More and more we’re hearing about Canada’s fraught housing climate, but so rarely are the stories from the actual people affected by it.
It’s impossible for me to ignore the voices of people living in precarious situations—they inform my placemaking practice. My work increasingly takes me across the country, where I have the opportunity to learn about the city-building issues that matter most to people from all walks of life. Affordable and dignified housing often tops the list of their concerns.
In particular, I’ve found that women—and individuals assigned female at birth who identify as non-binary—face distinct housing vulnerabilities, especially when it comes to safety, affordability and career options. This is unsurprising, given how housing has historically been tied to women’s liberation, but it’s still unsettling every time I hear a new story.
Here, 10 millennials living across Canada share their insights on the personal costs of the housing crisis.
“Rent hikes in Toronto forced me out” — Shaista Latif, Montreal
“My parents arrived in Canada as refugee claimants and my father got a job driving a cab. I was born in Toronto and our family lived in public housing. From the beginning, I was acutely aware of the stigma surrounding my community and my family’s financial precarity. As I grew up, I began noticing the lack of care for the people and the buildings in my neighbourhood. As a queer person of colour who now works in the arts, I continue to face considerable housing vulnerability. Last year, I was forced to move away from Toronto because of my rent kept increasing at an exponential rate. It seems unbelievable to me that though my work has been well received— I was awarded the Siminovitch Prize for Theatre Protégé at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre—I’m forced to live and work in different cities to afford rent. In order to perform in Toronto, I now search for cheap bus fares and hitch rides from Montreal. I already feel like I’m being constantly judged by those who don’t fully understand what it takes to make art in a marginalized body, and now added to that stress I feel isolated living in another city—plus, the four- to six-hour long bus ride is exhausting. What I wish more people knew is that poor people of colour are the most creative people you’ll ever meet. We manage to work within our limitations and survive despite society’s lack of empathy for our humanity and social disparities. At this rate, I won’t be able to perform in theatre spaces beyond this summer because the creative industry and housing in Toronto is being built for the ‘elite.'”
“My real estate future is on hold until I find a partner” — Lauren Swan, Winnipeg
“Finding safe, affordable housing as a woman living on her own has been a challenge. Knowing a creepy male landlord has keys to my place keeps me on edge. In the past, I’ve been walked in on by a landlord several times—unannounced—so much so, I’ve felt the need to pretend that I have a partner. Not too long ago, I moved to Vancouver for work and because I started dating someone special. Initially, I lived with roommates, but found the experience difficult. I suffer from an anxiety and panic disorder, and I wouldn’t really leave my room because I was terrified of taking up space or interacting with people before I felt ready; my introversion felt like it was on steroids. The strain on my mental health meant I needed to live alone—as I had in when I lived in Winnipeg—but the rental prices were out of reach so I had to return home. I felt a bit trapped because of this, but maintaining good mental health outweighed my desire to stay in Vancouver.
Now I live in Central Winnipeg, which is being rapidly gentrified, and neighbourhoods like West Broadway—formerly a lively and diverse neighbourhood—are changing fast. I choose to rent centrally because my friends and work are down here, and I love the vibrancy of my neighbourhood. However, I’m disturbed by the thought that many people—especially newcomers and Indigenous peoples—face increased barriers to renting an apartment here, as the neighbourhood continues to change and price them out. I worry about what the city will look like in a few years because of this. Recently, I’ve thought about buying, but coming up with a down payment and paying the mortgage on my own would be too much for me. I don’t want to live outside central Winnipeg, so it feels like my real estate future is on hold until I find a partner, which is frustrating. And so, I rent on.”
“I’ve lived between shelters and on the streets” — Shima Aisha Robinson, Edmonton
“I have been without housing in Edmonton on two occasions. I was forced out of my bachelor apartment due to a bug infestation and subsequently denied an affordable housing unit. As a result, I lived between shelters and on the streets, and I remember staying awake for days at a time during the winter of 2007 because I was scared. I was homeless again in the spring of 2010. I lived between hospital rooms on psych wards and the streets. My education was put on hold and I constantly worried about my homelessness. In the current housing market, I am considered a liability because the lion’s share of my income comes from government assistance. Building management have flat out told me not to bother applying for a rental unit because I receive Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) benefits. I also think being a single Black woman has made me vulnerable to the judgement and prejudice of others. Today I live in a stable home with roommates—one of my high-school friends bought a house and invited me to live with her. With a place to come home to every night, I’m now pursuing an education in sociology and creative writing from MacEwan University in Edmonton, and I plan to move on to a master’s degree in community engagement. When I think about all the experiences I’ve had, I think it’s so important to be more vocal about the threats and precarious housing situations we’re facing.”
“I had to leave home because I couldn’t find a job in my field” — Andrea Mary, Iqaluit
“The first time I experienced a housing challenge was during my university years. I was in my third year of school and while apartment hunting I came across a landlord who said that he didn’t want to rent to people from Labrador because ‘All they do is party and leave the place in a mess.’ He eventually agreed to rent me the place if I paid extra. I turned down his ‘offer,’ but I’ve had a lot of other challenging experiences with landlords since university. To rent an apartment, I must state that I’m a ‘good person,’ ‘clean,’ ‘professional’ and ‘quiet.’ Of course, I’ve found when potential landlords discover I’m an educated Inuit woman, I get a completely different, more positive, response. As I continued to look for places to live after university when I was in Labrador, I realized it was impossible to find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,000/month—not including utilities. I worked three jobs at once to make ends meet during that time because there were no full-time jobs in my field, physiotherapy. I’m not an over spender by any means—and I worked all through the week and weekends—but all my money went towards rent, my cell phone, utilities, food and my student loan. At the end of the month, there was nothing left for me or to put in a savings account. I couldn’t continue working at that rate, so I moved to Iqaluit, where I found a one-year contract for a job as a physiotherapist with guaranteed housing. Iqaluit is great, and there’s an Inuit community here too. But having to leave my home because I couldn’t find employment hurt.”
“My faith doesn’t make me a bad neighbour” — Fatima Syed, Toronto
“Our first apartment building in Mississauga, Ont. was colloquially referred to in Urdu as the ‘Village of Wives.’ Every other apartment seemed to house Muslim mothers and their children from the Middle East or South Asia, separated for months at a time from their husbands. These women and children were left on their own by caring men forced to work in their home countries because their qualifications weren’t recognized here. When you entered the building, there was a beautiful sense of community—reassured looks and nods from headscarf-clad women that promised us we’d be OK. Today, in an era of blatant Islamophobia, the housing stresses for my community have become more pronounced. Muslims are increasingly viewed as dangerous outsiders who may infect the neighbourhood with their very different linguistic, culinary and religious ways. Young Muslim women my age, for instance, are ridiculed for wanting female-only housing on university campuses and scrutinized by prospective landlords if we show up to viewings wearing headscarves. I’ve noticed several online housing support groups popping up for young Muslim women like me. While the Village of Wives was a great, informal solution for Muslim women’s housing needs when they first landed in Canada, this can’t be a permanent or single solution. The next generation of Muslim women—Canadian-born, if not raised—deserve to feel a sense of belonging outside of this safe arrangement. Should we really have to jump through hoops to prove that our faith doesn’t make us bad neighbours?”
“I bounced around from house to house as a kid” — Jenn McElroy, Edmonton
“I grew up in Ralph Klein’s Alberta, an era of class warfare where the premier of Alberta (from 1992 to 2006) ignored the systemic issues behind real socio-economic struggles and instead encouraged everyone to ‘pull up your bootstraps.’ It was impossible for my mother, who had four children at an early age, to pull up her bootstraps. I was my mother’s first child; she was just 17. I was born just months before the historic Morgentaler decision, which overturned Canada’s abortion laws giving women the right to safe, unrestricted abortions. A few years later, my mother married a man who subjected us to years of domestic violence and controlled poverty. Aside from the time I spent with my grandmother, I never felt at home anywhere. We were always bouncing around to new houses, new schools and new neighbourhoods. Struggling to access heat, water and safe housing defined my family’s existence. Fortunately, I managed to do very well in school and was awarded a scholarship to attend university. I currently live in a loving home with my partner and child, but home ownership has rarely crossed my mind as a viable option. The experiences of misogyny, poverty, domestic violence and foster care that filled my childhood continue to create a sense of housing insecurity within me. That said, there’s also a part of me that wants my daughter to have a long-term childhood home where she knows every nook and cranny like she knows my face or voice. I feel confident I can provide that for her—and that itself is a great privilege I do not take for granted.”
“I want my daughter to know where she comes from” — Andrea Landry, Treaty 6 Territory, Poundmaker Cree Nation, Sask.
“Growing up in Thunder Bay, Ont., racism against Indigenous peoples was quite evident. Landlords would be so bold to ask my mother if she was ‘native’ over the phone, and she would strongly express her disdain or hang up. Other times they would agree to meet my mother to view a house and once we arrived they would say, ‘We are no longer renting.’ As a result, we were often left making last-minute housing decisions, dealing with shady landlords or neighbourhoods we didn’t want to live in. These issues extend well beyond the experiences I faced with my family. It’s unacceptable that Indigenous women are distinctly impacted by the housing crisis on our own land. A disconnection between housing and our homelands creates a form of isolation, which is exasperated by the lack of mental health supports and transportation in some of our communities. After my childhood experiences, I’ve decided to raise my child on Treaty 6 Territory on Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. She is being raised with a strong connection to extended family and the traditional kinship model. This is creating a relationship with my daughter and her homelands. She will fundamentally know who she is and where she comes from.”
“When I’ve mentioned being queer, some landlords didn’t rent to me” — Skylar Khela, Toronto
“When I was eight years old, my mom became abusive and I felt unsafe at home. Things got worse as I got older, because it became clear that I was gender non-binary. After being unsafe and vulnerable for almost 12 years, I left her place in 2014. I’ve had mixed experiences in the shelter system after leaving home. I’ve been excluded by some groups, and sometimes shelter staff were not experienced with supporting someone experiencing homelessness, healing from abuse and being alienated for being non-binary. But I’ve also found some support in the shelter system. Oftentimes, when people think of shelters they think of terrible places but sometimes shelters are just that—a safe place to be. While in the system, I’ve also met other people like me. Meeting them helped me survive and allowed me to become more of myself. I’m now searching for permanent housing. I have to be especially careful not to go to viewings alone in case the landlord is homophobic or transphobic. In the past, when I’ve mentioned being queer, landlords have become immediately disinterested in renting an apartment to me. At the moment, I’m taking testosterone and preparing for top surgery, so it’s pretty clear that I’m a non-binary person. I’ve had to watch my back for most of my life, so I want where I live to be safe.”
“A landlord offered to lower the rent in exchange for blowjobs” — Candace Larissa, Vancouver
“I have early memories of my mom navigating the Residential Tenancy Board processes to fight an unlawful eviction by a slumlord. I also remember adults treating me differently if I mentioned the low-income housing complex where we lived. Housing was a source of shame, stress and judgment. As a teenager things escalated, I became homeless for several years. Finding a place to crash was just as risky as sleeping outside. Being sexual prey or being asked for sexual favours as currency for a roof over my head was inevitable. Later, while I was still a teenager, I became a single mother. I enrolled in an alternative education program for pregnant and parenting teens and then an adult program so I could finish high school. In searching for housing during this time, one potential landlord offered cheaper rent if I conceded to giving him weekly blowjobs. I didn’t. Another landlord asked me to provide five years of tax returns. And on one occasion, I was told women with children were not accepted. In university, I finally found a decent and safe place. I juggled two children, part-time work, a full course load and volunteer work. I thought if I got enough credentials I would be treated with more respect. The cost of this ‘respect’ and living in a safer environment meant getting only four to five hours of sleep a night. The chaos of trying to juggle it all as a single mother left me with depleted health and chronic anxiety. Having since completed a bachelor’s in social work and a master’s in policy, I now work in healthcare. My career would be considered extremely successful by most and for the first time in my life I have the privilege of living above the poverty line. Yet, maintaining housing remains an exhausting feat.”
“I’m working to make housing a human right” — Lilly Wilson, Vancouver
Growing up, my mom and I lived in rental housing in Charlottetown, P.E.I. and later in Ottawa. During this time, I watched her struggle to make ends meet, and I took jobs as soon as I could. I babysat and had a paper route in elementary school and junior high, and I continued to work minimum wage jobs before graduating high school. Initially, I went to a technical college in Montreal because it was close to home and affordable. But it wasn’t a fit. I came across an urban planning program at Concordia and was accepted. It was then that I realized how passionate I was about urban planning and the aptitude I had for it. I wanted to help build stronger communities—the kind I didn’t get to experience as a kid. After a few years, I decided to take the ultimate risk and move to Vancouver to pursue a master’s degree with a focus on housing and social planning. Moving to a city as expensive as Vancouver does mean my budget is extremely stretched. It’s almost impossible to find housing, even with a partner. It’s hard to think about the future—like getting a dog or starting a family—when my biggest concerns are making the rent and having enough money left over for basic groceries. That said, I feel fortunate to be entering a field where I can make an impact on building thriving communities. My goal is to restore the human side of housing. We need to stop viewing housing as a privilege and start treating it for what it should be: a human right.
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