Eviction Notices In Creighton Court Met With Confusion, Frustration
When 52 eviction cases from a single public housing community in Richmond were heard in a courtroom last month, it set off alarm bells. Many of those residents are now getting help from the city’s new eviction diversion program, but questions remain about how they got to this position in the first place.
VPM received an email from a Creighton resident named Gwendolyn Harris who said she was concerned about the number of her neighbors who had recently been evicted.
Harris, a senior citizen, had gotten late rent notices dating all the way back to January even though she said she pays her rent in full and on time. She sorted through the pile of paperwork back in September as we talked about her situation.
Harris said she and many of her neighbors fear that they’re being pushed out of the public housing complex prematurely, as the housing authority moves to demolish and redevelop Creighton Court.
Damon Duncan, CEO of Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, said in a statement that there is no correlation between recent evictions and the redevelopment.
But Harris said something changed in the last year.
“It’s like, they are going back and finding anything to put on your rent that they can charge you with,” she said. “That way you’re rent gonna always be late and they gonna put you out.”
Electricity bills went up after the Housing Authority started installing new baseboard heating in January 2018. This followed growing complaints that residents were living without heat in the winter. Harris and other residents said they started noticing maintenance fees and other miscellaneous charges on their accounts that weren’t there before.
The rental lease says RRHA has the right to deduct any balances residents have from their monthly rent payment. And Harris said she thinks that’s what’s causing residents to come up short.
“This is what’s going on with everybody,” Harris said.
RRHA tenants are given an allowance for electricity. If they exceed their allowance, they’re responsible for paying the overage. Harris paid nothing, or next to nothing, for electricity prior to this shift. But after January of this year, she’s been charged upwards of $130 a month.
“If you are on a fixed income, you can’t budget for an unexpected expense like that,” she said.
In October, several residents at Creighton Court spoke of the unexpectedly high utility bills and fees.
Fay Fellows said she was also paying her rent on time and was baffled by the eviction notice. The housing authority took her court last month for $542.
“These are late fees they said. I don’t have that many late fees,” Fellows said. “Because if I pay you on the 3rd, your data entry people outa be able to process it in five days.”
At RRHA properties, rent is due on the 1st of the month and residents have until the 8th to pay.
Fellows said she keeps good records of her bills and what she’s spent.
But housing authority officials and representatives deny that confusion, accounting errors, or unexpected fees are the root of the problem. They say it’s a lack of personal responsibility.
VPM reached out to members of the housing authority’s Board of Commissioners as well as CEO Damon Duncan several times for comment on these issues but was not granted an interview.
However an informal meeting at the Creighton Rec Center in late October provided some indication of the administration’s view of the issue. Marilyn Olds, a lifelong Creighton resident and president of the tenant council led a meeting with residents to talk about the recent evictions.
“Nobody is going to tell you what you owe,” Olds told residents. “Calculate it for yourself. If you don’t, get somebody to do it for you.”
Olds was joined by local religious leaders and Veronica Blount, chair of RRHA Board of Commissioners,.
They offered residents words of encouragement, telling them they were loved and important.
But Olds also scolded residents for being irresponsible with money and intentionally shirking their responsibility to pay rent.
When residents started asking questions, they were quickly shut down.
One man who had recently been evicted from Creighton and said he’s now homeless stood up and asked about the high electricity bills. Olds said she understood the light bill was getting high but the meeting wasn’t the time to discuss it.
“I’m not gonna do that,” Olds said. “We can take this meeting out of context if we want to. But we’re better than that.”
A second person asked about the electricity bill and was also shot down.
But the questions kept coming.
Of the 52 residents who were in eviction court two weeks ago, the judge told more than half that the housing authority could carry out their eviction. RRHA also claimed residents owed more than what the judge ordered them to pay. In one case, the court ordered a resident to pay $279. But after the hearing, RRHA told him he actually owed almost $2000.
A resident asked Olds why this was happening.
“The Housing Authority knows the real deal,” Olds said. “They know what you owe. And they have a right to collect every dime of that rent that you owe.”
Neither Olds nor the chair of the Board of Commissioners offered a clear answer.
And this question has legal aid attorneys scrambling.
“It’s strange,” said Steve Fischbach, director of litigation for the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
“A court says you owe this amount. You would think that’s the amount that needs to be paid back. But apparently residents are being told they owe different amounts.”
Fischbach said it might be related to the unexpected charges residents said they were seeing on their accounts.
“Until we actually see people’s ledgers, we’re just guessing,” he said.
Fischbach attended a second meeting RRHA convened two days after the meeting Olds led to get some residents signed up for the city’s new eviction diversion program.
The housing authority decided to partner with the city on the program after news broke of the 52 eviction cases heard in Richmond General District Court.
Fishcbach said he’d hoped to get more information from residents that night but legal aid attorneys and advocates were asked to leave the meeting. They were told they were interfering with efforts to sign residents up for the program.
As for Gwendolyn Harris, she’s still got a pile of late rent notices and no answers to her questions. After living in Creighton Court for 15 years, she said her trust that RRHA is looking out for her, is all but faded.
“The more people you get rid of, that’s less people that you have to find placement for,” she said. “That’s less money that you have to put out.”
And if more people have tarnished housing records, Harris said that’s fewer people who will be invited to come back and live in the shiny new mixed-income community that will replace Creighton Court.
Yasmine Jumaa contributed to this report.