Why immigrants like me don’t stand a chance at owning a home

Real estate is emotional. Why? Because a home is more than walls and a roof, it’s a container for our lives, our families, our communities. As part of an occasional series, we’ve asked local writers to share their stories on real estate and housing.

I first overheard my mother discuss the idea of moving to Canada when I was eight years old.

We had just moved to Qatar around two years earlier. Prior to that, we lived in Jordan, and before that, Iraq, our home country battered by decades of war. The bulk of my childhood had been defined by instability. There were countless first days at new schools, goodbyes to friends lost as quickly as they were gained, and personal belongings left behind in the interest of travelling light.

In my young mind, Canada symbolized stability. I pictured walking to school, playing in a snow-filled backyard, and living in a modest house lined with trees just a short distance away from our friendly neighbours. To me, the idea of North American life meant the promise of security after years of impermanence, even though that idea has been admittedly shaped by the Disney Channel sitcoms I watched after school.

Little did I know at the time, Canadian life for immigrants also meant starting over. It meant the loss of family and community, identity, and nearly a decade of schooling that my single mother had under her belt as a trained physician.

As the younger generation, we are often told that we are nonetheless lucky to be here, that these sacrifices are necessary so we can build a life better than that of our parents. But the obstacles of immigrant life meant my mother couldn’t lay down roots in the form of home ownership.

And as home ownership becomes the main driver of the wealth gap in Canada’s urban centres, I am now left to reckon with the fact these systemic obstacles have likely set us up for generational failure.

Our Canadian life began in Ottawa in 2007, after my family paid more than $3,000 for an application to Canada’s economic immigration program. Under this program, applicants are only considered if they meet a set of criteria, one of which is being a “skilled worker,” defined as having an education and skill set good enough “to become economically established in Canada,” according to federal guidelines.

This is by and large the most common route of entry to Canada. In 2019, economic immigrants made up 58 per cent of all admissions, totalling nearly 200,000 newcomers that year — all of them lured by the promise of a better life.

Aside from the hefty application fee, moving halfway across the world was incredibly costly for my family. This was in addition to the thousands of dollars in exam fees and English-language tests my mother had to pay for to obtain accreditation as a physician in Canada once she arrived in the country.

My family — my mother, brother and I — settled into a rented townhouse as we tried to make sense of our new life. That year, the average price of a home in Ottawa was $272,477.

As the years went by, my mother’s goal of working as a licensed physician in Canada — the job she’d trained decades for — had proven to be nearly impossible. Obtaining a residency slot as a Canadian medical school graduate is already a difficult feat, with 5.7 per cent of applicants rejected in 2018. The rejection rate is dramatically higher for internationally trained physicians, 77 per cent of whom were denied a slot that same year.

As of 2021, it is estimated there are more than 13,000 internationally trained doctors in Canada who aren’t working as doctors, according to the Internationally Trained Physicians’ Access Coalition. My mother is among them.

After years of unsuccessful attempts to launch a career in Canada, reality sunk in for my family and I. My mother had to absorb all the costs that came with trying to make it in this country, from paying for the exams she had to write, to funding the travel costs that came with writing them, all while raising two children on a single income working as a physician’s assistant at a clinic — the best job she was able to land with her medical degree from back home.

Around us, home prices were steadily increasing. By the time I entered university in 2013, the average home price in Ottawa had increased to $357,347.

By the time I graduated in 2018, that price tag had risen to $407,571.

There was a time when I believed our family’s sacrifices were not for nothing. My mother lost out on building the life she’d worked for, but at least her children were afforded privileges she never had: to attend university in Canada, to live a life far from conflict, to have a permanent place to call home.

But I’ve since learned calling Canada home comes with an asterisk. As reported by the Star, many people who are able to afford the average home price of $1.2 million in Toronto, the city in which my partner and I currently live and work in, can only do so with financial help from their family. In other words, owning a home is no longer determined by how hard you work but whether you’re lucky enough to have been born to middle-class parents with well-established ties to this country.

Immigrants like my mother arrived in Canada on a criteria built around their ability to become “economically established,” but if being established means owning a home, then they never stood a chance.

And while their children work to finish school and secure a well-paying job, the average price for a single-family home in Canada has risen to around $816,720. Most people in my generation can now only daydream of buying a home. For those with parents who struggled to get by, many of whom are immigrants, home ownership is a distant fantasy.

Canadian life did deliver on some of its promises. I did get to walk to school everyday and play in snow banks during recess. Fifteen years later, my family still greets the same neighbours every morning. And our neighbourhood has since filled up with new faces, many of them newcomers to Canada.

I often find myself wondering what their future will look like in this country.

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By Jon Doe