Tenants of N.S. Indigenous housing group decry deplorable building conditions

The tenants of a non-profit housing association meant to benefit Indigenous people living in urban areas in Nova Scotia are speaking out about what they say are unsafe living conditions and a lack of maintenance on their buildings.

Melissa Prosper and her family have lived in a Tawaak Housing Association duplex in Dartmouth for eight years. Prosper said in December 2018, the roof above her daughter’s bedroom caved in, allowing water to penetrate the walls.

“My daughter still does not have a bedroom. We basically just use the room now for toy storage, and even that’s iffy because you don’t know if the ceiling is going to go again. We’ve lost all trust with Tawaak and their staff,” Prosper said.

She said she reported the leak when it happened, but nothing was done until December 2019. In the meantime, mould began growing in many places. Her family found several instances of bubbling paint and drywall, which leads them to believe water has spread throughout the house.

In the fall of 2019, Prosper called the Halifax Regional Municipality, which sent an inspector. The inspector ordered Tawaak to fix leaking windows and doors, holes in the walls and ceilings, loose banisters, and a window that has collected several inches of water inside the frame.

Melissa Prosper lives in Dartmouth, N.S., with her two children. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

The inspector also ordered the landlord to replace the countertop, cupboards and ceilings that were damaged by the leak. Those repairs were supposed to be finished by Dec. 27.

Prosper said although the roof was repaired, many interior repairs weren’t made.

When CBC News viewed Prosper’s home on Jan. 12, some repairs had been poorly done. A replacement kitchen counter was peeling and had mould underneath the surface. Other repairs were not done, such as holes, loose banisters and the water-filled window.

“The leaks have stopped, but everything else is deteriorating,” she said. “Everything that they said is completed, it wasn’t done. It was paint and putty and the walls are falling down. A lot of issues weren’t addressed.”

Prosper, whose children are eight and 17, said the family has no choice but to stay in the Tawaak home.

“I don’t have [another] home to go to, I can’t run to anywhere,” she said.

The ceiling collapse in Prosper’s daughter’s bedroom where the leak in her home began. (Submitted by Melissa Prosper)

Tawaak Housing Association was formed in 1981 and manages 142 units in Nova Scotia using government subsidies and affordable rents that range between about $300 and $1,000 per month. The units, which are mostly duplexes, are meant to provide suitable and low-cost homes to Indigenous people having trouble finding homes.

The majority of Tawaak’s properties are in the Halifax-Dartmouth area, with 13 others spread between Antigonish, Sydney, Truro, Bridgewater and Liverpool.

Brian Dezagiacomo, who has been the executive director of Tawaak since the 1990s, said the reason some of Tawaak’s units have deteriorated so badly is lack of adequate funding from the provincial and federal governments.

A window frame in the front of Prosper’s house has been collecting water for months. (Submitted by Melissa Prosper)

“Our subsidies were frozen in 2009,” he said. “We haven’t received an increase in subsidies, while all [our] costs have increased.”

Dezagiacomo said when Tawaak was set up in the 1980s, some of its operating subsidies were tied to its mortgages. As mortgages are now being paid off, those subsidies are ending. He said that caused a 12 per cent drop in funding each of the past two years.

“It’s been fairly bleak over the past number of years,” he said.

He said he’s aware of the frustration tenants have.

Tawaak Housing replaced Prosper’s kitchen countertop after receiving an order by the Halifax Regional Municipality in November 2019. The new countertop is already peeling and mould appears underneath. (Submitted by Melissa Prosper)

“I feel the anger is being displaced to the wrong source. Their frustration and anger is lashed out at Tawaak Housing Association,” he said. “I can understand that: we are the landlords of the property.”

Dezagiacomo said he feels tenants should be frustrated with the two levels of government that have frozen funding.

He acknowledged that trust between Tawaak and some tenants has been damaged, and said sometimes problems aren’t reported to Tawaak until they’re severe.

Brian Dezagiacomo, the executive director of Tawaak Housing Association, says a lack of funding from the provincial and federal governments is the reason some units have deteriorated so badly. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Chantal Chassé, a Tawaak tenant who lives in a Halifax building, said she has safety concerns about her building and has reported them to her landlord. Chassé said she was assaulted by an intruder who followed her into her building three years ago, and she has also come home to find some of her possessions missing.

“Nobody wants to live like this. At the end of the day, I had to pick and choose. I chose to live here, paying $570 a month. That way, I could afford above and beyond, extra things,” she said.

Chassé shares her home with her young daughter and said she can’t afford to move. She worries constantly someone could break into her home to harm her family.

Tawaak Housing Association’s office is on Lady Hammond Road in Halifax. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

“I haven’t felt safe since I moved in,” she said. “This is the worst place I could be.”

As a Mi’kmaw woman, Chassé sees a connection between the disrepair in her apartment and a heightened risk of becoming a victim of crime.

“No more missing and murdered women: this is where we start,” she said. “We start by fixing windows, doing necessary things.”

$7.3M in funding

The deputy minister responsible for Housing Nova Scotia, Nancy MacLellan, told reporters last week the province is responsible for administering $7.3 million in federal funding that Tawaak will receive over the next the next three years to renovate the 71 most deteriorated units.

Dezagiacomo said the money is for immediate repairs and will not address Tawaak’s long-term funding model.

This is how the money will be spent:

  • Almost $3.7 million during year one to repair 36 units.
  • Almost $1.8 million to fix 17 units during the second year.
  • $1.8 million during year three to repair 18 units.

The province said it’s committed to repairing another 40 Tawaak units by 2027-28.

Nancy MacLellan, the deputy minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, says it will take months for the province to finalize an agreement with the Tawaak Housing Association. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Dezagiacomo said the remaining 31 units are newer and may not need repairs.

Tawaak won’t receive the $7.3 million in funding until an agreement is drafted and signed. The first meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, but MacLellan said it will take months to finalize an agreement.

“We are working on an agreement that will see how that money will be dispersed and how that work will be done and make sure there’s good oversight,” she said.

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