Housing question looms large as Syrian refugee arrivals pick up in B.C.

December 18, 2015

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. has secured 650 hotel rooms and compiled over 1,100 offers of accommodation as the trickle of Syrian refugees into B.C. is expected to turn into a larger flow in the coming days.

At least 45 more are expected to arrive at YVR before Tuesday.

“We’re seeing arrivals now almost on a daily basis … the pace is picking up,” said Chris Friesen, the society’s director of settlement services.

The support from Metro Vancouver residents has been “unbelievable,” he added.

“Whether it’s the seven-year-old who has given their $2 allowance for one week and shows up at our office, or the couple that recently got married and reduced the size of their wedding to provide us with a $5,000 donation, or the inner-city school that raised $1,000, or the likes of Mr. (Ian) Gillespie who has given us an apartment building in the West End, free of charge, fully furnished, to provide transitional housing. It has been overwhelming.”

The challenge will be to find long-term housing for the refugees, Friesen said. The housing offers compiled by the Immigrant Services Society are for a minimum of three months, and many of them have come from Vancouver residents. This means many Syrians could end up in Vancouver rather than Surrey, Coquitlam or Burnaby, where most refugees have historically tended to settle.

The most pressing need is for people willing to rent a room or a suite on a long-term basis at a rate affordable to someone on an income equivalent to social assistance, Friesen said. People can offer housing, employment leads or volunteer services at issbc.org.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson agreed it would be difficult for refugees to settle in the city given the cost of housing.

“We certainly have an affordability crisis in housing and very low vacancy rates, so there’s not a lot of housing available for anyone. The pressure on the market is huge. That said, the opportunities for people to offer rooms in their homes is one that I think opens up new opportunities for refugees to have a landing place.”

Local immigrant settlement organizations will now become the recipients of Vancity’s humanitarian fund, which will match member donations up to a maximum of $125,000. Money from the fund had previously been donated to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, CEO Tamara Vrooman said at a press conference Friday. She and Robertson both committed to contributing $500 and challenged other mayors and business leaders to do the same.

Read more