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Faieza Jamay, a former Afghan diplomat and mother of two who speaks fluent English, in her home in Waterloo, Ont. where her family of four pays $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom flat.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Record-high rents are stunting the ability of some of Canada’s most vulnerable newcomers to build a life in the country that gave them safe haven.

Over the past two years, Canada has welcomed around 68,000 refugees, as well as 150,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion, according to federal government data.

Of the refugees, more than 27,000 were Afghans who escaped following the Taliban’s return to power in the summer of 2021.

Ukrainians, who aren’t considered refugees seeking permanent resettlement in Canada, have been arriving mainly under an emergency temporary entry program known as Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) after Russia invaded in February, 2022.

But with advertised rents now averaging more than $2,000 a month in many Canadian cities, housing costs have become a crushing financial challenge for both groups, according to volunteer and non-profit organizations that help settle newcomers, as well as first-person accounts collected by The Globe and Mail.

Many landlords in hyper-competitive rental markets such as Toronto now demand that newcomers pay up to a year’s worth of rent in advance.

There are fewer apartments available to rent in Canada than at any time since 2001

Condo rental prices soared 17 per cent in Toronto last year

Among Ukrainians, who, unlike refugees, only receive a modest, one-time payment from the government under CUAET, many are struggling to pay for rent and food even if they work full-time, said Liana Rizikov, a settlement counsellor at Agincourt Community Services Association in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.

Faced with unmanageable living costs, many Ukrainians are giving up on settling in major centres such as Toronto, but that creates challenges for finding other communities of compatriots and jobs.

Meanwhile, some Afghan refugees, who are entitled to at least a year of financial assistance from Ottawa or private sponsors, are facing a financial cliff as that aid runs out. Several government-assisted refugees said keeping up with high rents means they may not be able to afford school or professional training after the payments stop.

In Mississauga, Aimal Yaqubi, who worked as a journalist in Afghanistan, pays $2,300 a month for a two-bedroom apartment for his family of four. So far, his family has been relying on around $1,800 worth of monthly support from Ottawa’s Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP), and federal and provincial child benefits, to make ends meet. But the RAP payments run out at the end of February.

Without them, Mr. Yaqubi said he may not be able to attend classes at Stanford International College, where he has been admitted to retrain as a heating and ventilation technician. His wife doesn’t know English well enough to get a job, and his two children are still in school.

Mr. Yaqubi has applied for funding through the Ontario Student Assistance Program, but unless that comes close to matching the RAP payments, he’ll likely have to shelve his plans to return to school, he said.

“We are anxious about home rent more than anything else when the government aid ends,” he said.

In Kitchener, Ont., Faieza Jamay, a former Afghan diplomat and mother of two who speaks fluent English, said pursuing a master’s degree at a Canadian university might help her land a high-skilled job. But her husband, who has limited knowledge of English, has so far been unable to find employment.

With her family of four paying $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom flat, RAP funding running out in June and her personal savings depleted, Ms. Jamay said going back to school doesn’t seem financially feasible.

“I have no money to study here and earn a degree,” she said.

Among Ukrainians, word about unaffordable housing in Canada is spreading quickly, according to Ihor Michalchyshyn, chief executive officer and executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC). Up to 90 per cent of Ukrainians escaping the war land in Toronto, but many then settle in lower-cost cities or smaller communities where they can find affordable housing, he added.

“We’re hearing a lot of people come to Toronto but then, after two weeks in a hotel, figure out very quickly that they’re not going to be able to afford to live in Toronto,” Mr. Michalchyshyn said.

But large, expensive cities are where refugees can usually find the most jobs, non-profit and volunteer support services and communities of compatriots who can help them settle in the new country, Ms. Rizikov said.

Often Ukrainians without any knowledge of English or enough savings to buy a car are forced to stay in Toronto, where they can find jobs in the city’s Russian-speaking neighbourhoods and rely on public transport, said Polina Cherpel, a member of the volunteer Facebook group Clothes and Household Items for Ukrainian Refugees in Toronto and GTA.

Two or more families often crowd into small apartments and team up to make the rent, said Ms. Rizikov, recalling a case in which six people share a one-bedroom apartment. Ms. Cherpel described one family renting an unfinished basement – with pink insulation visible in all walls – in a house that was being renovated.

The Globe also heard multiple accounts of Toronto landlords asking refugees or Ukrainian newcomers to pay up to 12 months of rent up front for new leases. Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act caps the maximum deposit landlords can request at one month of rent, but in the city’s overheated rental market, demands for more have become common for tenants with no credit history or references in Canada, said Sundeep Bahl, a salesperson at the Bahl and Yew Team, a Toronto-based full service real estate brokerage.

Iuliia Khrystyniuk, a Ukrainian fashion photographer who arrived in Toronto in September, said several rental agents told her she should be prepared to offer landlords up to a full-year of rent in advance to improve her chances of securing a lease.

“Hey baby, it’s a shark market,” she recalled one agent saying in a message on Facebook.

Ms. Khrystyniuk is currently paying $1,500 for what she describes as a “very small room” in a home that she shares with three others. So far, even landing a full-time job as a photographer at an e-commerce company hasn’t helped her find a better place to live, she said.

Demand for rental accommodations has soared over the past year, driven by people postponing their home-buying plans amid high mortgage rates and the arrival of a record number of newcomers, economists say. In 2022 alone, Canada admitted an estimated 700,000 non-permanent residents, of whom around 140,000 were Ukrainians in the CUAET program, according to a recent report authored by Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce economist Benjamin Tal.

The massive number of new arrivals represents “an unprecedented swing in housing demand,” Mr. Tal said in the report, and the trend will likely continue in 2023.

And while the bulk of newcomers this year are slated to be economic immigrants, a significant number will likely be refugees and Ukrainians, many of them with few resources to cope with high rents.

Just under 340,000 CUAET visa holders from 2022 have yet to arrive in Canada, Mr. Tal estimates. And Canada is 12,000 people short of Ottawa’s pledge to resettle 40,000 Afghans.

But as more people find refuge from violence and conflict in Canada, some are thinking about leaving.

Some of the Ukrainian families Ms. Cherpel helps are considering going back to western Ukraine, which has been spared from Russia’s invasion, because they can’t make ends meet in Toronto, she said. That is especially the case for single mothers whose spouses have remained behind to fight the war.

“We’re living off the money that we had left from our savings in Ukraine but once the money is gone here, we have no way, one salary is not enough,” Ms. Cherpel said, relating their reasoning.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights with funding from Meta Journalism Project.