This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2024

Building a village

How Toronto's Rwandan community is creating its own housing

Likam Kyanzaire

Rwandese people chat, walk and care for their children in a bright, green, red, and blue segment of Toronto

In the summer of 2023, 200 African asylum seekers were left homeless in Toronto. With nowhere to go, they had no choice but to sleep on the streets after escaping poverty, political violence and climate disaster back home.

While municipal, provincial and federal governments twiddled their thumbs, Black and African organizations in the city rallied together to provide shelter, food and assistance to the group of Black migrants. One of the leading organizations behind the effort was the Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre (RCHC), a Toronto-based group that provides support to Rwandans and others facing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by violence and war. Forwarding a mission of hope, the RCHC gathered collaborators and accomplished what the three levels of government could not: they found local shelter spaces for the migrants.

Canada has a 156-year history of welcoming migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Today, the country is more diverse than it has been in over a century. In 2021, according to Statistics Canada, more than 8.3 million people, or 23 percent of the population, were, or had ever been, a landed immigrant or permanent resident in the country. This marked the largest proportion since Confederation, beating the previous 1921 record of 22.3 percent and making it the highest number among the G7. People from all over the world have left violent situations to build a new home in the Great White North. This is the story of the Rwandan community as well.

The 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi is one of the worst atrocities in modern human history. In the span of 100 days of chaos, close to one million Rwandans were slaughtered by their fellow citizens largely due to their ethnicity. Millions of Rwandans, mainly from the Tutsi heritage, fled the landlocked nation to escape the carnage.

By 2016, Toronto was home to over 1,000 Rwandans. Today, most of the city’s Rwandan population is made up of older Rwandans who came as refugees post-genocide, and a younger generation too young to remember the horrors, but who still live with the scars of that time and long for the promise of a prosperous future. Part of that prosperous future means bringing the Rwandan community together to collectively heal from the trauma of war.


Kizito Musabimana escaped the 1994 Rwandan genocide as a child and came to Canada as an immigrant after spending years in Kenya. When he got to Toronto, he didn’t expect to spend time unhoused, but that’s part of his story. Now, he’s the founder and executive director of the RCHC. Since adopting Canada as his home, Musabimana has been a leader in the city, heralding the effort to find suitable shelter space for the African migrants over the summer. Facing his own history of PTSD, Musabimana knows how powerful community is, and how important physical spaces like homes, community centres, and third spaces are to mental health.

With the help of other East African organizations, the RCHC wants to create a purpose-built neighbourhood for Toronto residents in the Rwandan community and other groups dealing with trauma. The organization is also working with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Canada’s national housing agency, inside their National Housing Strategy Solutions Labs, a project aimed at finding community-driven solutions to the affordable housing crisis. The labs offer local and national organizations funding and expertise to help them solve complex housing problems. One successful project that started within the labs is the Gender Transformative Housing Supporting Women Leaving Violent Relationships: Co-creating Safe-at-Home Hamilton. Another, in association with the Canada Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research Network (CanFASD) and the Alberta Clinical and Community-Based Evaluation Research Team (ACCERT), aims to create a framework to house youth with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Through the Solutions Lab, the CMHC provides groups like CanFASD or the RCHC with up to $250,000 through a competitive application process to develop a community-centred plan to solve housing issues as they relate to specific populations. “As a newcomer in Canada who has experienced homelessness,” Musabimana says, “I would have greatly benefitted from an affordable housing project like this, which focuses on community and connection that offers resources to navigate a new country.”

Together with the CMHC, the collective of African communities created the African Canadian Affordable Housing Solution/Model. The model is a framework that details all of the important elements necessary for their vision of a purpose-built neighbourhood. To determine what’s needed, Rwandan and East African communities participated in several interviews, surveys, and workshops to flesh out what an urban village should provide. The design of the AfriCanadian model hinges on three interwoven perspectives: intergenerationality, cooperativism and holisticism.

More than most, African families live together in one place. Grandparents, parents and adult children often cohabitate together as a way to keep familial bonds strong. Building housing with room for multiple generations of residents under one roof is a key element of the plan. The model also hopes to set up cooperative networks of self-governance, so community members have direct decision-making power in how their neighbourhood runs. Most importantly, it offers a holistic approach to mental health. With proper access to public space, recreation and onsite counselling, Musabimana wants the project to centre healing. “We want to recreate the support and community of a traditional African village for African Canadians living in Canada who haven’t been able to experience it. To bring a taste of home to the community,” Musabimana said at the onset of the project.

As of November 2023, the group has already created the framework thanks to community engagement. So what’s next? “Once we are able to identify land, then we will have everything we need to begin the development phase,” Musabimana says. But that is not so easy. The path to housing development, and to carving out space in Toronto, is filled with trouble.


Back home in Rwanda, the government, led by Paul Kagame, has been attempting to restore a country that almost destroyed itself. In 2005, the Rwandan government began creating the legal framework necessary to allow agricultural cooperatives that included housing to flourish within the nation’s market economy. Not only smart economic planning, cooperatives were also meant to build reconciliation among a population scarred by trauma. According to International Labour Organization documents, cooperatives in the post-genocide period flourished as many felt the need for protection and safety within the social grouping that they provided.

Here in Canada, the Rwandan diaspora does not have the resources to build the sort of communal neighbourhoods that provide safety, healing and community. A small but growing population in Canada, Rwandese families face the same housing issues other Toronto residents do, but without a historic legacy of property ownership. Although statistics on the rate of homeownership for Rwandan Canadians are scarce, the Black homeownership rate is only 45 percent, while it is 66.5 percent for the general Canadian populace. The reasons stretch from anti-Black racism to housing policy, but it also has lots to do with the generational effect. Generational Canadians have had the time to create communities when housing prices were lower, and because of that many have managed to hold onto legacy housing. The Rwandan community, and many other Black communities (though not all) have relatively recent histories in Canada and have become victims of the jump in housing prices over the last two decades.

In contrast, communities with a longer history in places like Toronto have managed to carve out areas of the city to protect their land rights. One great example is Toronto’s main Chinatown, which has avoided the worst of gentrification through collective organizations like the Toronto Chinatown Land Trust (TCLT).

The TCLT is a community-controlled effort to build an inclusive, culturally competent, and ever-evolving Chinatown in Toronto. Launched in 2023, the land trust is designed to protect the historic Chinatown community from condo developments. They acquire, develop and steward land, in perpetuity, for community needs and benefit. The organization was established by managing director Chiyi Tam, but is governed democratically by its members. An urban planning expert, Tam leveraged her experience with land trusts in both Parkdale and Kensington Market and decided to work with her community to save it from the host of developers buying properties along the Spadina Avenue neighbourhood.

Comparatively late to the game, the Rwandan and East African communities are now trying to get onto that property ladder. They’re searching for a sense of home, support, and for some, a sense of safety for the first time.


A filmmaker by training, Musabimana is a bit out of his depth when talking about housing and development, but the African housing project is filled with experts who believe in his vision. A partner with the RCHC, Jonathan Okubay is the executive director of New Nakfa, a nonprofit organization that caters to Eritrean Canadian youth. He has a background in housing development and has become an instrumental part of moving from the CMHC’s solutions lab, which led to the model, into the development phase.

One of the major hurdles now, Okubay says, is getting the city on board to help drive down the price of construction. He says the project will cost anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 up front. “We’re moving into actual implementation and looking at sites for potential development, and at how we get the CMHC and the feds and the city involved in making the project feasible,” Okubay says. Part of that feasibility has to do with finding a place to build in an already crowded market. “Ideally, we would like to have it in a central location with access to transit nodes, schools and grocery stores,” he says. “Despite the difficulty…due to high land prices, in an ideal world, we would like it to be in Toronto.”

Canadian real estate is some of the most expensive in the world, and the costs are only growing. They’re wildly inaccessible in Toronto, where the price of materials and labour has grown to be one of the highest in Canada. The average low estimate for constructing the hard costs (labour, materials and equipment) of multifamily homes was $250 per square foot. In Calgary, the average low estimate was $190. Currently, Toronto’s hard cost estimates are roughly keeping pace with smaller cities like Phoenix and Denver, which sit at around $180 (U.S.)—or about $244.

Where Toronto exceeds most other cities in cost is at the government level. Fees and levies to build are astronomical in the city. A 2018 real estate study by Altus Group found that fees levied by the government added around $165,000 per unit for high-rise condos and $206,000 for single-family housing. Once the price of land, developer profits and government fees are taken into account, Toronto becomes almost inhospitable to any sort of affordable housing. This means finding a good developer is part of the myriad of hurdles for the community in general.

Musabimana, Okubay and their team have been stuck dealing with government bodies and talking to stakeholders, all the while holding the community close. It has been a process, but one guided by purpose. “I would say we are mainly searching for a land and development feasibility study, then the next phase is fundraising,” said Musabimana.

With all of these challenges, it would be easy for many to get discouraged. Still, a few years ago, no one would have thought this tiny little segment of the city would be part of such a radical vision. Musabimana is positive that the RCHC’s model, co-created with the community, will become a reality. Based on Okubay’s development experience, he believes they could start building the project by spring 2025.

If everything goes to plan, Toronto could soon have an African village in the middle of its urban jungle.


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