Migrants bear the brunt of Canada’s worsening housing crisis
With fewer homes to rent and rising landlord discrimination, cities such as Montreal must instigate policy change to protect the most vulnerable
Canada’s long-running housing crisis has been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, to the extent that the most vulnerable communities are stuck in inadequate accommodation and face the threat of eviction due to a sharp rise in landlord discrimination.
COVID-19 is the latest blow to tenants in the greater Montreal area, who have suffered from less and less available housing, with a corresponding rise in rents, since 2000. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, between 2015 and 2019, the vacancy rate fell from 4% to 1.5% and the average rent rose from $744 to $841 in the area.
Several studies explain this shortage of affordable housing by what is known as the financialisation of housing – where its transformation into a major investment asset pushes prices up. These financial activities are not only the domain of banks or large real estate developers, they are also the result of political and fiscal decisions made by neoliberal governance.
In Montreal’s migrant neighbourhoods such as Saint-Michel and Parc-Extension, where discrimination was considered low before the pandemic, tenants’ rights organisations have observed a large increase in discriminatory practices by landlords since the crisis began, with migrants among the first to lose their home following a repossession or eviction.
A decades-long challenge
Meanwhile, soaring rents are out of sync with falling household income trends, which causes significant problems of affordability for the poorest tenants, particularly affecting migrants and refugees who are among the most vulnerable in the rental housing market.
The number of households waiting for social housing continues to grow – it is currently at more than 23,000, according to the Office Municipal d’Habitation de Montréal (OMHM), greatly exceeding the total number of units available in the Montreal public housing stock (approximately 21,000 low-income housing units managed by the OMHM) – and so many people are no longer able to find adequate housing in the Quebec metropolis.
Since the early 2000s, socio-economic integration of migrants has become more challenging in Canada's major cities, primarily due to the lack of recognition of credentials and prior labour market experience by Canadian employers, resulting in low entry-level wages. migrants face many barriers, including difficulty accessing affordable housing. Most migrant households spend a significant portion of their income on rent and tend to experience more precarious housing conditions than native-born residents, sometimes long after their arrival.
Migrants are not equally vulnerable to the financialisation of housing – recent migrants are among the most at risk, experiencing acute financial pressure with housing, particularly in Montreal. Similarly, when looking at immigration status, refugees are the most vulnerable category compared with migrant families or workers.
In addition to low income, migrants face other specific obstacles in terms of housing. In a complex housing market with very low vacancy rates, finding a home is a challenge for anyone. For migrants and visibible minorities, there are the additional challenges of a lack of knowledge about the local housing market and tenants’ rights, linguistic barriers, lack of credit history and/or financial guarantors, and various forms of discrimination.
Montreal would benefit from sustainable rent control and a moratorium to prevent evictions
With the decline in the supply of affordable housing and the increase in discrimination, migrant households are often forced to turn to low-quality or even substandard housing. This situation greatly reduces their perspectives for social and spatial mobility and causes a lot of uncertainty. Many feel like they are “stuck in place”, without the power to find a better home to improve their life chances.
Protecting tenants should be a top priority in any urban policy that seeks to address the needs of the most vulnerable. Montreal would benefit from sustainable rent control, and could draw inspiration from the rent freeze policies implemented in some major European cities, such as Berlin, Germany, or more recently Ontario, which froze rents for this year at 2020 levels. A moratorium to prevent evictions would also be an effective policy for these pandemic times, and beyond.
Furthermore, solutions should be considered to promote better inclusion of migrants into social and community housing throughout Canada, and particularly Montreal. For example, by facilitating the application process to obtain a cooperative unit or by removing discriminatory criteria that prevent refugees from accessing social housing in Quebec.
It is also essential to inform newcomers of their rights as tenants upon arrival in Canada. This could include offering more public education workshops or developing a list of affordable housing units that are available to them. Everyone has the right to safe, affordable housing and this must be reflected in Canada’s policies going forward.
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