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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012 06:55 am

Are Nehemiah Homes public or private?

Tenant questions management practices, fights eviction

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Nehemiah Homes feature more than 70 single-family houses on Springfield’s east side.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Aretha Thompson of Springfield said she and her two children were blessed to move into a house in the Nehemiah Homes neighborhood in March 2010. The subsidized housing development was a welcome change from the uncertainties of living at Sojourn Shelter, a Springfield shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“They were so happy when we were able to leave the shelter after living there for two months,” Thompson said of her children.

But uncertainty looms once more for Thompson, who is facing eviction after paying her rent late at Nehemiah Homes several times. Thompson alleges there is more to her eviction than late rent, however. She believes her eviction is retaliation for questioning management practices she believes to be illegal. The case raises questions about whether Nehemiah Homes is a public or private housing development.

Nehemiah Homes opened in 2008 as a joint project between the City of Springfield, a handful of development companies and several Springfield churches, led by Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, 2208 East Kansas St. The two-phase affordable housing development features more than 70 single-family homes reserved for low-income families. Tenants must earn at or below 60 percent of the area’s median income, which comes to just under $40,000 for a family of four, according to information from the Illinois Housing Council, a private-public advocacy group not affiliated with Nehemiah Homes.

Thompson said she eagerly paid her rent on time for the first few months she lived at Nehemiah Homes, but financial difficulties over the summer caused her to pay her rent late each month since July. She says she always paid in full within 30 days despite paying late.

On Dec. 7, after Thompson missed her December rent due date, she received a five-day notice from Urban Property Advisors, which manages Nehemiah Homes. The state-mandated notice informs tenants they have five days to pay overdue rent or face eviction. Thompson says she tried to pay her rent on Dec. 16 – four days after the end of the five-day notice period – but she was turned away.

Polly Gauwitz, manager for Urban Property Advisors, said she could not comment because of the ongoing legal action concerning Thompson’s pending eviction.

Thompson said she is being evicted because she publicly questioned UPA’s practices of requiring automatic check withdrawal on new leases and charging late fees for overdue rent. Thompson contends Nehemiah Homes is a public housing authority because it accepts government money, so the development must follow federal guidelines that she says prohibit mandatory automatic checking withdrawal and charging late fees for overdue rent.

Stephanie Brown, Thompson’s sister, also lives at Nehemiah Homes. Brown said UPA required her to sign up for automatic checking withdrawal when she renewed her lease.

“They wouldn’t renew my lease unless I agreed,” she said. “It doesn’t say that in the lease. I’ve never heard of it before. I’ve never known that to be a requirement.”

Thompson said Brown has been up to 90 days late with rent and hasn’t faced eviction.

“How are you going to give someone else 90 days to pay but only give me a few days?” Thompson said.

Attorney Brian Dees of Springfield, who represents Thompson in her eviction case, says Thompson may have been entitled to a 14-day notice of eviction under Illinois law if Nehemiah Homes is a public housing authority.

“We’re trying to find the technical definition of whether it’s public housing or not,” Dees said.

Attorney Michael Durr of Springfield, who represents UPA in Thompson’s eviction case, said he couldn’t comment on the ongoing litigation. He did provide Illinois Times with the federal regulations governing public housing authorities, which he also provided to the judge in Thompson’s eviction case. The definition of a public housing authority includes “any state, county, municipality, or other governmental entity or public body, or agency or instrumentality of these entities, that is authorized to engage or assist in the development or operation of low-income housing….”

Though Thompson’s eviction case doesn’t address mandatory automatic checking withdrawal or late fees, establishing whether Nehemiah Homes is public or private could simultaneously solve the dispute over those issues.

“There’s all these rules,” Dees said. “Whether they apply or not is the issue. If they do, she was right to raise these questions.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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