Fredericton housing crisis leaves some newcomers living in wretched conditions

Hamadi Hamisi and his family spent 10 years trying to survive on meagre rations in a refugee camp in Kenya, living in a mud house with a bamboo roof.

This year in Fredericton, as newly arrived refugees looking for a place to live, they stood in a dark, dank basement apartment, where mould grew on the walls, there was no proper ventilation, and the single, tiny window in one of the three bedrooms was broken.

Hamisi and his wife, Fatuma Mohamed, could feel their dreams of a place where their five children could play, maybe sleep in separate rooms and finally have a home become a little more distant.

But the resettlement agent helping the couple had warned they would have to find a place on their own if they didn’t take this one. It was a frightening prospect for Hamisi and Mohamed, who don’t speak English.

They signed a lease with a promise from the landlord that he would fix the $2,000-a-month apartment.

Hamisi said there was mould in the apartment when they moved in. It got worse after the apartment flooded. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

And soon after they moved in, water was dripping down the walls and onto the floors, soaking the carpet, beds and and clothes, and bringing a stench of dampness. It became hard to breathe.

For months, Hamisi said, his cries for help — to the landlord and to the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, known as MCAF — were ignored.

The Hamisi family is among several newcomer families who, after living in refugee camps for years, are trying to settle in a city where often the rents are unaffordable and the conditions are suboptimal.

The  shortage of affordable housing in New Brunswick makes Yusuf Shire, an advocate for newcomers, wonder how the province can see immigrants as key to its future economic prosperity when it can’t offer them livable homes.

Hamisi installed dehumidifiers throughout the apartment to help with the growing mould. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Their story

Growing up in Somalia, Hamisi, 27, and Mohamed, 25, worked on farms and never had the chance to attend school.

When they were just young teenagers, their families arranged their marriage. Shortly after, as the Somali civil war tore apart the country in East Africa, the couple fled to a refugee camp in Kenya. 

In January this year, after being granted government-assisted refugee status, the Hamisi family arrived in Fredericton. For about two months, they lived in an MCAF house near Wilmot Park until they signed the lease for the Grandame Street apartment.

About two weeks after they moved in, a big storm flooded the apartment.

Hamisi said his wife and kids were getting sick because of the conditions in the basement apartment. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

“He was not home, it was just his children, and there was overflow of water that went over the kids’ ankles,” said Shire, a fellow Somali interpreting for Hamisi.

“Hamisi says there could have been an electricity shock there.”

The mould spread, and the water leaks soaked the family’s beds every day. Chairs were placed inside the closets to hold folded clothes, because water would also leak onto the shelves.

Hamisi said the stale smell of dampness made it harder to breathe every day, especially for his wife, whom he’s had to take to the hospital four times.

The children were “getting migraines, they were itchy, they complained about the smell, they had been losing their appetite and didn’t want to eat as before,” Hamisi said.

Chairs were moved inside the closet to place clothes on because water was getting on the shelves. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Calls for help ignored

In April, Hamisi began calling case agents at MCAF, which runs the resettlement program in the city. He was trying to get help following up with the landlord on repairs and with moving his family out of the apartment.  

It wasn’t until five months later, in September, that the family was temporarily moved to an MCAF house where newcomers usually live for a few weeks while they look for housing.

Ljiljana Kalaba, director of settlement services for adults at MCAF, doesn’t work with newcomers directly but said the agency contacted Hamisi’s landlord Brennan Farris.

Farris paid for the family’s one-week stay at a hotel while the apartment was renovated. 

The beds were pushed away from the wall so they wouldn’t get soaked from the water dripping down the walls. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Farris said he tried to fix the leaks with silicone after the basement flooded in March but didn’t know the mould had become a serious problem.

According to Farris, he received about eight calls from MCAF after Hamisi moved in, and he was asked to fix the internet and deal with leaks.

Farris had no explanation for why it took more than five months for renovations to start.

Water dripping down the walls soaked the beds where Hamisi, his wife and their five kids slept. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Fredericton’s resettlement agency

MCAF receives funding every year from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the federal department responsible for resettling refugees. It’s the only agency in the city that provides resettlement services to immigrants. 

Kalaba said part of the agency’s job is to help government-assisted refugees find places to live. Resettlement agents are matched with newcomer families before they arrive.

“When they arrive, we’ll help them see those places, we will provide transportation for them, we will provide interpretation so they understand everything about the place and the lease agreement.” 

Holes appeared and mould grew on the walls of the basement apartment. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Sometimes, the agents visit the apartments prior to a family’s arrival, but this has been harder to do during the pandemic, said Kalaba.

“To accept the place or not, it’s the family that makes that decision, not the agents,” said Kalaba. “If we see the place is not suitable, we wouldn’t even show it to clients.”

But Kalaba agreed there is pressure on immigrants to sign leases. They must have a local address to obtain health-care coverage.

According to Hamisi and at least two other families with similar housing problems, the agency will show them two housing options and tell them they must either choose one or figure out their living situation without MCAF’s help.

Hamisi and his family tried to move out of the apartment but couldn’t get help from the Multicultural Association of Fredericton. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Shire, who is also the New Brunswick African Association president, said this happens “mere days after they arrive in a new country, with a new language and new culture.”

“The responsibility is on MCAF,” Shire said. “If they show people two bad places, where is the choice in that? 

“This is the organization that meets them at the airport, that puts their kids in school, that gets their paperwork. These families trust them.”

Water also leaked into the basement apartment through the broken window. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

It comes back to the city’s housing crisis

According to Kalaba, finding affordable housing for newcomers is harder every year, so options are scarce.

“We have tried to create partnerships with local landlords, and we look for affordable places as much as possible.”

As government-assisted refugees, Hamisi’s family gets a $1,600 monthly allowance. To afford the rent, according to Hamisi, the MCAF resettlement agent suggested he dip into the child-care benefit he receives for his children.

Kalaba said finding suitable places for larger families is a challenge.

Hamisi walks out of the dark apartment. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

“Generally, families in our communities are made up of three to four people, but we are receiving families that are larger.”

About 140 individuals with government-assisted refugee status arrived in Fredericton in 2019-2020, Kalaba said, and the number for 2020-2021 is likely to be similar.

Shire questions why the agency is taking in this many newcomers every year, when there aren’t  suitable homes for them.

He also said the agency doesn’t follow up with the refugees, many of whom lived in camps for years, have minimal or no education and don’t speak English.

“How can they receive more people? It is the responsibility of the settlement agency to make sure that their clients are in a good condition at these houses. I don’t think this is being done.”

Hold their hands for a year

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which gave MCAF almost $4 million in 2019-20 for its program, says it expects resettlement agents to know the conditions of the local housing market. People who have trouble in the places they’re living in should speak to their resettlement agency, the department says.

Depending on the family, Kalaba said, MCAF resettlement agents will visit the newcomers at least every three months.

“Some families need more visits, some need less.”

Hamisi and and the other families who spoke to CBC News said they rarely hear from resettlement agents.

Hamisi locks the door to the apartment. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

“You’re supposed to take care of these people, hold their hands for that one year that they’re here,” said Shire. 

In the end, according to Shire, the housing crisis in Fredericton and the lack of proper followup from resettlement workers make newcomers want to head to other parts of Canada.

“We cannot keep them in Fredericton anymore because rent is too high.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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