Many immigrants spend 50 per cent of income on housing

New research has found that in 2001 almost 30 per cent of immigrant homeowners in York Region forked out over 50 per cent of their income on housing, while 38 per cent of immigrant renters did the same, a statistic that surprised the lead author of the study, York Professor Valerie Preston.

“Once you’re spending that much on housing, you’re making choices such as, will I pay utilities or should I buy groceries?” says Preston, director of the Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement (CERIS). “You’re really vulnerable at this point.”

It is also surprising because York Region is the fifth most affluent region in the country. It includes Markham, Richmond Hill and Vaughan, which have the highest housing and rental prices, but also the highest number of immigrants and the most low-income earning immigrants in the region. Also in 2001, over 50 per cent of immigrant homeowners and close to 60 per cent of renters spent some 30 per cent of their income on housing.

Left: Valerie Preston

“The city has changed, poverty has moved to the suburbs,” says Preston, geography professor in York’s Faculty of Arts. “It’s also moved in larger numbers than in the past to the 905 areas.”

These are the hidden faces of homelessness and those at risk of becoming homeless. They are not usually found in shelters, on subway vents or in shop doorways. One of the standard ways of measuring homelessness is to look at shelter numbers, but there are few shelters in the suburbs.

These homeless people are found sleeping on the sofas of friends or relatives. They rent out rooms in their homes or basements or both, to bring in enough cash to pay the mortgage and eat at the same time. They send their children back to their country of origin, until they can get established in Canada. “That comes with a tremendous cost in terms of mental stress and strain,” says Preston. And they already have to deal with the stress of moving to a new country. This is not what they expected when they moved to Canada.

“These are usually people who’ve been here 10 years or less,” says Preston. “They’re the group we think are the most at risk.” They are usually well educated, but find it hard to establish themselves professionally with the same degree of success as in their countries of origin.

Overall the immigrant population is doing well. Over 90 per cent of all immigrants are homeowners in York, which has always been a marker used to measure success. But close to one-third of them are struggling to keep their home. “I think we should be concerned,” says Preston. “There’s almost no alternative housing.”

Only 12 per cent of housing in York Region is rental housing and there is little social housing – some 11,000 units available, with a waiting list of over 5,000 families.

Right: York Region houses courtesy of Wikimedia

On the surface, the suburbs look affluent, but underneath there is much poverty and the immigrant population is more at risk than those born in Canada. Their incomes are below average, they have fewer social supports and there is often a language barrier. Add to that fewer alternative housing options and a limited number of services available in the suburbs for the homeless, and it’s a problem that could get worse in today’s economic climate.

Service providers and new immigrants alike say immigrants need more information about what to expect in terms of housing and employment before arriving in Canada, Preston says. There also need to be policies and strategies to integrate immigrants into the labour market more quickly. Low wages are a cause of housing problems. In addition, more services – housing, legal etc. – need to be offered in various languages.

Preston’s study is expected to be released Feb. 2. She hopes it will open people’s eyes to an invisible problem and be a catalyst for change.

“There is very little research about the housing experiences of immigrants in the suburbs,” says Preston. “York has a very rapidly growing immigrant population and it exemplifies the housing market that immigrants face when they settle in the Canadian suburbs. So it’s a useful case study.”

The study was a collaborative effort between York University, the York Region Alliance to End Homelessness and Ryerson University. It was funded by the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat, Human Resources & Skills Development Canada, the Metropolis Secretariat, Citizenship & Immigration Canada and York University.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer