Two Nova Scotian families living in co-op housing say they’ve been targets of racism ever since they moved in.
They say they are now speaking out for themselves and their children.
Deidra Williams, sitting in the living room of Unit 1 at the Albro Court Housing Co-op in Dartmouth, tells Global News her family has experienced racism and discrimination for more than five years.
Williams and her husband Sinclair Paynter moved into their home in 2016.
“(We were) looking for more affordable housing because we went from a family of three to five when we found out we were expecting twins,” she said in a March 11 interview.
The Albro Co-op was the first to offer the family a unit. But it wasn’t long before the couple said they started noticing red flags.
“We were told we have at least a week of window of time to get in because they were very determined to have people move in as soon as possible,” she said.
“Little did I know, after moving in here, we’re trying to get ready to fix this place up, and we were told we couldn’t come in because of maintenance issues.”
She said when the couple tried to come in and repair the unit themselves, they were repeatedly denied entry although they had already paid a deposit.
They wanted to remove the carpets and wallpapers before moving in because their daughter suffered from asthma, and the previous tenant was a smoker with pets.
“They told my husband, who was here with friends, ready to help him get to work, … that they would call the police on him if he came into the place.”
Williams said she started to develop a bad taste in her mouth back then, but didn’t think too much of it at the time.
“I just figured, OK, maybe that’s just one person and maybe that’s just their little bit of a power trip, you know what I mean? A little bit of exercising their privilege.”
Once the family finally moved in, Williams said it didn’t take long for her to realize they were being treated differently than their white neighbours.
“Certain members of the board were constantly coming to the door reminding us of rules … as if we didn’t understand things,” she said.
“Even at one point in time, we were told that I need to learn how to manage my own money.”
Williams works in finance and is employed by the Government of Canada.
The racism directed at her and her husband, who moved here from Bermuda, kept building up in the last few years, she said.
“There’s been a lot of bullying and harassment lately,” Williams said. “My husband gets antagonized, being a Black immigrant man.”
“If he does finally speak up because he’s frustrated, he’ll get told things like, ‘We’ll call the police and you know how the police like your people right now.’”
She said she and her husband have been antagonized in front of their children as well.
“We shouldn’t have to live like that.”
Williams said their children have also been a target. She said the worst incident happened last summer when their four-year-old twin boys were playing in the community garden area.
“My sons were outside running on a patch of grass in front of a certain unit’s window, and they got yelled at,” Williams said.
“They got told to go back to where they come from; they were called wild animals, cursed and yelled at, like they were grown people.”
Williams said she then walked up to the man to confront him. “It just blew up from there because he started calling me names, told me I was a bad mother and my kind-this, and women like me-that.
“I only had one neighbour who came out and actually stood up and told the person, ‘You’re wrong.’”
She said her sons were terrified for months to come.
During this time, Williams had been the treasurer on the co-op board, a position she volunteered for in hopes of having the opportunity to be heard on issues of racism and diversity within the co-op.
Immediately after the alleged incident with her sons, Williams said she went to the co-op for support.
She told the board something along the lines of: “You need to show that we are not supporting racism and that this is an anti-racism environment and is to be safe. And people need to watch their mouths, like something needs to be done,” she said.
“I was basically told that if their membership gets revoked, mine would have to be revoked too because I was involved in the dispute.”
Since then, Williams had stepped down from her position at the board because she couldn’t support its practices.
She said that in the fall, the co-op had brought in a third-party consultant, as suggested by the Co-op Housing Federation of Canada. The person was a Black consultant who dealt with racism issues, inclusion and diversity.
“He came in and consulted the board for one session and said that we needed more work at the board level,” Williams said.
“We had one session and I guess it was decided by the board that that was enough.”
She said there have been several white families who have moved into the co-op, who have been allies to the few Black families. But, they have all either had their membership revoked or had left on their own terms after speaking up and being targeted.
Williams said that in the last few years, every time she would go to the board for support, there would be minimal response, if any.
“My whole family’s being avoided like the black plague, you know?”
The Albro Court Housing Co-op has declined an interview.
A March 18 email statement from the board of directors read:
“Our Board is entirely volunteer, comprised of member-tenants. We can’t discuss the specifics due to privacy obligations to all our members/tenants, however, we are aware that certain members/tenants have raised concerns experiencing racism within our community, which we take very seriously and have recently engaged mediators to assist with addressing these concerns.”
Another family living at the co-op say they have also been targets of racism.
The Porros say that after six years of living at the co-op, they’ve had enough.
“We’ve been silent for too long,” said Amanda Porro in a Zoom interview from her living room. She lives with her husband and three children, right across from Williams and Paynter.
Similar to Williams and Paynter, the Porro family said they’ve been cast out, and they say that after a dispute, they were even told to no longer talk to certain co-op members.
Amanda and her husband Yasmani Porro Rojas claim they are being given extra work around the co-op, and are overall being treated differently than the white families that live there.
Porro Rojas, who is Black and Cuban, said he’s made fun of for his accent and any time he speaks out about anything, he is labelled as threatening.
“Everything that we say or do, we are ‘a violent person,’ the people here are supposed to be ‘scared of us,’” he said.
Amanda Porro said she can’t even sit on her deck, or have her windows open, without allowing her children to hear what some co-op residents are saying about her husband.
“I’m trying to have a good night with a movie night with the kids, and they’re over there drinking and talking about how they’re going to attack my husband when they get the chance,” she said.
Porro said her six-year-old daughter is constantly a target and is made fun of because of her father.
“(Yasmani) makes these cool little toys for the kids. They’re definitely Cuban style, but everybody makes fun of that. … I just don’t get it,” she said.
Porro said all this, while trying to learn a new language and studying to become a citizen, is too much for her husband to deal with.
“He’s come to Canada and he’s being belittled and forced to stay inside and just all around not treated fairly as a human being,” she said.
Yasmani Porro Rojas said he feels like he’s being pushed to his limits.
He said he has never initiated problems with neighbours and has gone to the board multiple times to ask for support when he felt like he was being targeted.
“What I get back is bullying. I’m stressed out, I cry at night. I can’t even smile with my kids anymore. My kid asks me ‘what’s wrong daddy?’… I don’t know what to say.
“I always dealt with the racist problem, but I never have this problem for so long.”
“When it’s in your own place, 24/7, there is no light, there is no happy life, there’s no future,” he said.
On their window, facing the co-op courtyard, the family had put up signs calling for support and discussion on racist discrimination.
“It’s been a month and a half,” Porro Rojas said, adding that not one board member or neighbour, other than Williams, had reached out to them to talk.
Amanda and Yasmani Porro’s window is seen from the courtyard of Albro Lake Court Co-op.
On March 12, the Porro family said they finally received an email from the co-op board that the board is willing to talk to the family with a mediator.
According to Amanda Porro, the family requested a mediator over a month ago and say they only received a response from the co-op after Global News had visited the neighbourhood the day prior.
In a March 23 email to Global News, the co-op board additionally said: “The decision to retain an inclusion-focused mediator was first made in September 2020, and we have worked to move the process forward since then. Unfortunately, the mediator initially appointed departed the project due to scheduling and workload issues in February 2021, at their request.
“Immediately following this departure, we retained the services of another mediation team in February 2021, prior to Global News’ involvement in March 2021, to assist with addressing these concerns, to help heal our community and to advise on and assist in implementing long-term solutions.”
Also, all co-op members received a memo from the board president, Deborah Jessome, on March 19.
In the memo, the board had included a message from Global News requesting an interview on the families’ allegations of racism. It also included the board’s response to Global News, alongside a statement,
“We understand that this may be upsetting to read,” the statement said.
“However, we are hopeful that all of us take all concerns regarding racism seriously. We also ask members to understand those that are raising these concerns are expressing their feelings and experiences from their point of view. The Board’s focus is going to be on supporting mediation in the hope that promoting the healing process will help us all move forward. We are also committed to preparing and implementing long-term solutions (such as policies) to ensure continued equitable treatment for all members in our diverse community.
“We encourage everyone to reflect on the ways they can actively promote inclusion, equity and anti-racism in our community and beyond.”
Deidra Williams told Global News the memo to membership on March 19 did not sit well with her. In an email, she said the board is minimizing their experience and reactions to the racism they’re facing.
Williams said there has not been equitable treatment at the co-op since her family and the Porros moved in in 2016. She also said this is a rushed effort to get the two families into mediation, only after Global News was seen at her unit.
In the interview, Williams had said she just wants to see change and anti-racist action.
“The weaponizing of housing, the privilege, and abusing the privilege is what’s holding us back. It’s sad, it’s frustrating.”