Affordable, long-term housing a challenge for Syrian refugees

December 7, 2015

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun  |

When Ruth and Richard MacKellar decided to sponsor a refugee family from Syria with some friends, they quickly realized there were three things needed right away: money, a settlement plan and housing.

“The biggest hurdle was going to be accommodation,” said Richard, who lives in Squamish.

Despite the community’s relatively small size and distance from Vancouver — about an hour’s drive — Squamish is not immune to the region’s housing affordability crisis. The rental vacancy rate is less than one per cent and housing prices are rising rapidly, Richard said.

“It was actually one of our neighbours who sort of pushed us and said, hey, ‘your kids have left home, you have a very large basement. It’s got plenty of room for people to stay. Have you thought about that?’ And so we did a bit of chatting with them and a bit of soul-searching ourselves and said, we could do that.”

The MacKellars are renovating their 1,200-square-foot basement to accommodate a family of between four and six. This means putting in a kitchen and moving Ruth’s office, where she has tutored children for the past 20 years, into an empty bedroom upstairs.

They do not yet have the details of who this family will be or when they will arrive, but hope to establish that soon.

The MacKellars are among the nearly 1,000 B.C. residents who answered the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.’s recent public plea for help in housing the thousands of refugees the province is expected to receive in the next 12 weeks.

Staff at the Immigrant Services Society, which receives the housing leads through its website, are analyzing and mapping the types and locations of accommodation offers they receive, said Chris Friesen, the society’s settlement services director. Two local developers have also offered free or below-market rental apartments to Syrian families for their first few months.

Short-term, transitional housing is not likely to be as much of a challenge, as places like church basements, hotels with kitchenettes or even school gymnasiums could be pressed into service.

The real challenge across Canada, but particularly acute in Vancouver, will be for refugees who live on an income equivalent to provincial welfare rates to find long-term housing they can afford.

Housing price problem

For example, one Syrian refugee family with five children spends $1,050 of the $1,460 a month they receive from the government to pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb that is home to some of the least expensive housing in the region. This leaves them $400 a month, plus child tax benefits, to cover all other expenses. The shelter allowance for a family that size, under both federal and provincial income support programs, is $785 a month, Friesen said.

This is by no means a problem limited to refugees, as Canadian families on social assistance and living in Vancouver face the same pressures, Friesen said.

“We want to be clear we’re not looking for preferential treatment for refugees. They’re going to get the exact same shelter allowance. But what has been clear in this crisis as we try and find upwards of 1,500 housing units is … that in the most expensive city in Canada and one of the most expensive in the world, the fact that our shelter allowance rates haven’t been reviewed since 2007 strikes us as being really, really unfortunate.”

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