November 2, 2023

My New Home: Facing the Housing Landscape as a Newcomer

Amna Usman

Housing Program

Insights from Amna Usman, Communications Specialist for Evergreen's Housing Supply Challenge Support Program.

Beginning my journey as a newcomer in Canada was nothing short of invigorating. I was filled with anticipation and hope. Moving to Calgary, Alberta, like those who had come before me, I was excited for new opportunities and the promise of a brighter future. None of my dreams felt unachievable, but moving to a new country is a major transition. Before I could start working on my goals, I needed to feel grounded. However, I quickly realized I had a complex journey ahead of me as I delved into the process of finding a stable home. 

Having my own space was essential for me to feel safe and secure but I encountered various challenges that made finding a home more complex than I had initially imagined. These obstacles unveiled the intricate landscape faced by newcomers in Canada’s housing market, from understanding rental procedures to overcoming communication barriers and socio-economic disparities. 

Settling in Canada – Housing Needs and Aspirations: 

The process of recognizing one’s needs as a newcomer is an evolving journey and as my housing priorities took shape, I emphasized the following aspects: 

  1. Affordability: Being able to balance fixed housing costs with daily expenses was crucial to me for stability. 
  2. Daily Convenience: Access to reliable public transportation commutes to work, school, and essential services. 
  3. Winter Comfort: Heating/water efficiency and proximity to facilities like laundry felt like an essential requirement to cope with the harsh Canadian winters. 

I shared many of the aspirations that were shared at Evergreen’s ‘My Future Home Forum – National Newcomers Session’. Participants envisioned their ideal homes in Canada by 2040, highlighting key priorities including homeownership, safety and security, health and wellbeing, proximity to services, a sense of belonging, and environmental sustainability. Access the full report for further insights.  

Navigating the Housing System – Complex Demands: 

As I started exploring Calgary, I learned that certain neighbourhoods were informally designated for specific cultural and ethnic groups. For instance, the northeast of Calgary was home to many South Asian communities. I didn’t consider choosing a neighbourhood solely based on my background, but when people suggested I should, it made me feel like that was expected, as if I wasn’t part of the larger community. 

I also assumed that more affordable housing options might be in less secure neighbourhoods. This led me to consider higher-priced areas that didn’t align with my budget. My limited understanding of the local housing market drove me to prioritize quickly securing a lease, believing it was synonymous with stability. I later realized that this approach had its own set of consequences, and obstacles, especially in a country dealing with a housing crisis. 

Entering Canada’s housing market introduced me to a complex system with stringent requirements. To secure a rental, I needed to provide a range of documents promptly, following a ‘first come, first served’ policy. These requirements included demonstrating my creditworthiness, proving stable income, providing references, and sharing emergency contacts. These tasks felt overwhelming especially because I had no renting experience prior to leaving my country. Fortunately, obtaining a Social Insurance Number (SIN) in a timely manner provided some reassurance to the leasing agent. Additionally, my prior volunteer work at a friend’s company in Canada allowed me to secure a reference, although not all leasing agents accepted it. 

After securing a lease, I faced another set of challenges. I had up to 48 hours to arrange renter’s insurance, set up water and electricity billing, and gather a three-month security deposit, a requirement due to my limited documentation. I wasn’t sure if I could manage it, I wrote a letter pledging to cover any damages or lease breaches, offering an alternative to the unaffordable three-month security deposit. Which was, thankfully, accepted.  I even sought guidance from a hotel receptionist to navigate the process of setting up utility bills.

These intricate demands along with the inherent lack of awareness and understanding of my circumstances as a newcomer made me feel inadequate and unwelcome. I found myself wondering why there weren’t any policies or incentives in place for dealing with immigrants seeking housing, especially considering that immigrants make up such a large percentage of the population. This experience highlighted the importance of thorough preparation along with the necessity and benefit of seeking support when facing unfamiliar bureaucratic requirements. 

Resources and Lessons Learned 

While there are designated support agencies for newcomers, the adjustment process—especially concerning housing in Canada, in my opinion, requires personal navigation. Instead of relying solely on these agencies, I sought assistance by connecting with fellow newcomers through platforms like Bumble BFF, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. I connected with individuals who had walked a similar path and offered valuable insights and answers to my questions. 

Reflecting on my experiences, I believe it would have been smoother if there was better direction towards supports and resources prior to and upon my arrival. Although I was handed a few pamphlets with initial steps at the immigration counter, including valuable information for obtaining health insurance, a Social Insurance Number, and a local contact number, it wasn’t enough. It lacked any information for cultural, administrative, and bureaucratic orientation, which would have been essential even for securing temporary accommodation. 

I offer the following advice to newcomers who may face similar adjustments and expectations in a new country: 

1. Research and Prepare:  

Prior to your move, thoroughly research and prepare for the barriers you might encounter. The following resources are a great place to start: 

  • Resource 1: How to Rent a Home (video) 
  • Resource 2: Housing Information for newcomers to Canada (CMHC)  

2. Awareness of Unspoken Barriers:  

Recognize that the barriers mentioned above are not always discussed before your move. You may discover them while simultaneously having to deal with them, often with limited time and resources. 

  • Resource 3: Unsettled: Legal and Policy Barriers for Newcomers to Canada  

3. Assert Your Rights:  

During my housing search, I believe I encountered discrimination and bias. When I attempted to book apartment viewings online in advance while I was still in Pakistan, many of my requests were declined due to my impending newcomer status and lack of documentation. In meetings, I often felt dismissed when discussing my budget, which I attribute to biases likely associated with my South-Asian background.  

Despite biases, newcomers should assert their rights, seek supportive housing options, and build connections within support networks to mitigate the impact of discrimination. 

Amna Usman

A 29-year-old immigrant from Pakistan, she moved to Calgary, Alberta in 2022, driven by a quest for a better life and broader opportunities. Her housing journey and experiences as a newcomer inspired her to share her story, offering guidance and highlighting common challenges newcomers face.  

With a background in ethical communications and filmmaking, she holds a master’s degree in media Practice for Development and Social Change from the University of Sussex, UK. Currently, she works as a Communications Specialist for Evergreen’s Housing Supply Challenge Support Program, supporting Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Housing Supply Challenge applicants. 

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