Snizhana Bora was forced from her home in Kharkiv by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
She left her father, a brother and husband behind to bring her mother and four-year-old daughter to safety in Canada — only to spend the last three months in a desperate search for somewhere to live.
“It was terrible. I really cried every day,” she told CBC News.
“[It’s hard] when you’ve lost everything and you can’t find it here — especially a house, this feeling of home.”
Calgary settlement agencies that work with families like hers say chronic underfunding and a national housing crisis are leaving many newcomers homeless or in precarious housing.
Agencies say they have found newcomers sleeping on Calgary’s streets, at the airport or at homeless shelters because nothing else is available.
After years of a slow trickle of international migration because of COVID-19, economic opportunities and global crises are driving record numbers of people to Alberta at a time when housing is increasingly unavailable and unaffordable.
Provincial data for net migration shows Alberta received about 36,000 international migrants in the first quarter of this year – about 70 per cent of total newcomers. There were nearly 30,000 in the final months of 2022. In that same period in 2019, it was 10,400 people.
Part of the influx in recent months is more than 40,300 Ukrainian evacuees.
‘We had only $50’
Oleksandr Maltsev, his wife and their three children have been living in a hotel since their arrival at the beginning of August. They spent 18 months in Romania assisting other Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion.
“Then we came to Calgary. We had only $50,” he said.
Maltsev has been looking for affordable accommodations outside of the city in places like Strathmore. He’s pressed for time, as all three of his children – ages 14 ,11 and nine — need to start school and he needs to find work.
“It’s a lot of stress.”
The federal government is funding 75 hotel rooms in the city for two-week stays for evacuees. The Maltsevs have used up that slot and have less than a week until this second stay, paid for by a settlement agency, runs out. Alberta also offers temporary emergency accommodations for evacuees.
But some are out of options.
Immigrant Services Calgary’s outreach team at the Calgary International Airport recently found a 17-year-old Ukranian evacuee who had been sleeping several nights in the terminal.
He asked the employee if he could go back to Ukraine.
“I think it speaks a lot when a child would choose to go back to a war zone, than stay in a country that can realistically provide him with a good life,” Alka Merlin, their director of communications and external relations, said.
A crisis for citizens and newcomers
Rent in Calgary — the city once hailed as an affordable oasis — is climbing faster than any other major city in the country. The price of one and two bedroom rentals jumped 17 per cent compared to last year, according to a report by Rentals.ca.
Increasing numbers of newcomers, interprovincial migration, high interest rates and a 2.7 per cent rental vacancy rate are pricing families like the Maltsevs and Boras out of the rental market.
A one-time federal payment is available for evacuees, offering $3,000 per adult and $1,500 per child.
Bora just signed a lease by combining resources with another Ukrainian evacuee family. At more than $2,800 a month, the rent was out of reach for her alone.
Ukrainian evacuees are eligible for social housing and rent assistance from the province, but they face the same challenges with waitlists and lack of available units. That’s coupled with issues establishing references or a credit history when applying for a lease.
Affordable housing is scarce. The Calgary Housing Company’s waitlist is at 5,300 families, an increase of 300 from earlier this year. The City of Calgary also estimates 80,000 people can’t afford their housing.
It’s not just Ukrainian evacuees staring down Canada’s housing crisis. Agencies are working with temporary foreign workers, permanent residents and international students.
The Centre for Newcomers has seen the number of people each year looking for housing assistance jump from around 400 people to 2,400 people in the last five years.
“The idea that housing is a Toronto or Vancouver issue I think is a misnomer,” Kelly Ernst, chief program officer at the centre, said.
“Calgary is not immune from this, so our city is having problems housing the people that are arriving.”
The number of host families — like the one that Bora currently lives with — is also dwindling, according to Immigrant Services Calgary.
There’s also a backlog for language assessment services and work permits that can help immigrants strengthen a rental application, both agencies said.
What the federal formula follows
A lack of adequate funding from the federal government has also been pointed to by settlement agencies as exacerbating the problem.
Canada provides settlement services funding to provinces based on the National Settlement Funding Formula. It’s calculated based on a five-year average of the proportion of immigrants landing in each place.
The federal government has allocated $132.6 million for Alberta out of $1.1 billion total for 2023-2024 (excluding Quebec, which has its own arrangement).
However, if someone lands in Ontario and a few months later goes to Alberta (called secondary migration), that funding doesn’t move with them dollar-for-dollar.
“A city like Calgary or a province like Alberta will get less funding for those newcomers, which ultimately leads to the province not being able to support the sheer number of people,” Merlin said.
Ottawa says that formula is a starting point, and Alberta will see an increase this year as a result of bigger national immigration targets.
“Initial regional allocations are made to provide predictability and for planning purposes … However, the Department may make additional investments throughout the year to address pressures and when additional funding becomes available,” a statement from the department of immigration, refugees and citizenship reads.
Alberta and the prairies region were extended an extra $16 million in funding this summer, it added.
Alberta’s provincial government is spending $7 million over three years to bolster available settlement and language services. It also has pledged a billion dollars over three years to build and operate affordable housing units and provide rent supplements.
Estimates from the City of Calgary say more than 2,000 new units of affordable housing are needed each year to keep pace with demand. The average right now is 308 units built.
In March, the province called for a review of existing service delivery models at a meeting of Canada’s various ministers of immigration.
Experts are calling for better monitoring of secondary migration and a re-evaluation of the funding models so agencies have money proportionate to the people they’re serving.
With housing finally found, Bora is turning to the next task: creating new memories for her daughter who celebrated her last birthday in a bomb shelter. She jokes that once the family is settled, maybe she’ll become a realtor so she can help other families.
“I know Canada is helping and giving a chance to start a new life, but when you’re without a home you can’t start something.”