At Durham’s Garden Terrace Apartments in Lakewood, resident Maryeri Sarmiento is tired of being ignored.
Her apartment is riddled with maintenance concerns, she told the INDY through a translator, and her requests for repairs regularly go unanswered. Wood is rotting under the kitchen sink, and mold is growing on air vents in the bathroom. Water seeps under the front door when it rains, she says, and a wooden cabinet is missing its fourth wall.
Sarmiento says her husband, Santos Ortiz, has been fixing things himself, but hasn’t received reimbursement. “Anything … in here that’s working well, it’s because we fixed it ourselves,” she says.
Sarmiento and Ortiz are not alone. Following months of property managers allegedly ignoring their complaints, a group of Garden Terrace residents, many of whom are immigrants and low-income, have banded together to demand repairs.
City inspectors have since found numerous housing code violations at the 56-unit complex, and maintenance work is now underway. But some residents call the repairs an inadequate, short-term solution to larger problems.
Since fall, tenants have worked to protect and expand their rights. They’re calling on Jonathan Dayan, who manages the investment group that owns Garden Terrace, to begin negotiations for new lease agreements. The standoff between Dayan and the tenants escalated last month, when protesters marched to Dayan’s home to demand repairs and stable rent.
In November, a group of tenants gathered in Raleigh outside the office of Wilson Property Management, the company that manages Garden Terrace, to protest what they called unsafe living conditions and cases of unfair evictions.
Tenants said they had submitted countless maintenance requests, but never saw the repairs completed. Many families face mold, rotting wood, and plumbing issues in their units.
Wilson owner Beth Black met with the tenants that day. She asked for specific maintenance requests so they could begin repairs, she says, but only received two work orders from the residents in attendance.
Following the protest, tenants contacted Durham’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department. According to department records, City officials began inspecting the complex in December and have found more than 120 housing code violations.
Records cite excessive dampness, faulty or missing smoke detectors, and improper sanitation. Inspectors also noted loose flooring, flaking paint, and ventilation issues in bathrooms.
Before City inspectors got involved, tenants said their complaints fell on deaf ears. But Black and Dayan say they were not aware of any issues prior to the demonstration. “We had no idea that things had gotten so bad,” Black says, “because the tenants weren’t turning anything in to us.”
Tenants can submit maintenance requests through a resident portal or by calling Wilson directly, Black says. Dayan added that it’s impossible to erase records of tenants’ requests for repairs.
Dayan and Black say they are now working with the City to address problems at Garden Terrace. Both say they wish they were aware of the situation earlier.
“We give them instructions on how to submit work orders,” Dayan says, “but we don’t know what’s going on inside the units unless they tell us.”
Sarmiento and her family tell a different story. She says she called and emailed multiple times to request maintenance, but never got a response.
Dayan told the INDY that maintenance teams are currently working on Sarmiento’s unit.
“The tenants’ goals are my goals,” Dayan says. “I want Garden Terrace to be a nice place to live.”
Black is relieved that City inspectors brought the conditions to her attention, she says.
“[Dayan] doesn’t want them living like that, I don’t want them living like that, my property manager doesn’t want them living like that,” Black says. “We want to get it fixed; we want to get it right and for everybody to be safe and happy.”
The Garden Terrace Tenants Union
The severe maintenance issues at Garden Terrace have shed light on a broader struggle.
Residents have teamed up with community organizers to rectify what they say is an uneven power dynamic between tenants and their landlord, forming the Garden Terrace Tenants Union in December with the help of Durham-based Bull City Tenants United.
Fany Sarmiento, the union’s secretary and Maryeri’s sister, says that roughly three-fourths of Garden Terrace residents have joined the union. Many feel neglected and taken advantage of, she says.
Fany Sarmiento says she believes Dayan is trying to force the tenants out of their homes by refusing to repair their units, rendering them unlivable. Once the units are empty, she says, she suspects Dayan will hike the prices and look for new renters.
In October, Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order strengthening federal protections against eviction in North Carolina during the pandemic. Those federal protections are in place through the end of this month.
The union is the tenants’ way of standing up for themselves, Sarmiento says. She believes they are stronger together than they would be as individuals.
The union wants a collective lease agreement that would give each tenant access to fair treatment and acceptable living conditions. They want to open negotiations with Dayan to establish a binding contract that would ensure prompt repairs, keep rents stable, and prevent unfair evictions.
On February 7, Garden Terrace residents invited Dayan to meet with them to begin negotiations for a new lease agreement, but he did not attend. Tenants say they have never received a direct reply from Dayan, despite reaching out multiple times.
Dayan says many of the tenants’ demands are not legally feasible. The leases used at Garden Terrace are approved by the N.C. Bar Association, he says, and cannot be adjusted once a tenant has signed.
“I hope to have that conversation with [the tenants] and explain it to them directly, but we will not set that kind of precedent of renegotiating a lease,” Dayan told the INDY.
Furthermore, Dayan says he’s not able to negotiate collectively. “There is no legal entity called the Garden Terrace Tenants Union,” he says. “I’m more than happy to meet with any individual leaseholder, but I can’t do anything with this group.”
Dayan says he is willing to meet with a small, socially distanced group to discuss concerns and explain the situation. But so far, the tenants’ attempts to meet have been outside of business hours and against public health guidelines, Dayan says.
Tenants invited Dayan to meet with them on Sunday, February 21; after he didn’t show up, they marched to his Durham home to voice their demands. Dayan says he received the invitation, but would not attend a meeting on the weekend.
Wilson property manager Deanna Sweat replied to the invitation via email, stating that the company understands tenants’ concerns about maintenance and housing security and offering to meet with a “COVID-sensitive size group.”
“We would also like … to tell you about our ongoing maintenance work so far and the plan going forward, so we can have a transparent process and also happy to conduct a short training on the web portal we use for maintenance requests so that nothing gets lost in the cracks moving forward,” Sweat wrote.
Dayan says tenants did not reply to Sweat’s email. Many do not speak English, complicating the dispute. He says he was not expecting dozens of protesters to come to his home on a Sunday and that he felt unfairly targeted and had trouble communicating with the group.
“I told them that there have not been any evictions,” he says, “but they don’t trust me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to sue them, but they have crossed a lot of lines.”
Dayan says the group marched up his driveway and began chanting at him while his son was playing in the backyard.
The residents and their supporters say they won’t be deterred. In a media advisory from Bull City Tenants United, leaders wrote that they remain determined to negotiate a binding contract.
“The tenants will be inviting more members of the community to join them … planning to turn up the heat in the event Dayan continues to ignore them,” the release said.
Dayan says he wants to help the tenants and is working hard to complete the maintenance repairs as quickly as possible. But he won’t discuss the possibility of a reformed lease agreement.
“A lease is a binding contract,” Dayan says. “Legally, we can’t do anything.”
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