Hopewood residents face eviction due to non-profit paperwork kerfuffle
More than a dozen vulnerable tenants are facing dramatic rent increases or eviction from their permanent supportive housing in Wilmington this week — all because of an apparent paperwork mix-up.
Content advisory: This story includes a mention of suicide.
Many residents at Hopewood Apartments have been there for a long time. Some of these vulnerable, low-income residents have been there since it was built back in 1998 — others for three, five, or ten years. But now, they all face an uncertain future, with rents set to increase substantially at the beginning of September.
Resident Tim Neil struggles with depression, and said the threat of eviction has been hard to cope with.
“You know, I've thought about suicide,” he said. “I'm right at the verge of going out to the hospital, to the Oaks. She just destroyed me mentally.”
The “she” he referred to is Betty Bisbee, the executive director of Wilmington Housing Finance and Development. The non-profit is an independent offshoot of the Wilmington Housing Authority, and it owns and operates Hopewood. Bisbee did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
“I'd love to stay here,” Neil said, smoking a cigarette in front of his home. “I’d like to stay here as long as I can, because it's a nice place when it's fixed up. You know, you're not getting these threatening letters.”
Each of the 16 Hopewood residents has received letters warning them to move out by September 1 or face a rent increase. One dated August 2 says “we cannot say this enough please continue looking for a place to move. Time is running out!” [Bold in the original].
The stated rent for September is a flat rate of $850 for a one-bedroom or $1,020 for a two-bedroom — far out of reach for the current tenants.
Theresa Lettow has lived in Hopewood for eight years, paying 30% of her income for her apartment. She pays “$246 or $250,” she said, which is 30% of her total income from SSI and Social Security. Her entire monthly income is less than what the new rent would be.
Roots of the crisis
It didn’t have to happen this way. For 24 years, WHFD relied on a rental-subsidy grant from the federal Housing and Urban Development Administration to keep tenants rents low.
The Cape Fear Region’s Continuum of Care (CoC) determines who those grants go out to — it’s part of the Council of Governments.
When CoC received the application for the rental subsidy grant, CoC director Judy Herring said it looked fishy. The application had the signature of former WHA director Katrina Redmon, even though she had left the organization months prior — and Hopewood and WHFD weren’t mentioned at all.
“When it came in, without an updated signatory on it, that was a red flag that somebody wasn't really doing what they were supposed to do,” Herring said.
The CoC rejected the Hopewood application, then asked other organizations to take over the grant. None were interested, according to Herring, and now the CoC itself is administering the grant. It was a somewhat unusual circumstance for an organization that’s typically tasked with coordinating other agencies.
Although Bisbee wouldn’t speak to WHQR, her side of the story does come through in her letters to tenants. A June 30 letter reads, “Our application for the grant which funds all Hopewood rent subsidies was denied by the COC. Hopewood had received this grant every year for 24 years, ever since it was first built in 1998, and we fully expected to continue to participate in the program. We were shocked by this turn of events. We have attempted to resolve this situation without success.”
But Herring said she asked Bisbee to work with her repeatedly. First, she offered a master lease option, then she offered a tenant by tenant subsidy.
“We’ve been asking for copies of the leases and some other information we need to get this done — to we can determine what the tenants rent portion is supposed to be and what the rental assistance portion is supposed to be,” she explained. “But then we got absolutely nothing after that.”
Herring said it’s been months since she’s been able to make contact with Bisbee or anyone else at WHFD who has the power to prevent these rent increases or evictions. Meanwhile, residents have continued to receive letters stating they need to re-apply to stay, and that their rent is going up. This is happening to all residents on September 1st, regardless of the start date of their lease.
According to Legal Aid of North Carolina, raising a tenants rent in the middle of their lease is illegal, unless the tenant agrees to it ahead of time.
What’s next for residents
The CoC is now trying to place those residents in other housing using the grant funding. They’ve had some limited success finding affordable apartments, but residents say the act of moving alone is traumatizing — and can trigger worse mental health symptoms.
Theresa Lettow is scared to stay and scared to move, but she feels she doesn’t have a lot of choice. And with a broken foot, she’s not sure how she’ll be able to move out on September 1.
“It's hard when you have mental problems, it is hard to adjust to a new place,” she said. “I had trouble adjusting from my two bedroom that I was used to live in [here in Hopewood] before coming over here. Being by myself, it was a big adjustment. And now to have to move completely out of where I felt safe, where I don't feel safe anymore. To a place that I don't know anything about. It's really been hard for it's hard for me.”
Others complain about a lack of maintenance on the property, like a bedbug infestation in one building and residual damage from Hurricane Florence.
Leroy Tony Bellamy Jr. is another Hopewood tenant who’s been there for three years. He called Bisbee a “bad slumlord” for not doing those repairs. He pointed out tiles in his kitchen that are detached from the floor; he uses a kitchen mat to keep them in place.
“I wouldn't treat a dog like that,” he said. “Miss Betty don't give a damn about this place.”
Despite the bad maintenance and the Sept. 1 deadline, Bellamy says he plans to stay until he’s got something better lined up, or until his lease runs out. He knows his rights.