Racism and Roaches in Unaffordable Refugee Housing

Roughly one in 10 of the refugee families Vida Dehgansaie works with face discrimination when they try to find adequate housing, due especially to their race, language abilities and family size. Plus, she adds, because “the money families receive is so limited, and the market price is so high,” many families are cramped into dirty and bug-infested apartments.

Dehgansaie is a housing specialist, meaning her job is to find government assisted refugees permanent housing in Kitchener Waterloo. It’s a difficult job. She faces pressure from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, who pay for the hotel rooms that refugees call home until they find housing; from landlords, who know that her clients are desperate for housing; from her clients, who arrive with unpredictable and sometimes unrealistic expectations about the Canadian Dream; and from her own family, who she admits do notice when she works until 10 p.m., as she did the night before we talked.

“At least we don’t work all weekend, now,” she says, smiling but entirely serious. Last year Reception House, her employer, settled five times their usual caseload of government assisted refugees.

To help me understand the layers of discrimination her clients face, Dehgansaie tells me a number of stories.

She tells me about a couple from Syria whose first nine lease applications were rejected, last year. The man shared a first name with an infamous terrorist, now deceased, and so on their tenth application Dehgansaie chose to apply under the woman’s name. They were accepted.

She tells me a story, also from last year, about a tenant who greeted her and the refugee family she brought to an apartment with expletives and threats.

“I don’t want Syrians here, because it’s my money they’re taking … if you bring any more Syrians to this building I’ll force them out,” Deghansaie remembers the tenant yelling, in her face.

“You cannot imagine how many bad words I heard from this man,” Dehgansaie adds. In the following months, she says he banged on their walls, left broken glass on their doorstep and used his dogs to intimidate the family. He was eventually evicted, after multiple run-ins with the police, but “this was still the family’s first impression about life in Canada,” she says.

As she tells me these and other stories, Dehgansaie is also careful to reiterate that discrimination is the exception in her work, and pales in comparison to the overwhelming support Reception House continues to receive from the broader community.

Dehgansaie also emphasizes, in various and multiple ways, that while refugees often experience discrimination because their skin is not white and their first language is not English, their housing struggles have a great deal in common with other families living on a low income.

“Maintenance is horrible,” she says, and then tells me another story. “This Dec. 23 we placed a family of three, a mother and her two teenage daughters, into what seemed like a nice and clean apartment, close to amenities. But then on Christmas day I got a call from the mom, saying that the apartment was infested by roaches.”

“With all the lights on, the roaches were hiding, but as soon as the family moved in and brought food, they started coming out of every place, even the toilet tank was crawling with roaches. The building management was on vacation until Dec. 29, and the super wouldn’t pick up his phone, so our staff – on Christmas day – did their best to chase the bugs out while I argued with the landlord to spray the apartment or move the family to a different unit.”

The landlord eventually relented, and moved the family instead of paying to spray the apartment.

“You cannot imagine how many units have bedbugs,” she adds, telling me that most people – refugees or not – living on a fixed income cannot afford housing that I would consider adequate. A single refugee with no dependents receives a monthly rent allowance of $376, which is the same as a single person receiving welfare. Government assisted refugees also receive a monthly “national housing supplement,” worth $75. According to Deghansaie and many others I have spoken with in the last year, the cheapest – and consequently, hardest to find in good condition – room in a rooming house is $500 a month.

If they can find a landlord willing to rent (Deghansaie says it can take months to place a family of eight or 10 or 12 people), families with many kids are in some ways better off, because they get a larger Ontario Child Benefit. The OCB has been fairly celebrated as a necessary lifeline for the lowest income folks, and a way to improve children’s quality of life, but most of the families Dehgansaie supports must immediately use the benefit to pay rent – not for violin lessons or hockey camp or groceries.

But whether structural racism, out-of-reach rents, cockroaches, or some combination of the three, barriers to securing adequate housing have deeper and broader consequences for new families and for Kitchener Waterloo, says Jennifer Dean.

“Housing is not just shelter, it’s about home,” she tells me over the phone. Dean is an assistant professor in University of Waterloo’s school of planning, and has conducted research with and about refugees and immigrants for many years.

Shelter, as Dean writes, “is only the tip of the iceberg for how housing impacts our lives.”

“Housing is one of the primary barriers to full settlement for refugee families,” Dean tells me, referring throughout to her own research. “If refugees can’t find an adequate place to live, it impedes their ability to find employment, to register for services, to get their kids in school. Until they’re actually rooted in a community, it’s very challenging to meet the rest of their settlement needs.”

Many refugees have or will soon join the many thousands of people waiting for affordable housing in the region. Dehgansaie tells me that because many of her clients wait six-plus years for affordable housing, one of her first tasks with clients is getting them into the housing queue.

Elsewhere Dean writes that “inadequate housing is correlated with many social disadvantages such as poor education outcomes in children, food insecurity and reduced quality of life.”

Those at the highest levels of our regional government appear to understand those basic facts. In 2012 the region adopted a Homelessness to Housing Stability strategy, a policy document that is also a commitment to ending homelessness in the region.

One of the strategy’s five key principles is “seeing adequate housing as a right.” The document points to a large body of evidence illustrating that “community programs in general are more effective when provided to people who have adequate housing,” which in our regional context means we need more affordable housing, a goal we can pursue through some combination of building or subsidizing or policy.

Housing is a key determinant of health and economic wellbeing, but as the evidence for that fact continues to grow, affordable housing construction does not. So while we have commendably scrambled to provide shelter for many desperate families, a great deal of work remains to make this region home.