Refugees Welcome: making room for Metro Vancouver’s asylum seekers in a tight rental market

In the years leading up to the pandemic, the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia (ISSofBC) noted accelerated arrival numbers of refugee claimants in Metro Vancouver. Though the COVID-19 outbreak ushered in a brief period of a reduction, as of 2022 the number of refugee claimants in British Columbia has surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

“Last year we served over 3,000 individuals. Now with the Afghan special initiative, and the displaced Ukrainians – it’s like a perfect storm,” explains ISSofBC chief operating officer, Chris Friesen.

For the ISSofBC, the rise in numbers beyond pre-pandemic levels revived the urgency to find innovative ways to support the settlement of refugee claimants in Metro Vancouver, including helping them secure housing in a fierce market.

The Refugee Housing Canada team aims for 150 placements within a six month period, to start. | Photo courtesy of Refugee Housing

“We asked ourselves, ‘What else could we put in our toolbox?’” Friesen recalls. “We had 10 full-time staff looking for housing for refugees, and though we had some luck, looking at the long-term projections, we had to find new tools.”

Then came the idea to explore an existing solution that had not yet been applied to refugee settlement, but intended for international students, Happipad: a home-sharing app developed by Kelowna-based entrepreneur Cailan Libby. After securing funding through Vancity and the Real Estate Foundation, ISSofBC partnered with Happipad, and non-profit organizations MOSAIC and SUCCESS to develop Refugee Housing Canada – an initiative to provide refugees with housing during their transition in Canada.

Refugee housing Canada

The project calls upon homeowners in the Metro Vancouver area to support refugees, and other displaced people, by renting spare rooms and suites in their homes – an untapped resource with a strong potential for impact.

“Those that are fortunate enough to have housing – especially the older generations – are sitting on real estate, with potentially a number of bedrooms sitting empty. This intrigued us, you know, how this sort of cohort has not been tapped before in exploring their willingness to offer time-limited assistance,” Friesen says.

The pilot was announced on June 1 and is currently registering hosts willing to open up their homes at a reduced rate or free of charge.

“These families or individuals will be able to contribute some of the shelter allowance they receive under the BC government income support. Less than the market rate, but nevertheless a contribution to these families that are opening their homes,” Friesen explains.

As part of the program, the host and tenant would be assigned to an agent for support throughout the tenancy.

Through the first six-month iteration of the project, the Refugee Housing Canada team aims for 150 placements, though the primary focus is deepening their understanding of the locals with the power to make a difference.

“We’re starting without any baseline,” Friesen asserts. “A lot of the work is going to be more qualitative than quantitative. We’re more interested in the qualitative pieces to help us understand people’s willingness: what inspired them to open up their homes, what they learn from the experience, whether they would consider doing it another time or not.”

More than housing

Through the Refugee Housing Canada initiative, organizers envision results beyond housed refugees. As residents of the Metro Vancouver area open up their homes, ISSofBC and their partners see an opportunity for locals to expand their perspectives.

“The more people that open their homes to refugees, the more will begin to intimately understand the plight of the global refugee crisis,” Friesen says. “To me, this is about systematic change. It’s about reducing barriers. It’s about enhanced social cohesion. As you know, at times of economic fluctuation in society, refugees can be seen both as an asset and as a deficit. The more that we can broaden the tent and bring the people to the community, traditional and non-traditional partners into the tent help us to manage future humanitarian resettlement movements.”

For more information about Refugee Housing Canada, please visit: