Could this project help address our housing crisis — and put a roof over refugees’ heads?

Posted on January 17, 2024 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – News/Canada
January 17, 2024.   By Nicholas Keung Immigration Reporter

Refugee Housing Canada’s home-sharing platform connects refugees in need of a safe and welcoming home with Canadian hosts who want to help and also earn some income.

Operating like a non-profit version of Airbnb, an online home-sharing platform has been launched in the face of Canada’s housing crisis, addressing the needs of at least one particularly vulnerable group.

The new tool by Refugee Housing Canada matches asylum seekers in need of safe, secure accommodation with Canadian hosts who are willing to open their home and offer their spare rooms at an affordable rent.

It works like a dating site, where both the hosts and renters undergo vetting and create a detailed profile of what they are offering and what they are looking for before making a connection to decide if they would be a right fit in terms of considerations such as asking rent, location, lifestyle and daily routines.

The home-sharing arrangement could be a boon both for refugee renters who face barriers in accessing housing due to lacking references and credit history as well as for Canadians who want to earn some extra income in this time of inflation and high housing costs.

“It’s a win-win,” said Cailan Libby, founder of Happipad, the social enterprise behind Refugee Housing Canada. Happipad started in 2018 as a home-sharing initiative to help connect University of British Columbia students with older adults in the community with spare bedrooms. (There are an estimated 12 million bedrooms sitting empty across Canada, including five million in Ontario alone.)

The organization has received funding from the Toronto-based Northpine Foundation, which has a mandate to support underserved and underinvested communities for a thriving Canada, to start the refugee housing project in Ontario. The housing crisis has deepened in the last two years as the number of asylum seekers surged, the rental market tightened and rents spiralled amid economic uncertainty and high inflation post-pandemic.

Asylum seekers camped on streets

Last summer, asylum seekers had to camp out on the streets in Toronto and other cities after they were turned away by homeless shelters that were already operating at capacity, prompting the federal government to move new arrivals to hotels in smaller communities until they could secure accommodation on their own.

Earlier this month, Toronto City Council threatened to impose an additional six per cent “federal impacts levy” that would bring the total tax hike to 16.5 per cent, about $600 on average, if Ottawa fails to provide $250 million in funding to house the growing number of refugee claimants in the city.

The inflow of refugees — on top of temporary migrants such as international students and foreign workers — is not slowing down. According to latest Immigration Department data, 65,845 people claimed asylum in Canada in the first 11 months of 2023, up by 16.5 per cent from 56,495 during the same time period in 2022.

Charles Addai Danquah fled Ghana for asylum in Canada in September and stayed with a friend in Pickering for a week before he was told he had overstayed his welcome.

With no employment and credit history here, he said his friend acted as his guarantor and helped secure him shelter at a Scarborough rooming house that he shared with two other tenants and the landlord’s family. He wasn’t allowed visitors, and sharing a kitchen and bathroom with strangers was not easy.

Monthly assistance less than rent

Still waiting for a work permit, the 28-year-old marketing and communication professional has depleted his savings and must survive on the $733 a month government assistance, which wasn’t even enough to cover the $875 rent.

In December, he moved into a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in Hamilton but became homeless again after he was asked recently to pack up and find his own place.

“I’m worried about where I’m staying tomorrow,” said Addai Danquah, who moved in temporarily with another friend in Oakville this week yet again.

Addai Danquah is among about 100 refugees who have been screened and referred to the program by one of the seven immigrant-settlement agencies partnering in this program in Greater Toronto, Ottawa and British Columbia.

Refugee Housing Canada’s program manager Nikolai Myhre said about 300 potential hosts have expressed interest but only 55 have completed their profiles to open up their homes.

“The demand side is so intense, but the supply side is extremely tight,” said Myhre. “And unlocking that resource is very tricky.”

While many potential hosts want to help, he said, they also have to get over the trepidation and concerns about welcoming strangers into their home and sharing their space with refugees from a different cultural background, unsure about their ability to pay rent or what to do if the arrangement doesn’t work out.

The program does provide conflict-resolution support and home sharing is exempted from the Residential Tenancies Act, so a host can end the tenancy with only 30 days’ notice without having to go through the Landlord and Tenant Board to file an eviction and wait for a response.

Myhre said that while the program doesn’t cap the rent asked by the hosts, it recommends a range between $500 and $1,500 for individuals and couples. The lease has to be for at least three months and ideally for up to a year.

‘I’m in a privileged position’

Tsering Lhamo of Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre said asylum seekers face tremendous obstacles in securing housing due to social stigma, and landlords often turn them away because they have no references or credit and job history in Canada. (Though many asylum seekers are eager to work, they must still wait for a few months for a work permit.)

“They arrive here with no means and have to rely on social assistance, which gives $733 a month for a single person,” said Lhamo, whose centre runs four transitional homes that house 40 women and children, and now has to rent on Airbnb to accommodate more than 50 others monthly.

“That money includes all the basic needs and shelter. Where can we find a place like that?”

Mary Lou Lofranco said one of her friends did warn her against signing up to rent out one of her two bedrooms to refugees, but her experience in sponsoring a Syrian family of seven with her siblings several years ago reminded her of the small part each Canadian can play in a crisis.

“I’m in a privileged position and we can help other people. It’s just luck that we were born in this country,” said the 68-year-old retiree, who lives in a condo near Broadview and Danforth avenues and has recently created her profile to look for a female refugee roommate.

“It’s not unprecedented. After the Second World War, there was a big shortage of housing and people took in boarders. I know the world is a very, very different place today but it’s time to do that again.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star.

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