Friday July 9, 2021
By Yilun Cheng
It was past midnight, and Abdi Issak tried to ignore the dank, musty smell coming from the carpet.
His wife had gone to the hospital to give birth to their eighth child, and he was at home watching their other kids, ranging in age from 1 to 13. Pacing up and down their shabby, three-bedroom apartment, Issak, a Somali refugee facing the threat of eviction, struggled to accept the fact that the baby might not have a home to come back to.
In early May, his family was one of 36 households in their building at the Fitzroy Walford Apartments on the North Side who received a notice to vacate by June 2. Most of the tenants are former refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Congo and other countries.
Finding an affordable home spacious enough to accommodate a family of 10 was no easy task, and Issak was fired from his warehouse job when he took some days off to look for an apartment. With the June 2 deadline fast approaching, a new baby on the way and no stable source of income, Issak was scared that his family might soon become homeless.
“I said to the manager, ‘Please, can you extend the deadline for me? My wife is having a new baby,’” recalled Isaac, a man in his mid-30s who escaped the civil war in Somalia at the age of 5 and was resettled in Columbus in 2012. “They said, ‘We don’t care about that. We gave you a notice. You have to find somewhere to go.’”
Issak is not alone in his predicament. Tens of thousands of refugees have resettled in the Columbus area in the past few decades, but many face housing instabilities and precarious living situations as a result of landlords' inability or unwillingness to cater to new Americans' housing needs.
In some situations, the landlord's actions violate Ohio law, according to Ben Horne, advocacy director at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. But because most residents are new Americans who often do not know their rights, Horne said, many simply follow the landlord’s order and leave their apartments even though legally they can stay much longer.
“It’s a population that doesn't usually want to create waves, so they can be more easily taken advantage of,” Horne said. “They don’t want an eviction filed against them or do anything that would give them a bad reputation as a tenant, so they moved out because that’s what the landlord told them to do.”
'Disturbance of the peace'
The landlord at Fitzroy Walford broke its lease agreements with a number of tenants, according to Horne.
While Issak did not have a formal rental agreement at the time of the notice, some residents’ leases do not expire until October, records provided to the Dispatch show. In other cases, the landlord gave tenants less than 30 days to move out in violation of Ohio law, Horne said.
Char Williams, the director of KB Ohio Properties, which manages the complex, said that the residents left her no choice and that her company had to clear out the entire building because of tenants' poor housekeeping. Some left food on the floor, kept unwashed dishes in the sink or failed to report water leaks, she said, causing a rodent problem at the building.
“Not only are some of our residents being a nuisance to the community because of this sanitation problem, but they also are causing utter disturbance to the peace,” she said. “Steps have been taken: warning, notices of violations, fines, etc. Once that chain of command has been exhausted, the final step is a notice to vacate the premises.”
Williams noted that it was a struggle to work with a demographic that might have a different definition of sanitation. “I don’t think they completely comprehend it,” she said.
KB Ohio Properties took over the complex in November 2020. Residents said that they started having issues with unfixed maintenance requests and additional charges after the new manager took over.
Bishir Ahmed, a former refugee from Somalia and a 40-year-old father of seven, lived at Fitzroy Walford Apartments for five years before moving out in June as a result of the notice to vacate. He said he received a warning letter earlier this year from the manager for keeping his children’s toys on the balcony.
Ahmed said he has not been able to find a new apartment for his family and has been staying with relatives at a nearby complex — leaving 14 people crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. He, his wife and seven children all are sleeping in the living room.
“We’re homeless now,” Ahmed said. “We have nowhere to go.”
Playing whack-a-mole with landlords
Finding good rental options for refugees always has been a challenge, according to Angie Plummer, executive director at Community Refugee and Immigration Services, a local refugee resettlement agency.
Some landlords do not approve her clients’ applications because refugees may not have sufficient incomes when they arrive in the country. Others have expressed discriminatory attitudes towards refugees, she said.
One landlord that the agency used to work with said they would no longer rent to refugees because a tenant did not use her shower curtain and caused a leak, Plummer recalled.
“Let’s just say that the woman didn’t use her shower curtain and made a mess of the floor. That’s one tenant! You can’t just reject all people who came to the U.S. on refugee status,” Plummer said. “We do run into that type of complete generalization.”
The high turnover rate of property managers presents additional challenges for the agency and its clients. Fitzroy Walford Apartments, for example, changed hands three times in the past five years.
“A place would be fine a few years ago. Then you get a new property manager and suddenly it’s a whole different story,” Plummer said. “It seems like this perennial problem. And it makes it challenging for us as we look for housing: Is this a good place or a bad place today?”
Over the years, the Legal Aid Society of Columbus has filed a number of complaints against landlords on behalf of refugee tenants. With the Fitzroy Walford Apartments, Horne sent a cease and desist letter to the building’s owner and manager in May, but he said it would be up to the tenants to decide whether they want to submit formal complaints.
“It's kind of like playing whack-a-mole,” Horne said. “There are just constant problems that pop up at these complexes.”
More tenants soon to lose their homes
There are still about 10 families living in Issak’s old building, according to Williams, who said that KB Ohio Properties is prepared to file eviction cases against the remaining tenants. Besides Issak's building, the company is planning to vacate a few other buildings under its management in order to renovate the whole complex within the next two months.
“We're losing $30,000 a month,” Williams said. “Our goal is not to lose our residents, but they leave us no choice.”
Ultimately, Issak was able to secure a three-bedroom apartment on the West Side. He said he was pleased that his new landlord hired cleaners to keep up the building.
He also found a new warehouse job and is again working 60 hours a week to support his family –– now with its latest addition. Even with his long work hours, Issak still tries to find time to take his children to the Magic Mountain amusement center or nearby Chuck E Cheese for some quality time together.
Having grown up in a refugee camp in Kenya with few resources, Issak only had a middle school education, but he hopes for a better life for his children. A decent place to live is a starting point.
“I would love to see my children have a good education and get nice jobs, not working at a warehouse," Issak said.