Residents of a Garner apartment complex are again in the midst of legal and personal turmoil after their Chapel Hill landlord posted notices this week indicating that they must vacate by April 30 or face eviction.
It’s a turnaround from an agreement about the departures announced by Wake County officials last month, in which the developer agreed to let the low-income residents stay on until the end of the school year in June.
City and county officials, clergy, housing advocates, and others started asking questions in mid-March, when Chapel Hill developer Daniel Eller, head of Eller Capital Properties, first told residents of Forest Hills Apartments they’d have to leave by April 1 or pay market rents that were many time of their subsidized rents. After a media outcry, Eller, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professional of the Year in 2015, was said to have backed away from that stance a little more than a week later. According to Wake County officials, Eller agreed that residents could stay until June 15 at subsidized rates.
The notices he sent to residents this week makes no mention of that extension, however.
“As per the letter sent out on March 15, 2017 you are required to move out of your apartment by April 30,” says the notice, labeled “Move Out Instructions.” “When you move out please give us your new address and keys and put them in the white envelope provided to help us reach you in the future regarding your security deposit.”
The notice, which caused renewed panic among residents who thought they had gotten a brief reprieve, also tells them to clean their apartments and to have electricity transferred from their own names into a Forest Hills account.
Eller maintains that his company has acted in good faith as it prepares to remake a building in urgent need of renovation.
“We have gone out of our way to be reasonable and accommodating, but we have a fiduciary responsibility to pursue the course that best protects our interests in the property, including our legal right to regain possession of the apartment units,” Eller told the INDY in an email Thursday. He added that nothing has changed about the plans he shared with Wake County Board of Commissioners chairman Sig Hutchinson last month.
“Not moving out of the property is not and has never been an option. I apologize if that was in any way miscommunicated or misunderstood,” Eller said.
George Hausen, the executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, says that residents have gotten different types of notices depending on the kind of federal vouchers they have.
“We actually called all of our clients last night, telling them they don’t have to move out,” Hausen says. “We believe they have until February of 2018,” because the building was originally built with federal funding and renovated using tax credits. “We would try to defend any attempt at eviction.”
In his email to the INDY, Eller said that the kinds of notices seen Thursday are routinely posted for residents when leases expire, and that the chance for residents to stay on was still in place.
“There has been no change in our agreement related to the June 15th date,” Eller wrote. “This agreement was reached out of consideration for the children who are enrolled in area schools, and to allow them to complete the current school year prior to moving.”
However, in an email to Wake County officials obtained by the INDY, Eller wrote that those who had been told to leave by April 30 would reach the end of their lease on that date and would not be allowed to make further payments. Those who stayed without paying would see their legal status change.
“If they remain at the property after April 30th, their status will change to ‘Holdover’ and we will move on to pursuing our legal remedies in order to gain an award of possession of the apartment unit,” Eller wrote.
“At that point, if the resident has not already relocated, we will be in a position to file for a writ of possession and schedule the unit to be vacated and padlocked. As previously promised, we will not execute this final step until after June 15.”
“I think what you’re seeing with that letter is the beginning of the eviction,” Hutchinson says.
If tenants continue to pay rent, they can resist eviction, which requires court action. Eller’s email made clear that he doesn’t want any tenants to pay after the end of April: “Our operations staff was very clear that anyone who received a notice to vacate for April 30th does not need to pay their portion of the rent (and the property staff will not accept payment).”
Staying on without paying rent may sound attractive, but the “holdover” status and looming eviction give the arrangement an entirely different tone, Hutchinson says.
“This notice is sneaky, dirty and underhanded and it shouldn’t have happened,” says community activist Octavia Rainey. “[Residents] were under the impression, as I was under the impression, that they could stay until June 15.”
The posting of notices Thursday has prompted community leaders to call an informational meeting at seven p.m. Friday at Wake Grove Baptist Church, at 302 East Main Street, Garner.
One of the people planning to attend is Cecilia Ebron, whose eighty-five-year-old mother lives at Forest Hills. Ebron says she is trying not to let stress devastate her. However, being handed a shorter timeframe puts a major dent in her efforts to find a new place for her mother, who has dementia.
Ebron’s brother lives close enough to Forest Hills that he can pick up their mother from adult daycare if Ebron is running late from Beaufort County, where she is caregiver for her elderly father.
“It’s going to be here so fast,” she says. “We’re not like the average family that can just pick up and go to the first place that’s open. We can’t just pick up and go to Holly Springs because they have a place in Holly Springs.”
“There’s a proper way to do this and this isn’t it,” Hausen says. “They are trying to bully these people out.”