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How housing (un)affordability in Vancouver is hitting one of the most vulnerable groups: refugees

It is very likely you’ve felt the crunch of Vancouver’s soaring rental prices. This year, the westcoast city was named the world’s second most expensive to live in, according to the 15th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, which rates urban middle-income housing affordability across the globe.

Imagine trying to find an affordable living situation in this market. Now, imagine navigating this situation with the added challenge of being a refugee. You’ve been displaced from your home, perhaps you’ve experienced trauma, and now you’re looking to build a new life in a climate where the odds seem stacked against just about everyone.

Like anyone in search of housing, the lack of knowing where you’ll be in two weeks’ time is unnerving to say the least. In 2016, Canada stepped up to support refugees following the crisis in Syria, and Syrians made up 71% of all new refugee arrivals in Canada that year. For these newcomers, their arrival in Canada came after an extended period of uncertainty, oftentimes after months or years spent in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and having had to flee their homes as a result of the civil war.

Part of their hopes for their new life in Canada, of course includes a safe and secure place to call home.

Government-Assisted Refugee families are provided temporary housing in hostels or hotels upon arrival until they find more permanent housing, but for newly arrived refugees, housing is just one of the several immediate that needs to be addressed.
 
While finding housing is undeniably important, refugees list finding employment and learning English as their top concerns – with social isolation and finding affordable housing tailing close behind. Housing, in accessible neighbourhoods, is an important foundation for a new life.

Family size and lack of credit and references make it difficult to enter the rental market. With occupancy rates as low at 0.8% in Vancouver, competition in the rental market is high.

In recent years, family units made up most of the refugee arrivals under the Government-Assisted Refugee Program, families that may be bigger than the average Canadian family, with a wider set of needs. On average, refugee families arrive with 6 members. 47% of Canada’s newest citizens arrive before they reach 12 years of age.

Landlords can set maximum occupants for a property but legally can’t deny housing because of children. But with a larger-than-average family, combined with no credit, and lack of references, settlement agencies are seeing instances where refugee families are being overlooked as viable tenants.

High cost of housing leaves little left for other needs. Government-Assisted Refugees receive crucial financial assistance in their first year in Canada. A refugee family comprising two adults and three children receives $785-885 a month for housing, and $649 a month for basic needs, for a total of $1399-$1499. There is also the Canada Child Benefit with payments available for lower-income families with children. But according to the Vancouver Sun, average rental prices in Vancouver have hit an all-time high of $2,100 for a one-bedroom apartment.

To secure housing, most will need to spend beyond the specified housing limit during the first year of benefits and then upwards of 51%, 75% and sometimes more of their total income afterwards. Families are needing to dip into incomes intended to support groceries, school supplies and more. Often they need to move to more affordable neighbourhoods further away from transit, work, and support services.
 
How can we improve refugees’ access to affordable housing?

As opposed to Government-sponsored refugees, those that are privately sponsored arrive with a support network. Canada’s private sponsorship program is gaining interest from other countries around the world. In this unique program, refugees are sponsored by a group of Canadians who are committed to providing financial and holistic support for new arrivals over a one-year period.

PeaceGeeks’ new app Arrival Advisor wants to bring refugee support services right to newcomers’ phones, in their language. PeaceGeeks’ technology and development geeks have been working to create a brand new platform for refugees and immigrants arriving in British Columbia with all the information for their settlement housed in one handy and free mobile app.

Arrival Advisor is there for new arrivals, to connect them with the tools and information they need at different stages of their resettlement journey.

While finding a home can be difficult in a city like Vancouver, Arrival Advisor is there to give newcomers a head start.

This article was written by Amelia Mitchell, contributing writer and PeaceGeeks volunteer.

Mar 11, 2019
Category:

2018 in Review

A few days before the start of the New Year, I had the opportunity to visit PeaceGeeks HQ in Gastown, Vancouver, to talk with Digital Projects and Fundraising Manager Cherrie Lam about all that PeaceGeeks accomplished in 2018.

The general feeling surrounding the past year was one of tremendous growth, along with the inevitable growing pains that accompany rapid change. While 2017 was marked by a winning streak for the organization—a Top 5 placement in the Google.org Impact Challenge and two new projects being greenlit by the Canadian Government bookended the year—2018 was defined by the intense challenge of living up to these commitments.

This challenge was accepted with alacrity. PeaceGeeks, running previously with just three full time staff members, finished the year with a complete team for the first time in its seven-year history. A full time developer works on the Google Impact Challenge-funded app for newcomers, transferring the design in-house. Marketing, communications, fundraising, and further project management support also came aboard. A team is now consistently working in Jordan, dedicated to the Meshkat Community Project, and regularly collaborates with the Vancouver office. PeaceGeeks, at the beginning of the New Year, finds itself moving from a small, volunteer-based organization, to a fully professional NGO.

As is par for the course, this rapid transition has been nearly as stressful as it has been exciting. Cherrie discussed the pressure to succeed that naturally accompanies the shift from a quirky startup to a more professional and skilled organization. Cherrie reminisced about the “good old days” when PeaceGeeks was mainly focused on small passion projects and relied heavily on volunteers: while neither of those qualities has changed about the organization, it is now working on significant publicly and privately-funded projects that have firm delivery dates and high expectations; projects that have the potential to be game changers in the peace-tech industry.

PeaceGeeks is developing an app for newcomers and refugees to the Metro Vancouver area. With an anticipated launch date of March 2019, the stakes are high to come away with an application that will fulfil the vision for what is required by the parameters of the Google.org Impact Challenge and government funding. The team spent most of 2018 referring back to their collaborative community ethos and consulting, conversing, and cooperating with partners and advisors on the project. After creating, scrapping, re-working, refining, and hair-tearing, the the project is progressing toward a clean, simple, effective, and user-friendly final product that the team and its partners are proud of and excited to share.

In Jordan, the PeaceGeeks team operates three principal programs: Meshkat Community, Artists-in-Residence, and the annual Peace Awards. Funded by the Government of Canada through 2020, Meshkat strives to promote alternative messaging defined by acceptance and tolerance online to combat the prevalence of hate and extremism in digital content in the region. The Artists-in-Residence program nurtures bloggers, filmmakers, and photographers to address critical community challenges and spark important conversations to create unity and advocate for positive change. The annual Peace Awards celebrate outstanding individuals who contribute to a safer, more inclusive community.

PeaceGeeks also took time in 2018 to transform its foundations in terms of what the organization stands for and how its mission and values translate from theory into practice. The PeaceGeeks team, led by a dedicated Board of Directors, determined to fully shape and understand their core statements in order to move forward with cohesion and intention. The organization now has a more concise and accessible byline: PeaceGeeks builds digital tools to empower communities in the pursuit of peace.

So what does the coming year hold for PeaceGeeks? The organization is continuing to refine its mission and values, with a reorientation of the signature speaker series “PeaceTalks,” to be more engaging and relevant to the contemporary socio-political climate and the Vancouver community, where the talks are hosted. The launch of the newcomer app in March will kickstart the project into a new phase defined by user feedback, marketing, and community engagement to ensure the app reaches its full potential of usability and positive impact for newcomers. Still a quirky startup in many ways, PeaceGeeks will continue to seek new and innovative funding opportunities to facilitate and expand its project base.

With a transformative year under its belt, PeaceGeeks is up and running with a refreshed momentum and the tools it needs to carry forward for the long term. With a full and diverse team of Board members, staff, volunteers, and a strong network of community partners, PeaceGeeks is providing digital empowerment tools to immigrants and refugees in British Columbia, challenging hate and extremism online in Jordan, and engaging with the Vancouver community to raise awareness and foster dialogue about peace technology and its potential to make the world a better place. 

There’s much work to be done, and a lot to look forward to in 2019.

Daniel Morton is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer.

Jan 7, 2019
Category: Media
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