know that new immigrants wouldn’t have a job offer on hand when they land.” He ultimately took a job at a call centre.

According to Oladapo, one landlord said that they didn’t want to rent units out to families with children (the Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination in housing based on family status). Another challenge: competition was fierce. “It was to the point that I started looking at shelters, because time was running out,” he says. “We were running out of time, and we just needed a place to put our heads.” 

woman, man, and young boy sitting on a bench
Tetiana Karbovanets (centre) and her family relocated from Ontario to Alberta last month. (Courtesy of Tetiana Karbovanets)

Emma Jennings, manager of resettlement and housing with the Kitchener-based organization Reception House, says government-assisted refugees face similar challenges: “Within our local housing market, we do encounter discrimination against people who are on government assistance — landlords who will flatly state that they prefer for someone to be employed and that if a person is not employed, they won’t entertain a housing application.”

And, while government-assisted refugees are guaranteed to receive income support, Jennings says, the amount has not kept pace with the cost of housing. “In many cases, the regular market rent units are not very affordable,” she says. According to the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, which provides training and support to Canadian refugee-sponsorship groups, a three-person family in Ontario made up of a couple and one child can receive $1,221 to cover shelter, basic needs, and other expenses. A supplement of $200 can be offered when housing expenses exceed the allowance. 

A number of approaches would help produce better housing options for newcomers, experts say. According to Oudshoorn, income-support payments should be boosted. “By receiving an income that’s insufficient for paying rent for adequate housing, folks are motivated to engage in a lot of employment, and that includes very often precarious or gig employment,” he says, adding that this can delay their settlement by limiting opportunities to look for high-paying employment or gain an education. 

David Oikle, president of OREA, says municipalities should diversify the types of housing that are built to accommodate an array of newcomers and their needs: “It’s not just, ‘Let’s build a whole bunch of single-family homes.’ It’s about different sizes and different types of properties, maybe increased density in certain places.” 

In 2020, Trudeau announced the launch of the new Rapid Housing Initiative, a $1 billion program to create up to 3,000 new permanent, affordable housing units across the country. Its major-city stream, which allocates funds to municipalities with the highest level of renters in severe housing need, includes six Ontario cities: Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Peel Region, Toronto, and Waterloo. In the 2021 budget, an additional $1.5 billion was allocated to the project with the goal of adding a minimum of 4,500 new affordable units to Canada’s housing supply.

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In response to a request for comment, a Liberal party spokesperson shared its housing plan, which promises to increase funding to CMHC’s National Housing Co-Investment Fund by a total of $2.7 billion over four years and support affordable-housing providers in developing housing for vulnerable groups. (The CMHC declined to provide comment about the Rapid Housing Initiative to TVO.org, citing the Caretaker Convention.) 

A Conservative spokesperson told TVO.org that “Canada’s Recovery Plan outlines the Conservative plan to increase affordable housing, reduce rental costs, and help people purchase a home” and that “Canada’s Conservatives are committed to ensuring that housing is affordable for everyone living in Canada.” While the NDP did not provide TVO.org with comment, the party’s policy does make mention of a plan to reduce costs for renters, including by providing low-income renters with $5,000 in annual rent subsidies and introducing protections against renoviction. 

In 2018, Oladapo, with the help of the Newcomer Centre of Peel’s Rural Employment Initiative, moved to Timmins, where he’s now working as an accountant. Thankfully, he says, his experience finding a place to live in Timmins was drastically different: there was less competition, and it took only a few months for them to find a house this year. Still, he says, it’s important for those in power to know the specific challenges newcomers face, so they can think about how to address them: “The problem doesn’t get solved if we don’t talk about it.” 

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