Ontario is 'taking away' my homeImmigrant misunderstood orders from housing office
James Gordon The Ottawa Citizen
Monday, July 26, 2004
CREDIT: Rod MacIvor, The Ottawa Citizen One Woman's Fight Against Eviction: Sahra Mohamed, who came to Ottawa from Somalia in 1999, is facing eviction from her apartment over money she owes the city's social housing department.
A young woman who pulled herself out of Ottawa homeless shelters and off welfare will likely be sent right back, thanks to unforgiving provincial housing legislation and a dispute over $451.
Sahra Mohamed, 28, arrived in Canada from war-torn Somalia in 1999, hoping to start a new life.
"I still have a bullet in my chest," she says, recounting her near-death experience at the hands of a gunman outside her home in her native country.
She lived in Toronto with her sister initially, but moved to Ottawa on her own the next year.
Unable to find work, she moved into a shelter, started drawing welfare and put her name on a waiting list for a rent subsidy.
Ms. Mohamed, who is shy and polite, yet displays a well-developed sense of humour, explains through a translator that she felt proud when she moved into her own apartment at Minto-owned 90 Woodridge Cres. in 2001. She was able to do this because of the city's rent supplement program, a form of social housing that subsidizes private landlords so they can offer apartments at lower rates to those who can't afford market rates.
Problems, however, began when Ms. Mohamed got a job at a dry cleaners in June of last year.
In September, she received a notice in the mail from the city, saying her subsidy was being reduced from the time she was employed, and that she owed $530 dollars in arrears. She says she went to the housing office to work out a payment plan that amounted to $39.50 a month.
Two city employees helped her fill out cheques for the first two months, but because of her struggle to understand English, she believed the rest of the payments would be drawn directly from her account the same way as her insurance.
The next letter was sent this past February. Because Ms. Mohamed hadn't been sending cheques, the city wrote to tell her she would lose her subsidy and she could appeal if she wanted.
"I never received this letter," she says, adding her building is notorious for mail ending up in the wrong box.
With the subsidy gone, Minto told her the rent would be raised to the market price of $1,130.27 per month, starting in June.
After returning to the Ottawa Housing office several times in March and filling out forms, she went back and was told she was losing her subsidy because she still owed $451 in arrears.
She and another member of the Somali community immediately went to the bank and returned with a money order.
"The housing person told me it was too late, and that if we didn't leave the premises the police would be called," she says with a chuckle.
"I looked around because I didn't think she was talking to me."
After she was unable to pay the market rent in June or July, Minto served her a notice of eviction.
Her case will be heard before the Ontario Housing Tribunal on Aug. 3, but her lawyer isn't optimistic about Ms. Mohamed's chances of being successful.
"I suspect we may not succeed," says Mary Treumner of the University of Ottawa's community legal clinic.
"We are going to try and argue that the city should also be a party to this situation, but it's never been done before. We hope this will be a test case."
She says the city's inability to communicate properly with her client was the cause of her proposed eviction, but it's likely the tribunal will say it's an issue between the tenant and Minto. "We definitely have some hurdles," Ms. Treumner says.
Bay Councillor Alex Cullen says Ms. Mohamed's situation is sad, but has "passed the point of no return."
He says the city and Minto aren't to blame but, "inhumane" provincial legislation in the Social Housing Reform Act are. "Provincial regulations for the rent supplement program are not user-friendly," he says.
"It's a tragedy because this could have been avoided if there was more reasonableness and flexibility to the provincial rules."
The rules are there to give governments some teeth to go after those trying to bilk the system -- even if that may not be the case in this instance -- according to the city's housing director. "Arrears are dealt with very strongly ... it's hard to say if (the regulations) are too inflexible," says Russell Mawby.
"Speaking in general terms, if it's not paid, someone could be getting unfair access to public funds."
Ms. Treumner argues it's unfair to lay all the blame on the province.
She has filed a complaint against the city with the Ontario Human Rights Commission in which Ms. Mohamed explains she signed the agreement to pay $39.50 per month without an interpreter or representation.
She said she didn't know she had to keep sending cheques.
The fact the city required her to comply strictly with an agreement she didn't understand, "disadvantages recent immigrants to Canada such as myself whose English skills and cultural understanding create cultural barriers in certain dealings," Ms. Mohamed writes. The case won't come before the commission before she's evicted, however. Ms. Mohamed only strays from her calm demeanor when she talks about that possibility.
"When I came here, I was fleeing my country and I was very happy the Canadian governments gave me a home. Now they're taking it away," she says. She also expects to lose her job if she has to move out of the area she now calls home.
"If I don't have a place to live, I don't have a life."© The Ottawa Citizen 2004
Q. With billions spent on women's shelters why is it that they can't find $451 for this lady?
A. Gee, thats because she hasn't engaged in fabricated assault charges or phony child abuse allegations...