Basements and bedbugs: Recent immigrants struggle to access decent housing in Manitoba

·6 min read
Sitting in their own house — which they were able to afford just 18 months after their arrival — Femi and Omolara Aloba say it feels good to be settled. When they first arrived they had money to cover rent for a year, but landlords told them they didn't qualify to because they lacked Canadian credit or work history. (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)
Sitting in their own house — which they were able to afford just 18 months after their arrival — Femi and Omolara Aloba say it feels good to be settled. When they first arrived they had money to cover rent for a year, but landlords told them they didn't qualify to because they lacked Canadian credit or work history. (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)

As soon as Femi and Omolara Aloba got approval to move to Canada from Nigeria, they started searching online for a place in Winnipeg where they, their two-year-old son and their soon-to-be-born baby could live.

The Alobas had enough savings to cover their rent for a year in Canada, but soon realized just having money to pay for rent wasn't enough.

Landlords wanted Canadian credit history, Canadian pay stubs, and Canadian work experience —  or, in place of those things, a guarantor in Canada.

The Alobas — who had never visited Canada, much less rented or worked here, and knew no one in Manitoba before they arrived in early 2020 — said every landlord they contacted told them they simply didn't qualify to rent.

"We were just so confused," said Omolara Aloba, then six months pregnant.

"It was a period where I practically had sleepless nights, like, 'OK, so where are we going to stay?'" she said.

Submitted by Omolara Aloba
Submitted by Omolara Aloba

The couple's experience is common for new immigrants to Manitoba, according to settlement experts. Despite having the means to pay, many struggle to access the kind of rental accommodations they want in Manitoba, unless they can find a Canadian guarantor with good credit.

"It's definitely an issue for anyone new to the country," said Codi Guenther, executive director of New Journey Housing, which focuses on newcomer housing needs in Winnipeg.

"Whether they came as a refugee, whether they came as a provincial nominee, international student — anyone who doesn't have a credit report, it does make it tricky."

The Alobas said they had resigned themselves to booking an Airbnb, but were eventually saved by a family friend.

That person hosted them for two weeks when they arrived in Manitoba and helped them find an apartment by acting as their guarantor.

Immigrants forced to lower standards 

International student recruiter George Coleman knows first-hand how the requirements affect people coming to Manitoba to study.

Coleman, the director of Egroeg Training and Employment Facilitation Services, said the inability to access what he calls the formal rental market drives many students to places they would rather not live.

"I found that in a number of cases, students have to be — I use the words 'stepping-down' from their standards," he said.

Trevor Brine/CBC
Trevor Brine/CBC

Coleman helps international students find living spaces before they arrive by approaching families who want to rent out part of their home, or individuals with property who will skip a credit check. He said often the options, though safe, are "not ideal."

Some students arrive in the cold of winter — which many are often experiencing for the first time — and can only find places far from school and in areas without reliable bus service, he said.

Others may have personal or cultural clashes with the total strangers they're forced to live with, said Coleman. If they want to go on their own, they may bounce around accommodations like a home-stay or basement before eventually landing an apartment, he said.

Chitra Pradhan, a founding member of the Nepali Cultural Society of Manitoba, said as far back as 25 years ago, he and his wife stood as guarantors for many immigrants from Nepal, because "there was no other means for them to find a place."

The properties where credit and rental histories weren't required, mainly in downtown Winnipeg, were often full of bedbugs or were otherwise "unfriendly," he said.

Possible solutions

Femi Aloba said there should be a way for private property owners to consider the "proof of funds" information that people immigrating to Canada submit to show Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada they have enough money to settle in Canada.

The amount IRCC requires varies based on the size of a family. As of June 9, a family of three people immigrating under the express entry program must have the equivalent of at least $20,371 Cdn.

"What's the essence of the proof of funds, when it wouldn't really work for me trying to get out of an accommodation?" asked Femi Aloba.

Coleman said many of his clients would be willing to prepay several months rent — if they could find a place.

"They come with resources … [to] take care of the accommodation. All they want is the opportunity to access reasonable housing," he said.

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

Avrom Charach, a spokesperson for the Professional Property Managers Association of Manitoba, said the idea of prepaying rent is a possible solution for the lack of Canadian credit history.

But provincial rules prohibit property owners from requesting prepayment of rent — something Charach suggests should change.

"We're not allowed to ask for it, [but] it can be offered. So I can't say to you, as an example, 'if you can't do a credit check, please pay your first six months in advance.'"

While "that gives me a little bit more surety, we can't legally do that," he said.

A lack of Canadian rental history and references is also a challenge for new immigrants, Charach said.

He suggests a solution might be for prospective tenants to get certification from a program such as Rent Smart — a national non-profit education program for renters — which would give a landlord "more surety that someone understands what the rules are around being a tenant in Manitoba."

Alana Ring-Woodard, a Rent Smart educator in Manitoba, said the certification could help anyone renting for the first time. That might include seniors downsizing to a rental unit, university students moving out on their own, people from rural Manitoba or First Nations moving to Winnipeg, or young people who are leaving child and family services care, she said.

New Journey Housing's Guenther said property owners may need to choose to become more flexible to respond to the needs of the new immigrant community, as they did to help Ukrainians displaced by Russia's invasion this year.

Charach said landlords made similar accommodations for Syrian refugees in 2015.

"Let's talk about this for everyone moving forward," said Guenther.

A 'basic human need'

In an email, a spokesperson for provincial Immigration Minister Jon Reyes said he is aware of the issue, "and will be discussing with his fellow ministers, as any solution would need to be a whole of government approach."

A spokesperson said the province's Consumer Protection Office does not have legislation that requires a property owner to consider other alternatives to personal credit.

WATCH | Rural Manitoba renters struggle to find affordable housing:

Sitting on their own couch, in their own house — which they were able to afford just 18 months after their arrival — Femi and Omolara Aloba said it feels good to be settled.

Femi now works for a government agency, and Omolara is studying to become a real estate agent.

Omolara said she considers access to housing to be a "basic human need," and the couple hope there will be changes so future immigrants won't have to worry about where they'll live.

"If anybody is coming into a new country, if they have to worry about how to get a place to stay — like a roof over your head … they can't even go forward," she said.