Nova Scotia housing crisis could squeeze refugees and new immigrants out
Sponsor groups anxious about ability to adequately house newcomers
A member of a refugee sponsorship group in Antigonish, N.S., says securing housing for two new families is "nigh impossible" and makes her fear they won't be able to continue welcoming refugees to their community.
"I'm very hesitant," Marg MacIsaac said. "The organization is doing well and very anxious to be able to sponsor other families or extended families. And it's hard to do that when you can't find a place for them to stay."
As head of the housing committee and co-chair of CARE, Canadians Accepting Refugees Everywhere, in Antigonish, MacIsaac has been looking for housing to accommodate the two new families for over a year and a half. Their applications have been approved, but they do not yet have an arrival date.
Peter Wade with Syria-Antigonish Families Embrace also in Antigonish, said they have a contingency plan for when they can no longer secure local housing for refugees. They haven't had to use it yet, but the plan would see them supporting families housed in a neighbouring community.
However, many of those communities say they are in the same boat.
Groups struggling to secure housing across the province
Mary-Beth Moriarity with the Pictou group Canadians Assisting Refugees Now said they are currently awaiting arrival dates for a family of five and scrambling for housing. They barely managed to find accommodations for an already settled family whose rental home was sold this July.
"We literally could not find anything available," she said.
Eventually, the group convinced a landlord who had planned to exit the market to rent to the family on compassionate grounds.
"Our worry is, if we were to receive word from the government that our family of five is arriving in a month's time, we would be back into a crisis situation," Moriarity said.
Housing access is also crucial to keeping new immigrants in the province. In 2019, after three and a half years in Lunenburg, one Syrian family made the difficult decision to move to Ontario when the house they had been renting was sold.
"It was pretty traumatic for everybody," said David Friendly, former chair of the group that sponsored them. "I felt that we kind of had failed in a way, but I mean, they just couldn't find a place to live."
Friendly puts some of the blame on the increase in short term rentals.
"That's not just a problem for immigrants," he said, adding that a local friend whose rental was recently sold is currently living with her two older children in a campground.
Each of the sponsorship groups said they know the housing crisis is affecting their whole community, not just recent immigrants and refugees. However, they said new immigrants face additional challenges like language barriers, lack of references and often a need for a walkable location. Refugees upon arrival are on very low fixed incomes.
Immigration necessary for province's economic survival
In 2019, Nova Scotia welcomed a record breaking 7500 new immigrants. Many of these newcomers were recruited by employers, said Ather Akbari, an economics professor at St. Mary's University who studies immigration.
Akbari explained that immmigration is crucial to Nova Scotia's economic survival, because the province has an aging population and negative natural population growth - there are more deaths than births each year.
Akbari said in a study he did two years ago, the relative affordability of housing was a key factor making Nova Scotia attractive to newcomers. And that while he sees the lack of affordable housing here could impact our ability to attract and retain immigrants, house prices are spiking across the country too.
"In Ontario also we are seeing an increase in prices since the pandemic hit because of higher material [costs] in other provinces as well," Akbari said.
Nova Scotia's immigration recruitment and retention rates have more than doubled over the last two decades, Akbari said, thanks to significant efforts by the government and support from settlement organizations.
In order to maintain this progress, Akbari believes the government needs to fix the bottlenecks in the supply of building materials which would speed up the construction of affordable housing and help bring housing prices back down.
"The housing issue in my mind is a temporary one," Akbari said. "Governments will intervene and they are already doing that to address this issue."