Housing fund created for refugees could help other Canadians

There's hope private sector contributions to a national housing fund for refugees could leave a legacy beyond the needs of newcomers arriving from the Middle East.

Search for affordable housing for refugees highlights the need for other Canadians

Refugees from Syria greet each other and family and friends at Toronto's Pearson Airport on Dec. 9. Planes are now beginning to arrive daily, bringing the need for affordable places to house the new arrivals. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)
  There's hope that private sector contributions to a national housing fund for refugees could leave a legacy beyond the needs of the newcomers now arriving from the Middle East.

Earlier this week federal Immigration Minister John McCallum met with some Canadian business leaders and launched a $50 million dollar challenge to the private sector to raise money for affordable housing for Syrian refugees.

Queen's University public policy professor Naomi Alboim, an executive at Lifeline Syria who has been involved in immigration for decades, says the initiative is innovative.

She also thinks it could help others in this country who are trying to secure proper housing.

"If we put in the infrastructure that's necessary, the community organizations that are necessary, I think there'll be the basis for potentially expanding to many other groups beyond this population of Syrian refugees," said Alboim.

Community Foundations of Canada to manage fund

CN donated $5 million that McCallum, a former bank economist, said will provide seed money for a housing fund to be managed by Community Foundations of Canada. Manulife has also committed $500,000 to the fund.

"These efforts to raise money on the part of the business sector are at arms length from government, so it's up to them to raise the money and direct it to housing support and to other things," said McCallum, who got emotional when talking about his pitch to former private sector colleagues.

Ian Bird, the president of the Community Foundations of Canada, said his group will help businesses figure out where they can make the biggest difference. 

"We've had companies identify ways they can contribute on skills training to help newcomers — either fine tune their skills or become accredited to enter into jobs where we currently have labour shortages."

A foundation spokesperson said the group recognizes the challenges when it comes to low income housing and the idea of helping beyond the Syrian refugees will certainly be on their minds.

Housing challenges will identify gaps across country

  Alboim said the interest and effort from the private sector has been overwhelming. Last weekend she provided training sessions for 78 members of UNIFOR, Canada's largest union, who had an interest in sponsoring refugees. 

Speaking from her experience with the Indo-Chinese migration in the late 1970s, Alboim said there will be a legacy from this influx of refugees and the support currently being shown, whether it's planned in advance or not. 

"They became general advocates, well beyond the refugees they sponsored, because they became aware of gaps and challenges that they personally had not experienced," said Alboim.

"I think we'll have over time a significant group of people saying affordable housing really is a problem in this country and we have to do something," she said. 

  This will be good news to housing advocates in this province. Right now, Ontario's non-profit housing association reports the average waiting time for affordable housing is four years.