Historically, housing security has been under attack in Black communities in Canada. Black working-class communities like Little Burgundy in Montreal, Africville in Halifax, and Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver were expropriated and demolished for urban renewal during the mid-20th century. This housing insecurity continues today and has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing the inequalities in the housing system as the systemic discrimination that Indigenous, Black, and people of colour endure makes it more difficult to obtain affordable, safe, and stable housing.
For many Black tenants and residents in Canada, obtaining housing can be a deeply difficult, unaffordable, and stressful process.
Black tenants often experience housing discrimination which consists of “any behaviour, practice, or policy in the public or private sectors that directly, indirectly, or systematically causes harm through inequitable access to or use and enjoyment of housing by members of historically disadvantaged social groups,” according to a research study conducted in 2002.
This discrimination can take many forms, such as denying housing, raising the prices of rent, treating Black residents differently than other residents, and more. According to an anonymous Black resident in Vancouver, finding a roommate was difficult and this also made the housing process more trouble than it was worth.
“When I first moved to Vancouver in 2017, I was having trouble getting people to respond to me until I changed my name to Candice,” she says.
“I would talk to people on the phone, and because I sound ‘white’ on the phone––whatever that means––they would plan a meeting. But [once] we’d FaceTime, all of a sudden no interest.”
Researchers in the 2002 study have also noted that this racial discrimination can take the form of “neighbourhoodism,” which is discrimination against those who live in certain areas of a city, particularly areas with marginalized communities. For instance, it has been documented that people in marginalized neighbourhoods are “unable to obtain insurance, get couriers to make deliveries, or have a taxi driver to pick them up from the area.”
Dr. June Francis, a director of the Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement at Simon Fraser University, explained to HGTV Real Estate that a lack of access to affordable housing for marginalized communities is a major factor in housing inequality and discrimination. Black Canadians in marginalized neighbourhoods occupy low-quality housing that lack access to space and amenities, require major repairs, and cost more than they can afford.
“When you don’t get access to homeownership, people are set behind for the next generation. . . . When Black Canadians are asked why they’re poor or housing insecure, almost everyone points to private discrimination,” says Francis. “If you don’t have proper housing then all other things fall apart. . . . Housing is foundational.”
Moreover, as COVID-19 spreads and transmission rates accelerate, marginalized communities face more challenges as their access to quality housing is further jeopardized. For the more than a third of Canadians who are houseless, small tent encampments have arisen in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Hamilton after the outbreaks of COVID-19. However, these encampments are not perfect solutions, as they do not provide protection from the cold elements, crime, police surveillance, and the transmission of COVID-19.
Francis goes on to state that “many people live in crowded, intergenerational circumstances. . . . These are people who work in supermarkets, on transit, those who deliver our goods and those working in healthcare. . . . Despite this, they have had to go out and face COVID and then come back home to their families [every night].”
When it comes to governmental action in the way of study, the data on housing inequality is deeply lacking.
It appears that the Canadian state does not want to know about this problem.
From the little data that has been collected by private agencies, it is evident that the housing system in Canada has an inequality problem.
A study from 2009 by the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, a charity advocating for housing rights, found that one in four Black single parents and households on social assistance face moderate to severe discrimination in Toronto. Furthermore, in a report by the crown corporation, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), their research revealed that although visible minorities comprised 16.1% of all households in Canada, 20.1% of these households were in core housing need.
In the rare instance of data by a federal governmental agency, an infographic made before the COVID-19 pandemic by the Public Health Agency of Canada found that 9.4 million Canadians live in housing that is well below the national standards. For visible minorities, housing is below standards 1.8 times higher than among non-visible minority Canadians.
As Black and other visible minority communities continue to experience housing inequality and houselessness with little redress from the state, community organizing has proven to be an avenue to mobilize against housing inequality and its impacts on Indigenous, Black, and other visible minority communities.
Black residents have turned to Facebook groups, such as the Black Housing Directory (Renting While Black) Toronto, which is a group that provides Black tenants opportunities to look for housing while somewhat reducing the impacts of housing discrimination. Currently, the Facebook group has over 5,000 members and counting.
Organizations, such as Hogan’s Alley Society (HAS), have also been advocating for Black Vancouver residents to be more involved in city planning and community development. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter Canada chapters have called for police funding to be reinvested into social housing in communities, and activist organizations like Defund HPS have demanded a reallocation of the Hamilton police budget to free permanent housing.
People like Khaleel Seivwright, a Black Toronto carpenter who created tiny wooden shelters for houseless people, are providing unhoused people momentary housing. These shelters, which come with a smoke and carbon monoxide detector and a fire extinguisher, have become a temporary solution that provide warmth and safety until its residents can find alternative housing.
However, the city has filed an injunction against Seivwright with the Ontario Superior Court to prevent the “illegal dumping of wooden shelters on city property.”
On December 17, 2020, the Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Minister Marci Ien, Member of Parliament for Toronto Centre, Evan Siddall, president and CEO of CMHC, and Julia Deans, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Canada, announced a new investment of “$40 million to create 200 homeownership opportunities across the country for Black Canadians.” This added to the Government of Canada and Habitat for Humanity Canada’s three-year, $32.4 million partnership, which is expected to create approximately 414 new homes across the country.
Whether this increase in funding will substantially address housing inequality in Canada and its impact on Black Canadians is yet to be seen.