Updated Nov. 19 at 4:20 p.m. with response from T.E.H. management.
Hundreds of residents in Park Ridge Apartments in Ferguson are concerned about where they will live next month because of mass-eviction notices sent to them by the landlord in November.
Housing advocates say people who live in nearly 400 units in the low-income housing complex received letters from the company T.E.H. Realty asking them to be out of their apartments by Nov. 14. Some tenants say they were asked to leave by the end of the month.
Section 8 voucher recipients, whose rent is partially paid through the St. Louis County Housing Authority, are among the most concerned about the notices. Leaders at the housing authority and housing lawyers say the eviction notices Park Ridge tenants received are unlawful because they were not issued by a court.
Residents in five apartment complexes received some form of a notice about either an impending eviction because of St. Louis County Housing Authority or because of late rent payments. The five apartment properties include Park Ridge, Northwinds, Canfield, Versailles and Oakmont.
Some believe the eviction letters were triggered by inspections of the apartments in October. One Park Ridge apartment building was condemned by the St. Louis County Housing Authority because of structural issues.
"I was really stressed"
Elizabeth Hopson is one Park Ridge resident who had to move out with 24-hour notice.
“I had to find people to come help me move out and stuff. And then they put me in the next apartment over, and it had roaches, dead roaches,” Hopson said. “But I had to have somewhere to stay.”
Once Hopson was in the new unit, she said she received a new notice saying she had to leave in November.
“Then find out you had to leave out again,” she added. “Oh, hair falling out and everything. I was really stressed.”
The letters read, “We hate to lose you as a resident, but per county housing they will not allow Park Ridge Apartments to continue housing you any longer. November 14, 2018 has to be your last day with us.”
Cold weather and the promise of several inches of snow on that day created more fear among tenants about their housing.
“I know this is short notice,” wrote Park Ridge staff. “But just know we have fought so hard to keep all our residents but unfortunately we can’t.”
Residents like Hopson were not only concerned about where they were moving to next, but also what would happen to their Section 8 vouchers.
A letter to voucher recipients in Park Ridge from St. Louis County Housing Authority on Oct. 10 added another layer of uncertainty. The agency informed them the agency “will not accept new applications for Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) leases in the apartment complex referenced above beginning on the date of this letter through April 1, 2019. We will continue to process in-place clients until your evaluation in April 2019.”
Southeast Ferguson Community Association President LaTasha Brown helped organize the meeting.
“Some residents have been getting eviction letters saying that they gotta be gone by Nov. 15. Some say Nov. 30. So, it just created a state of confusion,” Brown said. “I think they deserve answers.”
St. Louis County Housing Authority director Susan Rollins talked with residents and housing advocates at the Urban League center to try to quiet fears.
Here’s how things started, she said.
“So we went through a number of the units, and one of the buildings here at the Park Ridge location was also condemned by Ferguson for the same reason, and it was these patios that are just starting to give way,” she said.
Then the housing authority began to look at other units.
“We decided we would look at the units, we would determine what’s going on and if there were units that we didn’t feel met the mustard, that we would abate the unit,” Rollins said.
That means the housing authority stopped paying its portion of the rent for Section 8 voucher recipients for the month until repairs were made to units. Problems with the buildings structure, electrical wiring and plumbing are all factors that might cause the housing authority to “abate” a unit. Rollins said T.E.H. Realty has until April to make the needed improvements, when the properties will be inspected again.
“Yes, in theory we were not paying for those units, because in order to get people’s attention, you have to say, 'No, we’re not going to do that,' in order to make people change,” she said.
St. Louis Public Radio called a few different phone numbers to reach T.E.H. Realty. Some numbers were disconnected. T.E.H. did not initially respond to an email. The company’s headquarters is in Kansas City.
John Dean of T.E.H. Realty contacted St. Louis Public Radio about the notices after this story was published.
"T.E.H. is committed to providing quality housing for our residents. When we acquired Park Ridge in May of this year there were serious problems with the facility, and we are in the process of making much-needed improvements," Dean said, including work to concrete walkways in the complex.
He added, "We care deeply about our residents and apologize for any confusion these letters may have caused. We are beginning the process of reaching out to all who received these letters."
St. Louis County Housing Authority not paying its portion of the rent to get T.E.H’s attention caused trouble for residents.
The day after the meeting, St. Louis Public Radio asked Rollins if the eviction notices were retaliation for stopped rent payments.
“Unfortunately, it falls back on the tenant,” she said.
That could explain why residents at Northwinds Apartments received a letter on Nov. 7 saying, “Your rent is delinquent therefore your lease will be forwarded to our attorney for eviction proceedings. If not paid in full including late fees.”
The total fee due that day, plus fees? $1,443.
“If your lease is sent to our attorney you are responsible for all fees associated with eviction,” management wrote to that particular tenant. St. Louis Public Radio received a copy of the letter from a housing advocate who attended the Ferguson housing meeting.
An eviction is detrimental to Section 8 recipients because it disqualifies them from receiving public funds for rent in the future.
For now, Rollins said her office is advising tenants who received letters to stay in place and seek legal aid to learn what their options are. She also said her office will give people new vouchers for a different apartment if needed.
“It’s important that people have the opportunity to move elsewhere,” she said.
What could happen to T.E.H.?
“HUD has the opportunity to debar companies or owners from the HUD program,” Rollins said.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said his office also plans to investigate the matter by holding up the landlord’s license with the city.
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.