MONTREAL -- On an unusually tough Moving Day, as the city of Montreal keeps vowing to help tenants, some local families say the city itself is their problem.

A municipal office manages thousands of low-income housing units and those buildings can be so badly maintained, tenants say, that moving in poses a major financial risk and can ultimately leave them homeless.

That happened this month to 27-year-old Chanel Mansourian, a mother of two young daughters, who lost most of her belongings after a brief encounter with a bedbug-ridden publicly owned apartment.

“It’s just devastating,” she said.

Three years ago, as rents began to rise, she put her family on the waiting list for an “HLM” low-rent unit and finally got news recently that one was available. 

She and her two kids, aged two and three, gave up their stable housing for the chance at a permanent low-rent unit. 

Mansourian is currently in school to learn plastering and work in the construction industry, and she’s been in the process of applying for a new job. The rent at HLM units is calculated according to the tenants' finances—it’s always 25 per cent of their income, whatever that is. 

“It was going to be easier financially, and...finding a place was difficult, even before the pandemic,” said Mansourian.

“We waited so long for this and we were so happy when we finally got the call. We fell in love with the place.”

But it quickly became obvious that it was unliveable. The second day, the toilet overflowed. When a plumber came, he left “poop water” all over the floor, Mansourian said. 

The family began to see tiny worms around the apartment, though they couldn’t be sure the two things were connected.

“I see them on the floor, hanging off the wall,” Mansourian said. “It's disgusting…unsanitary.”

They also quickly realized the apartment had bedbugs. Building management called shortly after they moved in to say an exterminator was coming to inspect the unit, though Mansourian hadn’t seen any bugs or been warned there was a problem.

“I thought ‘OK, maybe they do this every time someone moves in,’” she said.

Then they were told someone on the first floor of the building had an infestation. Two days later, they started finding their own bugs.

“My girls started getting bit,” she said. “It [was] affecting their sleep.”

She called repeatedly but it took the building several days to send an exterminator again, and he wasn’t treating the whole building. 

Her daughters not only had bedbug bites but diarrhea, and Mansourian had left with them while she waited for help.

“I'm staying at a friend's place,” she said last week. “Her roommates are not home for the week.”

After non-responses from the OMHM, the municipal housing office, Mansourian is now frantically trying to start over, looking again for a regular lease, though she said it’s proving very difficult. 

She said the OMHM hasn’t offered any alternative units or any stopgap temporary housing while the family couch-surfs.

“They should be providing the opportunity to give us another one or put us somewhere until I find an apartment,” she said. “I have kids—it's not just me.”

The OMHM didn’t respond to two requests for comment.

Mansourian said she’ll also lose most of her furniture in an effort to leave the bedbugs behind. She just bought a brand-new fridge and stove and isn’t sure if or how she can safely move them.

One of the most frustrating things, she said, is that she asked specifically if there were any problems with pests in the building before accepting the unit and was told no.

But in the family’s brief stay in the apartment, she says, she noticed something disturbing.

“You could see bedbugs in the varnish of the floor,” sealed in during previous refinishings. “It's proof that it was there before I even moved in,” she said.

“They need to act on this.”