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Hopewood's landlord allegedly refuses to accept rent payments; residents turn to Legal Aid for help

Hopewood.jpg
Kelly Kenoyer
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Hopewood Apartments are located at 1302 Martin St. in Wilmington. Residents are facing eviction and displacement after the owner lost a rental subsidy grant.

Residents of Hopewood Apartments in Wilmington still face an uncertain future after their landlord abruptly raised rents, starting September 1. But despite a lot of challenges, those tenants have seen some community support, especially legal help.

Hopewood residents spent months worrying about the first of September. Ominous letters showed up on their doors, threatening rent increases and requiring a new application process for them to stay in their homes.

It all happened because their non-profit landlord, Wilmington Housing Finance and Development, lost access to a rental subsidy grant, and decided to more than double the rent payments their tenants were making.

Tenant Leroy Tony Bellamy Jr. said he spoke with management on September 1 to try to pay rent at his usual subsidized rate. “I went to the office to pay up here, and she said Ms. Betty wasn’t going to accept the rent, because of what I said, talking to you, or whatever.”

Bellamy said his interview with WHQR earlier this week led to staff refusing to accept his rent- apparently at the behest of WHFD CEO Betty Bisbee. Other tenants have experienced similar treatment, with WHFD refusing rent payments from their tenants, even though they still have active leases for their homes.

Hopewood residents were able to attend a meeting with Legal Aid of North Carolina last week. About ten of them showed up, and spent an hour learning about their legal rights as tenants. Staff Attorney Bradley Setzer led the presentation in Good Shepherd Center's dining room.

“These are all subsidized housing situations where a lease automatically renews whether the landlord wants it to or not," he explained. "The only way a landlord can either choose not to renew it, or to terminate it in the middle of a lease is to allege a violation of that lease. And say, because you broke your lease, you were terminating, and we're ending that agreement and you got to go."

That’s why keeping a copy of your lease is so important for a renter — it can make or break an eviction, he said. It’s also key to keep paying rent, even during disputes with the landlord. Legal Aid says non-payment is just cause for an eviction, and a lot of tenants make the mistake of failing to pay rent after a landlord threatens eviction.

Many residents stuck around after the Legal Aid NC presentation to sign up for legal representation. The organization armed the tenants with tons of helpful information, largely by explaining the eviction process. It takes several weeks to play out, according to NC Legal Aid’s Zach Tooman.

“If a landlord tells you you have to be out September 1, that they want you out, the tenant again, doesn't have to move until a sheriff shows up with what's called a writ of possession," Tooman said. "And the sheriff is not going to show up there until a court process has happened.”

That didn’t stop WHFD’s staff from telling tenants to move out, however — even if they’re currently in the hospital. Jason Collins’ mother, Sharon Collins, is a tenant at Hopewood. He says she was severely injured on August 30.

"She was ran over by a cement truck on Ivy Circle," Collins said. "So yeah, she's pretty banged up and she's gonna have a long road ahead of her to recover from this. Eleven broken bones that we know of so far. And the one good thing the doctor said is there's no swelling on her brain or no real brain trauma.”

Despite Sharon Collins' dire situation, WHFD allegedly told her neighbor, Leroy Bellamy, to tell her son to move her out of Hopewood.

Collins said that really upset him. “She’s just an all-around good person, so for her to be in this position is really tough," he said. "And then for the apartment complex to tell Leroy that I needed to pack her stuff up, and I needed to get her stuff out, is not right."

He said he'd be happy to cover her rent, even at the higher amount, to avoid eviction — but they haven't talked to him directly about it.

"They don't need to evict my mom. That's not right," he said.

Thanks to Legal Aid, tenants at Hopewood know they have a legal case to stay in their apartments. WHFD has a tough legal battle ahead if it wants to secure evictions, as they’ll need to prove just cause. That’ll be difficult when tenants have leases in place for the rental rates they’ve been paying.

Still, these vulnerable renters may move out anyway. This hostile situation is stressful for them. And since these tenants all cope with mental illness, the stress can exacerbate symptoms.

Bellamy said he’s been losing sleep over it. "Right now I'm jittery," he said with a weary sigh. "I couldn't treat nobody like that, the way they treat people. But I’m just gonna try to get me some sleep or some rest and just try to calm down for a while.”

Bellamy said his lease goes through June of next year, but he’ll move out just as soon as he has another option. He says his mental health depends on it.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.