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By Michelle Both

When Melissa Manahan was looking to move to a two-bedroom apartment in her building, her husband decided to inquire with the landlord about availability. There were none, he was told.

She thought that seemed strange, and headed the next day to confirm. She was told there were three apartments she could choose from.

Her husband is black, she is white.

Manahan can’t confirm the motives for the misinformation, but she knows one thing, when it comes to her apartment building, she is treated differently because of her light skin.

Melissa Manhan

Say Thaw Paw and her family’s apartment was left by her landlord as a construction zone for over seven months. Work was completed only after Property Standard’s stepped in. / MICHELLE BOTH

I know for myself, if I ask them to fix something in the apartment, they will do it almost immediately… some of the families have so many issues with the apartments. Sometimes it’s a language barrier and they don’t know how to ask. Other times, it’s [the management] ignoring it or saying ‘Oh, we’ll get to it later.”

For Say Thaw Paw and her family who came to Canada as refugees from Burma, later didn’t come until she sought help from community agencies and the City of Hamilton’s Property Standards department, who put pressure on the landlord.

With severe mold problems along the outside wall of her family’s apartment, maintenance removed damaged portions around windows leaving holes, debris, and exposed walls. The apartment was left as a construction zone for over seven months, and mold continued to grow.

I have lived in so many places in Canada, but I’ve never seen mold problems like this,” she said.

The property manager sent Paw’s family a letter stating their apartment is kept at “extremely warm temperatures” causing moisture and damaging the property. Showering and cooking without opening the windows are causing the damage, they claim. They have even threatened legal action against the family.

There is no thermostat in the apartment.

“I have lived in so many places in Canada, but I’ve never seen mold problems like this,” she said. “They say it’s because of us. They say ‘open the doors and windows,’ and we listened and followed them.”

“This family has been neglected,” says Eileen White, who has organized a tenants association in the building. She is confident the mold problems began long before the family moved in, as she has seen similar problems with other tenants, who have also complained of mold problems.

“My feeling is those apartments were left in disrepair and rented out with no upgrades, and as the problems escalated, maintenance didn’t act on it.”

Micho was worried about reporting maintenance issues in her apartment for fear of being blamed. / MICHELLE BOTH

This is no surprise to the Ontario Human Rights Commission

When Micho moved into her apartment, some things were already broken. The sink was leaking and the closet doors didn’t close properly. But she didn’t want to bother the landlord, for fear of causing trouble.

“I was afraid if I told them they would give me a hard time and complain, saying it was my fault. I didn’t want to be blamed,” she said, translated. She was right. When a maintenance form was filled out listing all the needed repairs, her family was told they were responsible for some of the damage.

This is no surprise to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

“Newcomers are particularly at risk of discrimination precisely because they are new and viewed as being unlikely to know their rights,” an OHRC article on housing discrimination states.

These families are being victimized by the lack of language skills.”

The OHRC has recorded stories of landlords discriminating against racialized immigrants, including charging more for rent than Canadians, and denying requests for repairs and maintenance.

Brett Klassen, who lives in a neighbouring building run by the same management, has heard racist comments directly from the building staff. “When I was paying rent, the current management said they no longer want to rent to immigrants or people on Ontario Works […]that they only want to rent to working class people, whatever that means.” He has also seen security guards be antagonistic to tenants, primarily those who are new to Canada.

Paw and her family want out. “I applied to City Housing and have been on the waiting list for three years now,” Paw says. Other affordable buildings downtown, she’s heard from friends that they have simliar problems.

“These families are being victimized by the lack of language skills,” says White, who has helped Paw report problems to the superintendent before. “This makes me angry and upset.”

Paw is still deciding what to do. “If I have another problem, I’m scared to tell them […] I just pray to God: God, listen to me so I can find my way to get out of here.”

Michelle Both works as the Communications Coordinator at the Immigrant Women’s Centre and is Managing Editor for Unpack Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @MichellelBoth.


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