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Posted in Affordable Housing, Housing, Newsworthy

Back in 2001, a group of volunteers was looking for a way to find housing for a refugee with five children.

There was nothing on the market that suited her requirements with what she was able to pay using her shelter allowance. The congregation at the Mennonite Church of Ottawa, which sponsored the woman, came up with a $30,000 down payment to buy a modest $100,000 townhouse and rented it to her at a subsidized rate.

Over the years, the not-for-profit that came to be known as OMRA Housing Corporation bought another three townhouses and rented them out to refugees. OMRA set the rents at market value and provided the families with a rent subsidy. The subsidy gradually decreases over three years, enough time to help the families get established and learn language skills or update their education so they can afford the rent on their own.

But by 2017, the model had run into a few snags. OMRA owned four townhouses, with the mortgage remaining on one, said OMRA treasurer Doreen Dyck. The group wanted to offer more housing to refugees but found that it would be difficult to expand by buying another townhouse while paying off the remaining mortgage.

“Equity had been built up in the houses, but we couldn’t use it,” she said.

It was also very difficult to encourage some newcomers to move out to make way for new families. The houses were supposed to be transitional, with tenancy to last less than three years. But some families stayed longer.

At the same time, maintaining the houses was becoming a chore for a group that consisted entirely of volunteers. “Too much effort was spent on house maintenance and not on the families themselves,” said Dyck.

To top it all off, the rental market was tight and expensive and getting more and more out of reach of refugee families.

Since last August, 934 government-assisted refugees have arrived in Ottawa, mostly from Syria, African nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, said Heng Chau, the resettlement assistance program manager at the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, which settles government-sponsored refugees in Ottawa. Of these, about 800 have been settled.

“We have a big problem. There are barriers to finding their own homes,” said Doreen Katto, program coordinator of refugee services at Matthew House Ottawa, a non-profit that offers shelter and furnishings to refugees.

Landlords want renters who have an employment history and a credit check from Canada, she said.

“These barriers make it very hard for them to find housing. It’s a vicious cycle. They are stuck in emergency housing in hotels. There are lots of families still stuck in hotels.”

Newcomers also face bias, said Katto. “They gets lots of rejection from landlords.”

Meanwhile, government policies have changed. In the past, it has been more difficult to settle large families, said Chau. But today it is easier — at least financially — for families with multiple children as opposed to singles, couples, single parents or a couple with only one child.

Allowances for refugee families have remained stagnant, but the Canada Child Benefit has increased, adding up to about $600 a month for every eligible child under 18, depending on age. It means that larger families are better able to afford rent.

“A lot of landlords still don’t like having large families in their houses. But the financial situation is much easier for large families,” said Chau.

The math does not favour refugees who come to Ottawa alone or with a small family. A single refugee gets $733 in basic needs and shelter allowance, plus $200 a month in a federal housing supplement for the first year, said Rigby. A studio apartment can cost about $1,000 a month in today’s rental market. A room in a house can cost $700 or more.

A childless couple gets $1,136, plus the $200 housing supplement, but could face paying almost $1,700 for a one-bedroom apartment. A single parent with one child gets about $1,000 in basic needs and shelter allowance, plus the $200 a month in the housing supplement, plus the child benefit. But it still doesn’t add up to $1,850 to rent a two-bedroom apartment while still paying for food and other expenses.

In 2017, Rigby came up with the idea of selling two of the OMRA-owned townhouses and using the funds to subsidize rents in housing owned by other people. Although it was too early to profit from the red-hot real estate market that came a few years later, the plan took away the responsibility of being a landlord and made it possible to help far more people.

OMRA went from helping four people in 2017 before selling the townhouses to 27 last year and about 35 this year. Last year, OMRA provided over $110,000 in rent subsidies, money generated through the sales of grocery cards, which net $5 for every $100 card, as well as donations.

In February, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) reported that the scarcity of vacant units in Ottawa from 2017 to 2019 encouraged owners to increase rents when a unit was vacated.

The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $1,537. But since the average included units that had been occupied for some time, it wasn’t representative of the rents advertised to those looking for a new place to live. The average rent for a vacant apartment was $1,840, CMHC reported.

A few hundred dollars via a subsidy can make a difference to the families, said Rigby.

“We are finding that because their budgets are so tight that they are looking at the bare minimum. But if they could go up a few hundred dollars, they would have much nicer apartments and much better landlords.”

Chau agrees. “For couples and small families without the subsidy, it would be much harder to find a place.”

The families choose their own apartment and can stay in it as long as they want, even after the subsidy ends. That has become important as rent has increased and vacancy rates have remained low, said Dyck.

For refugees, finding an apartment and covering basic needs on a constrained budget means making tough choices.

Sharif and Mohammed are brothers-in-law who arrived in Ottawa from Afghanistan with their families last December. They asked that their real names not be used to protect family members who remain in Afghanistan.

Both extended families, including a month-old baby, were part of the traumatic situation at the airport in Kabul last August after a Canadian airlift failed to evacuate all those with connections to Canada seeking to flee Taliban rule. The two families went into hiding.

“We had to hide our faces. No one could see us,” said Sharif.

They left for Pakistan in November and finally came to Canada, living in an Ottawa hotel for the first two months. One family they know has been in a hotel for six months. Because they are both proficient in English, Mohammed and Sharif were able to search for rentals using websites and social media.

They both have wives and children under a year old and were looking for two-bedroom apartments. Their shelter allowance was $900. They learned that most one-bedroom apartments were in the $1,400 to $1,500 range.

There were apartment-hunting disappointments. They located a couple of two-bedroom apartments that were leasing for about $1,300. But in both cases, the landlord refused to consider a lease transfer and set the new rent at over $1,600.

“They don’t want to sublet apartments. If they have a new lease, they can charge whatever they want,” said Mohammed.

They eventually settled on a two-bedroom apartment for $1,569 and a one-bedroom apartment on a lease transfer for $1,349.

Both Sharif and Mohammed plan to enrol in master’s-level programs and start work, Sharif in technology and Mohammed in business.

But for now, their finances are tight. They can’t access their bank accounts in Afghanistan and can’t sell their cars or other property. Mohammed pulls up a photo of his elegant office in Kabul on his cellphone. “I had a really good life,” he said.

Mohammed and Sharif are luckier than some other refugees, said Rigby. They are young, educated, flexible and speak English. About a half dozen Afghan families are currently getting an OMRA subsidy, but it won’t take long before they will be able to afford rent without a subsidy, she said.

“Most are highly educated and will be on their feet soon.”

However, some refugee families have received OMRA subsidies for up to four years. Last year, OMRA paid on average monthly subsidies of just over $300 a month.

There are new snags for the OMRA model. The rising cost of rent means that has since increased to about $400. On occasion, subsidies have been as high as $600. And rising rental costs mean there will be pressure to continue to increase the subsidies.


Story by: Ottawa Citizen