Yolanda Smith was pleased to see new management make improvements to Forest Hills Apartments after she moved into the Garner complex about a year ago.
Before she got there, the complex had drawn complaints from residents about mold, broken air conditioners and electrical outlets, old fire extinguishers and slow response times from the previous management group.
“It’s not all bad,” Smith said. “It’s not all that stuff I was told it was when I moved there. We got a new site manager, and it got better as far as our maintenance.”
The 136-unit complex on Seventh Avenue, which includes 96 units for people who receive federal housing subsidies, came under new ownership in February. Letters sent out March 15 have left Smith and other Forest Hills residents with plenty of questions about their future living arrangements.
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The mailer announced plans to renovate the 35-year-old apartments and told residents they would be notified of a date by which they would need to vacate their apartments. It also indicated the new owner, Eller Capital Partners, would no longer accept housing-assistance payments, meaning residents who rely on subsidies will have to pay the full rent going forward.
A second version of the notice informed tenants their leases will end April 30 and they must vacate by that date or face eviction.
“Basically, what we’re looking at here is going to a homeless shelter or piling up in someone’s house who can’t afford for us to be there,” Smith said. “That’s not right for us. All we want is to be treated fair.”
Eller Residential Living, Eller’s management arm, said in a statement it “understands that there are many long-term residents of Forest Hills, including some who depend on housing assistance programs.”
The statement continues: “Although Eller Residential Living does not participate in housing-assistance programs, the company is doing everything that it can to help its residents find alternative housing prior to the start of the project.”
The statement does not say what specific steps the company is taking.
Smith and about 35 other Forest Hills residents pleaded for help and apparently gained some support from Wake County commissioners on Monday. Residents also asked for the support of the Garner Town Council during its meeting Tuesday night.
In Raleigh, civil rights activist Octavia Rainey asked the county board to set up a fund to help residents with rental deposits, first-month’s rent and moving costs.
“What we have here is a crisis,” Rainey said. “It was done deliberately. It shouldn’t have happened this way. … There was no human integrity in how they did this.”
Rainey said those affected included children and people with disabilities. Some residents, she said, receive housing-assistance vouchers, which will follow them to their next apartment or house. But in other Forest Hills cases, she said, the subsidy is tied to the apartment, not the resident.
“They only have 45 days,” Rainey said. “What is so sad about this is you have some who have vouchers, and then you have some who live where the units have subsidies on them. The ones that have the subsidies on them, I will pray for them. Where are they going?”
It appears the company is within its rights. A program administered by the N.C. Housing Finance Agency had required the previous Forest Hills owner to maintain a percentage of low-income apartments in exchange for tax credits. But that requirement ended when the property went into foreclosure in 2015.
Time a factor
While Smith has the voucher, Ashley Stokes does not.
Stokes works full time at Heather Park Child Development Center and enjoys a subsidy that ensures the most she pays in rent is 30 percent of her income.
She’s lived in Forest Hills for 11 years, since she was 19, but must now decide whether to wait for more affordable housing to open in Wake County or move with her two children to an available apartment.
“The shortest waiting list I found so far is six months, but everything else is a year,” Stokes said. “(The notice) doesn’t give you enough time to save up for the security deposit and first-month’s rent if you do find somewhere else. Forty-five days doesn’t give you enough time to do anything else.”
The county board staff took the names and contact information for all residences who appeared at Monday’s meeting.
Commissioner Jessica Holmes, who created Wake’s affordable housing task force, said it is within the county’s ability to help the affected residents. “I’d like to see some type of rental assistance and the individuals be prioritized, considering their timeline,” Holmes said.