November 24, 2021

Newcomers to Canada Face Discrimination and Other Barriers When Seeking Suitable Housing.

Stock image of housing in Montreal

Damaris Rose, retired professor of Urban Studies at the Urbanisation Culture Société research centre of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique

Damaris Rose, retired professor of Urban Studies, shares research on how Quebec’s housing policy currently falls short when it comes to Canadian newcomers, and what can be done about it.

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Damaris Rose, retired professor of Urban Studies, shares research on how Quebec’s housing policy currently falls short when it comes to Canadian newcomers, and what can be done about it.

Families immigrating to Quebec are increasingly dependent on the rental market. This can be explained by the greater economic precariousness of recent immigrant cohorts in Montreal and by the tightening of the affordable sector of the rental market which has occurred in Greater Montreal. Access to housing constitutes an important and growing problem for immigrants, especially those who arrived less than 10 years ago. Often the first permanent dwelling that immigrants newcomers move to meets basic requirements but no more, because of the migratory context and the very limited financial resources or knowledge of the market.

Housing affordability: severe effects on the immigrant population

Since the social housing sector (public rent-geared-to-income housing, cooperative rental housing, and other housing offered by non-profit agencies at less than market rents) reaches only a very small proportion of Quebec households, access to adequate housing without sacrificing other necessities of life depends on the affordability of private-market housing (cost of rent compared to income). Immigrants, especially those who arrived less than 10 years ago, are likely to experience greater financial insecurity compared to the general population. One in nine Quebec residents has an income below the low-income threshold. This proportion increases to one in seven for those who arrived between 2001 and 2010 and reaches 22.6% for those who have been here for less than five years.

A good number of immigrants to Quebec find themselves in the ranks of the working poor because of the non-recognition of their credentials and their foreign work experience, compounded in some cases by insufficient fluency in French to meet the standards required by employers. As is to be expected, low income is even more frequent among those admitted as refugees.

The measure of housing need most often used for the purpose of public policy is the index of “core housing need” which considers affordability (rent is no more than 30% of income), the suitability of the size of the dwelling in view of the size and composition of the household, and the quality of the dwelling based on the census indicator of the need for major repairs. In 2016, among renters living in Greater Montreal, more than one household in five was in core need. This rate rose to 26.4% among households whose principal economic maintainer was a recent immigrant (living in Canada for less than five years). The rate of core need among recent immigrants in Montreal varies greatly according to admission category, rising to 35% among all households admitted as refugees (which includes those whose refugee protection claim was filed and approved in Canada) and to 45% among government-assisted refugees or those sponsored privately.

Crowding: a real challenge

In Montreal, as in other large cities, affordability is the principal factor contributing to core housing need among immigrants and non-immigrants. However, compared to other Montrealers in core housing need, recent immigrants are more likely to live in housing needing major repairs. Crowding is a more important source of core need among recent immigrants, and particularly among recent refugee cohorts. The latter include the wave of Syrians admitted in 2015-2016, many of whom live in multigenerational family households.

According to 2016 census data, 31% of recent refugee households have six members or more, versus 16% for recent immigrants admitted in the economic or family reunification categories. The lack of affordable housing of adequate size, combined with the low monthly benefits paid to refugee families, has created a Herculean task for the community organizations and sponsorship groups in charge of finding them their first permanent housing. Moreover, these families tend to stay in crowded housing conditions for several years.

It is also important to point out that immigrants are more inclined to live in multigenerational families and in nuclear families with additional persons, related or not. These are expressions of familial, cultural and economic solidarity, as was the case for the earlier cohorts of immigrants from Mediterranean countries. However, because of the difficulties of economic integration and the surge in housing prices, these families are at risk of experiencing crowding.

The impact of the pandemic

Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of housing conditions for personal and public health. There is an increased risk of transmission when self-isolation inside a crowded dwelling is not possible. Residential crowding has thus proven to be an additional risk factor. This is especially true for households with members working in essential services, which is often the case for immigrants and refugee protection claimants. If the household is multigenerational, the risk is higher still for the seniors who live in crowded housing with relatives working outside of the home. As for mental health, the stress associated with prolonged and repeated cycles of confinement is aggravated for individuals and families living in cramped dwellings and lacking access to private outdoor spaces where they can relax or play. Thus, inequities in the quality of housing and the surrounding residential environment contribute to the socio-spatial inequities of the pandemic, whose effects, in Montreal as in other large cities, were more severely felt in districts with a high density of recent immigrants and racialized minorities.

Specific barriers: discriminatory practices

Numerous studies, including research in Montreal, demonstrate that recent immigrants, whether looking for a first permanent dwelling or hoping to move on to better housing, often face barriers that go beyond matters of financial capacity or the lack of affordable housing for the size of their families. The lack of Canadian references or credit ratings is a frequent obstacle. Thus, landlords often demand a large deposit or a counter-signatory for the lease, which represents a major challenge for persons without relatives or friends already settled in the country. Moreover, an alarming number of newcomers experience housing problems due to discrimination based on immigrant status, in particular asylum -seekers, or on ethnic origin. Such practices on the part of landlords, illegal under Quebec’s Human Rights Charter, make for even further restrictions on housing choices and increase the risk of living in a poorly maintained or substandard building.

What can be done?

In Quebec, a large and experienced network of community organizations offers services to overcome barriers to access to decent and affordable housing. Among other things, these organizations work with more welcoming landlords, keep inventories of available housing, explain to clients the functioning of our housing system, which can seem opaque, and give advice to persons who come with a housing problem. Despite their dedication, the community organizations do not reach all potential clients. Thus, economic immigrants and asylum -seekers turn more often to informal networks of co-ethnics for assistance or advice on housing. This information can be less reliable or complete.

There are policies that can be implemented that respond to the issues and challenges listed above. At all levels of government, it is important to prioritize the rehabilitation of deteriorating rental housing stock. In cases where neighbourhoods are undergoing gentrification, these buildings should be transferred to social housing providers to avoid renovictions.

Planning for new housing needs should include affordable larger apartments and row housing with three to four bedrooms so as to consider the diversity in household arrangements among immigrants: families with many children or more than two adults, including multigenerational families.

For some newcomers with very precarious status, including some refugees, gaining access to public housing would be the most sustainable solution for affordable and adequate housing. However, Quebec imposes an additional barrier on recent immigrants by demanding one year of residence in Quebec for registration on the waiting list for public housing. This period can be reduced, as is the case for the Canada Child Benefit, for which immigrant families are eligible after three months.

The recent waves of refugees and asylum -seekers over short periods of time and in a context of great scarcity of affordable housing appropriate for the size of their households have created major challenges for the community organizations that assist them. This has revealed the need for semi-temporary housing, for which newcomers would be eligible for approximately two years. This model has already proven successful in Winnipeg.

Moving into a decent and affordable dwelling, in a welcoming and safe neighbourhood, is an essential first step in the settlement of newcomers in this country. More than just a roof, the first permanent dwelling permits the organization of daily life and the access to services that support integration. Public policy needs to reflect this.

This article is a modified version of an article drafted in French for “Les Nouveaux cahiers du socialisme.” View the full policy review here, in English.

The research was conducted as part of Building Migrant Resilience in Cities – Immigration et résilience en milieu urbain (BMRC-IRMU), which is a research partnership in Ontario and Quebec implemented by York University and numerous partners with support from the Government of Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grant # 895-2016-1004. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author.

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