Nova Scotia

Refugee claimants facing housing crisis as some landlords refuse to rent

The Halifax Refugee Clinic says about a dozen refugee claimants are facing a housing crisis because some landlords refuse to rent to them based on race, religion and family status.

'It’s illegal in Nova Scotia for landlords to discriminate ... but it happens,' Halifax Refugee Clinic says

Many families, such as the Ali family who arrived in 2016, had people welcoming them at the airport. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

At least 12 refugee claimants in Halifax are facing a housing crisis because some landlords are refusing to rent to them, according to workers at the Halifax Refugee Clinic.

"The challenges, to begin with, are financial," Gillian Smith, the clinic's settlement co-ordinator, said in an interview. "But then beyond that there's discrimination.

"And it's illegal in Nova Scotia for landlords to discriminate due to someone's race or religion or family status, but it happens. They do."

The clinic opened 17 years ago. It helps refugee claimants access legal services, settlement support, housing, health care and food security.

'We don't want more families here'

Smith spoke of a case just last week where the clinic was about to send an application for a family and were told by the landlord not to bother because "we don't want more families here."

Other refugees face housing problems because they don't have a network of friends and family here to support them.

Gillian Smith, settlement co-ordinator at the Halifax Refugee Clinic, says about 12 refugee claimants are facing a housing crisis. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

"They might not have a credit history or a social insurance number yet," Smith said. "They might not be employed yet. And part of the narrative that people don't often hear is that when someone makes a refugee claim, they have to wait for work authorization from the federal government and this can take months."

That means some refugee claimant families and single people are forced onto social assistance, even if they have a job offer waiting for them.

Agencies trying to address crisis

To try to address this crisis, which includes homelessness for some, the Halifax Refugee Clinic is working with other organizations and shelters and reaching out to the public for donations to help subsidize people's rents.

Smith pointed out that refugee claimants are often at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to housing, even though Canada recognizes housing as a fundamental human right.

Halifax doesn't have any shelters for families. That means some families who are homeless have to split up and go to men's and women's shelters.

"And that is an unacceptable situation," Smith said. "It would be retraumatizing for a family who's already lost everything, and what they have been able to do is stick together, for them to be split up in Canada."

Miia Suokonautio, executive director of YWCA Halifax, speaks about a program that helps women find housing. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

YWCA Halifax is one the organizations trying to help some of these newcomers with their housing challenges. It also offers affordable housing in its apartments for homeless women, former inmates and women coming off the streets.

"The issue of housing is a very, very, very big issue for our community in general," said YWCA Halifax executive director Miia Suokonautio.

"If you have many children or you don't speak English, if you have an addiction or a mental health issue or if you're underage and a landlord doesn't want to rent to you, those are all serious concerns."

Doing the right thing

Jeremy Jackson, vice-president of marketing and program development with Killam Properties, said many landlords have been "doing the right thing" with regard to new Canadians.

Some Halifax landlords, he said, provided rent-free apartments to Syrian refugees in 2016 for periods ranging from three months to one year.

And in the past 10 years, Killam has partnered with non-profit housing agencies to provide subsidized, supported housing units to new Canadians and under-housed Nova Scotians.

"Back in 2016, when Canada accepted all the new Syrian [refugee] families, Killam would have subsidized about 60 units across our portfolio and 25 of them would have been here in HRM," Jackson said.

In one of the company's Clayton Park buildings in Halifax, Killam recently donated a community room for the YWCA Halifax Newcomers Connect program. An open house was held there Tuesday.

The free, drop-in program, which launched in June, provides child care, networking, adult education, English lessons and one-on-one support. Sixty women attend the program.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca

With files from Michael Gorman