Housing and Immigrants
Securing adequate housing is a primary concern of newly arrived immigrants. According to the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, adequate housing is “more than just four walls and a roof,” it is a fundamental human right of all people, regardless of their immigration status or national origin. The UN notes that adequate housing includes affordability; habitability (i.e., protection from elements, structural soundness, and enough space); location to employment, schools, and other public services; and accessibility.
Despite the fact that housing is a basic human right, it is not universally available, and immigrants can struggle to access it. Housing discrimination against people based on their national origin, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, and a combination thereof still occurs throughout the world, to greater and lesser extents.
Each country manages housing discrimination, including housing discrimination against immigrants, differently. Some major immigrant-receiving countries, such as the United States, have robust antidiscrimination laws, while others, including Qatar, do not. Even in countries where housing discrimination is strictly outlawed and where antidiscrimination enforcement is in place, discrimination still occurs, especially against immigrants of color. Undocumented immigrants in particular are unlikely to report cases of housing discrimination.
Another barrier for people is the expense and poor quality of housing. In prosperous cities and suburbs, housing prices and the cost of living have made access to affordable housing a major barrier for many immigrants. This problem can lead to overcrowding, which is a health and safety concern.
Research has shown that for immigrants to succeed economically and socially in their new country, they must have adequate housing, as well as an income. Housing, along with employment, are “the primary ways in which immigrants achieve social and economic integration in the receiving society,” according to Carlos Teixeira and Wei Li, the editors of The Housing and Economic Experiences of Immigrants in U.S. and Canadian Cities (2015).
When they have housing and financial security, immigrants can positively affect the communities where they live by strengthening the housing market and the overall economy, in addition to diversifying and invigorating the community’s culture.
During the 19th century there was mass migration from the Old Worlds (Europe and Asia) to the New Worlds (North America, South America, and Oceania). Where immigrants lived depended in large part on where they came from, where they settled, their income levels, and their ethnicity. Immigrants of limited means who were living in gateway cities such as New York or Chicago in the 1800s likely spent some time in overcrowded and unsanitary tenement buildings.
Tenements were buildings designed for one family that were remodeled, often quickly and without proper safety precautions, to form apartments to accommodate the large inflows of immigrants. Tenements were also breeding grounds of disease; a cholera outbreak in 1849 killed 5,000 people who lived in tenements in New York City.
Nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments in receiving countries contributed to housing discrimination against immigrants, especially Chinese, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Jewish, and Mexican immigrants. Unwelcome to rent or buy houses in certain areas, ethnic enclaves formed. In the enclaves, ethnic groups were able to retain their cultural heritages, as well as protect themselves from discrimination from native-born citizens.
They formed neighborhood associations and protection organizations. For example, Chinatowns, which sprang up in the United States, Canada, Cuba, Peru, the Philippines, and elsewhere around the world, were formed so that Chinese immigrants could support each other.
WORDS TO KNOW
The process in which migrants use familial ties to bring friends and family from their home country to their new location.
COST OF LIVING:
The cost of everyday goods and services in a given location.
A particular geographic area where migrant ethnic minorities live in close proximity, congregate, and conduct business. The term ethnic enclave is interchangeable with ethnic neighborhood.
A group of people who have a common cultural background or heritage.
Rights, freedoms, and protections guaranteed to all human beings under international law; established legally in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
The process that immigrants and their
descendants undergo to eventually adapt to the social, political, economic, and cultural characteristics of their adoptive nations. This change may take place over several years and many generations.
Notable Laws against Housing Discrimination
Shortly after World War II (1939–1945), in 1948, the newly formed United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a foundational legal document that clearly delineated the rights of every human being. Article 25 of the declaration stated that every person has the right to housing: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing of himself and his family, including food, clothing, medical care, and necessary social services.” Most countries that are members of the UN are signatory to the declaration, but not all have national laws that are aligned with it or have active enforcement of it.
Major immigrant-receiving countries include the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in the Middle East; Canada and the United States in North America; Australia in the Pacific; and Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in the European Union. Each country has its own laws dealing with housing discrimination against immigrants. Countries that are members of the European Union are also subject to the organization’s binding legal documents and are party to Article 19 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007), which makes housing discrimination against immigrants illegal.
The United States has federal legislation against housing discrimination. Landmark legislation was passed in 1968. Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly referred to as the Fair Housing Act, made it illegal to discriminate against potential buyers, leasers, or renters because of their national origin (which protected documented and undocumented immigrants) or their race, gender, or religion, among other protected characteristics.
The law continued the work begun in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public places and employment discrimination, and in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which outlawed racial zoning laws (i.e., laws that stated certain races could not live in certain areas). The purpose of the law was to abolish housing segregation in communities and to make it easier for all US residents to acquire housing without being discriminated against.
In 1988 the Fair Housing Amendments Act was passed by the US Congress. The 1988 act extended the reach of the original act, making it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities or people who have children. It also tasked the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with receiving complaints of housing discrimination.
Impacts and Issues
Securing affordable, adequate, and suitable housing that is located in a safe neighborhood can be especially difficult for immigrants newly arrived in an unknown country. Common challenges faced include a lack of affordable housing and housing discrimination. Other challenges are no established credit (a history of financial trustworthiness) and no personal references in the new country, as well as a lack of knowledge of the local language, housing laws, and government or nonprofit immigrant housing resources. They also may be more likely to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords and are less likely to report unsafe or unsanitary housing conditions for fear of being evicted or reported to immigration authorities.
Finding affordable housing is a problem that affects newly arrived low-income immigrants. In wealthy and industrialized countries that attract immigrants, such as Canada and the United States, where housing costs in major metropolitan areas and many middle-sized towns are high, immigrants may struggle to find housing that they can afford and that accommodates the needs and preferences of their often large families.
Unaffordable housing creates a number of negative outcomes for immigrants, including financial insecurity, homelessness, housing overcrowding, and overreliance on social networks for housing assistance. Anthropologists Alina Tanasescu and Alan Smart note in a 2010 article for the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare that, when immigrants to Calgary, Canada, “have no alternative but to rely on their social networks for access to housing, this can lead to unfortunate situations of exploitation and abuse.”
Housing overcrowding occurs when too many people live in a home. Although not all instances of overcrowding are harmful to inhabitants, such living arrangements are generally associated with negative outcomes, including a reduction in quality of life, an increased spread of infectious disease, an increased risk of developing mental health problems, and fire hazards.
It is especially harmful to children. In Canada, a prime destination country for immigrants, overcrowding among immigrants has increased dramatically since the 1970s. An immigrant to Canada in 2006 had a 25 percent chance of living in housing that was overcrowded, according to a study by sociologist Michael Haan. This was up from a 1 in 13 chance (8%) in 1971. The New York Times reported in 2016 that rates of overcrowding were up in New York City, especially in immigrant neighborhoods, since the previous 10 years.
Although illegal in the major immigrant-receiving nations, housing discrimination is a persistent phenomenon that makes it challenging for immigrants to acquire decent housing. Housing discrimination has a negative impact on immigrants’ access to opportunities. If immigrants are not able to live in a neighborhood or in a home that they want, they will be less able to access the jobs, schools, and public services that are available in that region.
Scholarship shows that housing discrimination against immigrants contributes to poor housing conditions, as well as to homelessness. Housing discrimination affects immigrants in different ways, depending on their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and other defining personal characteristics (e.g., immigrant status on arrival, country/region of origin). Immigrants’ ability to speak the new country’s language also played a role in housing discrimination.
Immigrants of color, especially black people, are discriminated against at higher rates than their white peers. For example, in the United States immigrants of color, as well as natives of color, are often not alerted to or shown homes by landlords, leasing agents, or realtors. According to a 2012 report by HUD, “minority home-seekers are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than whites.” The same report also notes that, when there is a flood of anti-immigrant reports or a marked increase in immigration rates in the United States, housing discrimination against immigrants increases.
MIGRANT WORKERS’ HOUSING IN QATAR
Qatar, a small nation on the Persian Gulf, has long had one of the highest immigrant-to-citizen ratios in the world. Beginning around 1995 hundreds of thousands of manual laborers, primarily from South Asia and Africa, left their homelands in search of better-paying jobs in Qatar. Approximately 77 percent of Qatar’s residents were immigrants born outside the country in 2016, the bulk of whom worked in construction. Many of them helped construct stadiums and buildings in preparation for the 2022 World Cup.
Despite the large number of immigrants, Qatar has systematically provided substandard housing options for its migrant laborers, who have powered the economic boom in the first two decades of the 21st century. The government has also passed laws forbidding immigrants from residing or traveling into certain parts of the country. There have been many reports of unaffordable, unsafe, and overcrowded housing. In addition to poor housing, migrant workers and human rights observers have reported hazardous and unsafe working conditions and unpaid or underpaid wages.
In Qatar some worker housing is provided by employers or the government. A number of workers band together to pay for an apartment—a difficult task in a country where the cost of living is high.
One migrant worker from Kenya told BBC reporter Stephen Fottrell in 2015 that he would describe his company-provided housing as “pathetic.” He also shared that, in his first living quarters in Qatar, there were “10 people to one small room, with five bunk beds and nowhere to put anything. The toilets were outside. It was all very inadequate and uncomfortable.” Other migrant workers in Qatar reported similar conditions: small, cramped quarters; too many people per room; unhygienic bathrooms and kitchens; and poor sanitation. Workers were disinclined to report poor living conditions for fear of being deported.
In one instance, more than 1,000 migrant workers were forcibly evicted from their overcrowded apartments (reportedly without advance warning) in the city of Doha, Qatar, in 2014. Unable to afford other lodging, many of the evictees were left homeless during the holy month of Ramadan, when eating or drinking publicly during the day is illegal and when the temperatures are hot. The evictions drew international media attention to the housing difficulties of migrant workers in Qatar. There were calls for safe and affordable housing for workers, with an appropriate number of people per apartment.
As of 2017, however, little had been done by the Qatari government to improve the housing of its migrant laborers. In fact, laws have been passed prohibiting migrants from living in or entering certain sections of the country that are reserved for “families.” In practice, the laws exclude the majority of migrants, who are men who have left their wives, children, and families back home, from partaking in the cultural and civic life of the country.
Immigrants to the European Union also face housing discrimination. A 2016 European Union report notes that 11 percent of North Africans experienced discrimination in their housing search. This was followed by 7 percent of sub-Saharan Africans and 7 percent of Turks. Barriers often encountered by immigrants in their housing search determine the quality and type of housing and the safety of the neighborhoods immigrants decide to live in.
In particular, undocumented immigrants face unique housing challenges. Legal scholar Rigel C. Oliveri writes in a 2009 essay in the Vanderbilt Law Review that US private landlords and leasing agents in municipalities where anti-illegal immigration laws were passed are less likely to offer housing to people who they suspect may be undocumented (although such discrimination is illegal under the Fair Housing Act).
For instance, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, passed an ordinance in 2006 that made renting housing to undocumented immigrants illegal. Although Hazleton’s ordinance was ultimately ruled illegal, the presence of the law, and others like in it in municipalities across the United States, highlight the challenges that undocumented immigrants may encounter when looking for housing.
Another challenge for undocumented immigrants is that they are unable to receive federal housing subsidies, unlike their immigrant peers. This makes affording housing a greater challenge. In addition, some landlords may require prospective tenants to provide forms of personal identification or a Social Security number, which undocumented immigrants do not have.
Effects of Immigrant Housing
When immigrants have access to adequate housing, they can improve the housing market, which in turn improves the overall economy. A 2013 report by think tanks Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Partnership for a New American Economy found that immigrants added more than $3 billion to US housing wealth between 2000 and 2010. The major outcomes of immigrants’ involvement in the American housing market is that it creates economic opportunity for natives and it revitalizes and grows areas that were in decline.
According to a press release about the report, “immigrants often contribute to the stabilization of less desirable neighborhoods, helping those areas become viable alternatives for middle-and working-class Americans.” In particular, an influx of immigrants to Rust Belt cities and to rural areas across the country have helped mitigate population loss. In particular, immigrants to the United States have played a crucial role in revitalizing poor urban neighborhoods in cities including Chicago, Boston, and Miami.
Communities that plan for immigrants and create a housing policy that welcomes and integrates immigrants into the social fabric tend to have better outcomes than communities that do not. For example, Stuttgart, Germany, has worked to ensure that immigrants have access to affordable housing that is not segregated from the native German population.
Michael Kimmelman reports in a 2015 article for the New York Times that Stuttgart views immigrants to the city as both a major driver of the local economy and a cultural asset. City leaders, architects, and urban planners in Stuttgart are dedicated to finding and creating housing for immigrants that is reasonably priced and is integrated into the city.
Housing that is not isolated from the native population is theorized to prevent alienation among newly arrived immigrants. Isabel Fezer, the deputy mayor of Stuttgart, told Kimmelman that, “in this city, we have lots of practice integrating people and have had few migrant-specific troubles as a result, but if we can’t house everybody then we will have social problems. Housing is the No. 1 issue.” Indeed, Stuttgart wants to prevent the disaffection that can fester when they are segregated—geographically and socially—from other city residents.
Segregating immigrants in housing from the native population can cause social problems, including immigrants’ lack of integration into the new society. For example, the banlieues (immigrant-majority suburbs) of Paris, France, separate Muslim immigrants from North Africa from white Parisians. The banlieues have become breeding grounds for alienation and extremism on the part of some residents and the subject of prejudice on the part of some white Parisians.