Housing: Finding a Safe New Home in Canada

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Moving to a new country, especially with small children in tow, can be a life-changing experience. The biggest fear is that of the unknown.

Where will we live? How will we manage without a job? How cold will it be? These are some of the questions that spin through our minds as we leave the old country and step into the new one.

Finding a safe place to live is of prime importance. To help with this search I spoke with Dr. Sandeep Agrawal, Professor & Program Director in the Department of Urban planning, Ryerson University, Toronto.

He shared with me his vast knowledge on the challenges newcomers face over housing in Toronto and across Canada.

CN: What do newcomers to Canada need to know about housing basics from the moment they arrive?

SA: I will start by talking about what is not known to newcomers regarding housing basics when they come to Canada. The first and most important aspect regarding rental housing in Canada is that tenants have rights and the law will protect you. The law requires you to put down a deposit that includes only the first month and last month’s rent for an apartment or dwelling. Anything more than this is illegal. The landlord or property manager cannot ask for post-dated cheques or a year’s deposit.

Also, the owner or landlord is well within his/her rights to request your credit history, but in the case where you are an immigrant and cannot provide one, he or she cannot refuse to rent based on its unavailability.

The owner cannot ask for your passport or refuse housing based on your immigration status. They are also forbidden to ask you your status and why you came to Canada.

CN: How often can a landlord increase your rent?

SA: Landlords may raise rent, but only once in a 12-month period. The amount of the increase has to be within legal limits prescribed by the province where you reside.

CN: On arrival, should you rent an apartment right away, or stay in a hotel for a bit first?

SA: Research data indicates almost 85-90% of newcomers start their life in Canada renting apartments as opposed to ownership. That said, it is a personal choice depending on your income. A lot of families stay with friends and families and then move out. Some stay in fully furnished rental apartments. There is no right or wrong for this.

CN: Are there any specific rules regarding rentals?

SA: A lot of newcomers are unaware of the fact that one apartment in Canada cannot be used by multiple families. For example a two-bedroom apartment is good only for one family of four. But I have seen cases in some of Toronto’s older neighbourhoods like Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park where larger apartments have lent themselves to allow for multiple families to live together.

Many landlords turn a blind eye and follow ‘the don’t ask- don’t tell’ policy. In the 1960s and 70s when these buildings were built, there were approximately 8,000 residents in Thorncliffe Park. Now the unofficial figure runs as high as 28,000 residents. Although the numbers of apartments remain the same, the number of people living there has more than tripled. So its evident that apartment sharing is quite common [but not recommended for a number of reasons including health, safety and insurance…not to mention legality].

CN: Does the government put you up for the first few days while you find a place to live?

SA: That depends on your immigration status. A refugee or a refugee claimant can get temporary accommodation from government and even money for day-to-day needs for a while. They may even be eligible for health care until the provincial health care plan kicks in. However, none of this applies to an immigrant.

CN: What are the common problems faced by immigrants when they look for housing?

SA: The most serious problems reported while shopping for rental housing were high rents, lack of guarantors or co-signers and inability to get a credit rating. Although asking for guarantors is illegal, it seems it is still quite common.

Across Canada, immigrants living in Ontario cited high costs as the most serious difficulty they faced while renting, while those who resided in Quebec had the lowest proportion of persons reporting this obstacle.

CN: How does one look for rental housing when one is new to a city?

SA: Most of newcomers start their life in Canada living with family and friends. Then they start looking for rental housing in English, French or ethnic newspapers, and walk or drive around neighbourhoods to get a sense of where they want to live. School is a factor if they have children, and some engage the help of real estate agents to help them with their accommodation search [although this may not be affordable for many].

CN: What should newcomers bring with them from their country of origin?

SA: No need to bring household items like electrical appliances, as voltage in Canada is 110 volts as opposed to Asia and EU, which uses 220 volts. Better to buy parkas, winter clothing, and boots here as opposed to carrying it from home. Also, when you arrive, have a list of items to follow you, as you can ship them into Canada at a later date without additional duty. And most Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver are quite diverse, and have multiple avenues where food items from your ethnic culture are readily available [in smaller centres, online shopping may be an alternative].

Rather than being afraid of the unknown, the best solution is to arm yourself with knowledge. Research before you come and keep researching once you get here. The more you know, the better prepared you will be, and the better able to deal with unwelcome surprises.

Much more settlement information is available on this website.

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