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    Housing Solutions Lab
    Friday, April 19, 2024
     

    A day in eviction court

     
     
    Rosa Acevedo bows her head while waiting in the courtroom Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, for eviction court to begin in New London Superior Court. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Map: Scott Ritter/The Day | Data: Connecticut Superior Court; University of Connecticut; OpenStreetMap Contributors; CartoDB
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    Landlord’s attorney Yona Gregory, right, confers with her client, Arthur Brown, left, about the case of tenant Rosa Acevedo, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, in New London Superior Court. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Superior CourtJudge Francis Foley listens during an eviction case Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, in New London Superior Court. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Rosa Acevedo of New London speaks during an eviction hearing Friday, Nov. 18, 2022 in New London Superior Court. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Editor’s Note: This story was reported by students in the University of Connecticut’s investigative journalism class, led by Professor Mike Stanton, a former veteran Providence Journal reporter, and by Day Staff Writer Greg Smith. The student journalists are: Wyatt Cote, Faith Greenberg, Hudson Kamphausen, Jake Kelly and Meredith Veilleux.

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    NEW LONDON – Rosa Acevedo sits in an empty courtroom, tears rolling down her cheeks, holding onto a document-stuffed notebook and fading hopes.

    The documents chronicle a months-long struggle to remain in her first-floor apartment in New London, one of more than 1,600 cases that played out in New London County last year.

    Time is running out for 48-year-old Acevedo. Weeks earlier, she had lost her 44-year-old husband, Yasha Esteriany, to Lou Gehrig’s disease. On top of that, she had recently begun caring for her two young grandchildren, ages 2 and 3.

    Today she is by herself, battling a legal system that she doesn’t really understand. She has no lawyer. Bowing her head, she whispers a silent prayer.

    “I always come by myself and God,” she says.

    But Acevedo is not alone. If you want to bear witness to the eviction crisis in southeastern Connecticut, spend a morning in New London housing court on Huntington Street. Watch the grim parade of tenants and landlords that shuffles through the tiled hallways and into the courtroom or small mediation rooms. See the fear, uncertainty, anger and grief etched in their faces.

    “Almost nobody’s happy to be here,” says court mediator Mark Vanaman. “The unknown is probably the scariest part.”

    That goes for landlords, too, who have mortgages and other expenses that need to be met even if a tenant hasn’t paid the rent in months.

    Presiding over this harsh tableau is Judge Francis J. Foley III, who says he struggles to balance justice and mercy in a system that doesn’t offer him much latitude.

    “Time is the currency of this court ― more important than money,” he says. “When the tenant is thousands of dollars behind, the landlord knows they’re not going to see the money ― it’s all about vacating.”

    Unable to find somewhere else to live, tenants fight for extra days or weeks or months like breadcrumbs.

    “There’s no affordable housing – there’s no housing,” says Foley. “It’s an impossible scenario.”

    Two dozen cases are on the docket on this Friday, Nov. 18, one week before Thanksgiving. They include:

    • Acevedo, making a last-ditch plea to remain in her apartment.
    • A landlord who says she has lost more than $100,000 and largely given up since the COVID-19 pandemic, selling most of her rental properties.
    • A single mother who had moved to New London from New York seeking a better home for her daughter.
    • A retiree and former volunteer ambulance driver from Old Lyme who says he’ll have to live in his truck if forced out of the house he's renting in the town he’s lived his whole life.
    • A married couple who work as stagehands and found themselves trapped by the pandemic in a summer cottage that is uninhabitable, especially in winter –no heat, mold, a broken refrigerator. But they have nowhere else to go.
    • A restaurant manager who has to learn quickly how to navigate the system after discovering his roommate took his rent money and then moved out abruptly, without paying the landlord.

    According to court data obtained from the State of Connecticut and analyzed by journalism students at the University of Connecticut, eviction cases in New London County in 2022 soared to the highest level in the past six years, including the three years before the pandemic.

    Financial hardships exacerbated by the pandemic and a severe housing shortage led to more than 1,600 facing eviction last year, the third-highest rate in Connecticut.

    Most of those cases were in the cities of New London and Norwich. Groton, where new hiring by Electric Boat has added to a stronger demand for apartments, ranked third.

    Most of the cases ended with the tenant being evicted for non-payment of rent. And most of those forced out were minorities and single women, according to the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

    One sliver of hope comes from a new Connecticut Right to Counsel program that last spring began providing tenants with legal assistance. Tenants who obtain legal help stand a much better chance of remaining in their apartment, studies and legal advocates say. But a shortage of lawyers has slowed the program’s rollout to a dozen or so Connecticut ZIP codes with the highest eviction rates, including 06320 in New London.

    Legal “Hail Mary”

    The eviction of Rose Acevedo officially began on Feb. 24, 2022, when her landlord served her with a “notice to quit possession” by the next week. The notice came after she had stopped paying her $1,200-a-month rent the previous Dec. 1.

    Since 2017, Acevedo and her husband, who had been together for more than 20 years, had lived in Apartment 1 in the tidy, white triple-decker at 17 Grand St. The year they moved in, she says, her husband Yasha was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

    As Yasha’s health deteriorated, he was forced to stop working. In 2020, the year the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he became bedridden; Acevedo cared for him in their three-bedroom apartment, which they shared with their adult son. Money grew tighter. They scraped by on her Social Security disability payments. In 2021, Acevedo was able to take advantage of a pandemic-related state rental assistance program, UniteCT, which paid her landlord $7,800. But then the money ran out.

    When Acevedo failed to move out by March 1, 2022, her landlord filed an eviction complaint with the court on March 4. Four days later, in a handwritten response, Acevedo argued that she should not be evicted because “my husband is dying of ALS” and she also had just taken emergency custody of her then 1- and 2-year-old grandchildren because her troubled daughter was unable to take care of them.

    Over the next four months, the case went back and forth with extensions and meetings with court mediators. In July, the landlord agreed to let Acevedo stay through January 2023, provided she resume her rent payments in August and pay an extra $375 a month towards back rent, for a total of $1,575 a month. She also agreed to pay $2,400 in back rent by the end of July.

    But Acevedo says she couldn’t afford to pay – and by August her landlord returned to court to ask Judge Foley to issue an “execution for possession” – in effect authorizing a state marshal to forcibly remove her family and possessions.

    At that point, Acevedo filed a motion for audita querela, the legal version of a Hail Mary pass that is common in evictions cases. Rooted in English common law, audita querela is, according to Connecticut case law, “a limited and extraordinary legal remedy” to reverse a judgment already made against a tenant.

    “They throw themselves on the mercy of the court,” explains Judge Foley. “The most common case I’d get during the pandemic was a single mother with three children. The kids are staying home. School is remote, so the mother can’t work and falls behind on the rent . . .

    “By the time they get to us, they’ve exhausted whatever community benefits were available. These people are adrift, and I’m supposed to figure out what to do.”

    While the law is clearcut, Foley’s wiggle room comes in his ability to delay issuing the execution order that follows a judgment for eviction.

    “I give them some relief. But I’m limited in what I can do,” he says. “The landlord doesn’t want to hear about a stay for six months. I try to give them some measure of hope.”

    That’s what Foley does in Acevedo’s case. In her application for audita querela, she writes again that her husband is dying, she has custody of two young grandchildren and she has no place else to go.

    On Sept. 2, Foley issues an order giving Acevedo another 90 days – provided she pay $1,200 a month in rent for September, October and November. Noting that her income consists of $1,200 a month from Social Security and another $600 monthly she recently received from the state for the grandchildren, the judge writes that “there is no possible way” she could pay what she had previously agreed to. Essentially, Foley waives the back rent payments ― but he warns Acevedo she will face eviction before the 90 days if she doesn’t pay her rent.

    Foley acknowledges that this is “an untenable situation” for the landlord “who has been extremely patient ... However, the humanitarian needs of this family, at this time, are great.”

    But then Acevedo misses her Sept. 10 rent payment. Her landlord returns to court, and on Oct. 19, Judge Foley orders Acevedo’s eviction. She files another audita querela, this time writing that her husband died Oct. 1.

    And that’s what brings her to court on this Friday before Thanksgiving. As she waits to go before the judge, she sits with reporters. She said she hadn’t fully understood the letter from the court regarding how much time she had.

    “I swear, I misunderstood,” she said. “I thought I would be OK. Do you think I’m going to wait until the end to be in the street with (her grandchildren)?”

    Asked what she planned to do, Acevedo simply shook her head. Later, she sat on a wooden bench in the hallway. Her landlord, Arthur Brown, sat on another bench nearby. Acevedo walked over to him and asked, “What the hell did I do wrong? I know I sometimes pay late but I always pay. Why do you want me out so bad?”

    But Brown says, and Judge Foley agrees, that she had not paid rent in a long time. Standing before the judge, Acevedo says that she had misunderstood how much time she had.

    “My husband died, I’m a mess,” she says, holding her hand against her chest. “I have two grandchildren. If I knew I had to be out I would’ve been looking.”

    But this time, Foley sides with Brown, and denies Acevedo’s request.

    “Enforcement of the judgment may appear harsh but it is not inequitable or unlawful,” says Foley in his decision. “She has had nine months to get her affairs in order.”

    Brown and his wife bought the three-unit apartment house on Grand Street six years ago, hoping to make a little extra income. He said he has grown frustrated, stressed and baffled that the case has been allowed to drag on for so long.

    Acevedo’s eviction may seem heartless, he concedes, but he said he’d waived her rent on multiple occasions so that her family could have more money during the holidays.

    In court, Brown tells Judge Foley, “this relationship has always been a give and take ― I give and she takes.” Outside of the courtroom, Brown says he believes Acevedo is “playing the system” to stay, rent-free, for as long as possible.

    “I honestly think she is not going to leave until she is physically removed,” says Brown. “I’m the one paying the mortgage on the building. I’m paying for someone who does absolutely nothing to pay on their obligation.”

    Brown’s lawyer, Yona Gregory, is hustling about in the hallway, juggling several cases she has on the docket today. Gregory, whose self-named firm handles the most evictions cases in New London County, says that the toll these cases take on landlords is often overlooked.

    Gregory says that some cases are being decided “based on hardships” of the tenant with no regard for mom-and-pop landlords. Acevedo, argues Gregory, has been allowed “to stay in someone’s property for free for months and months . . . the court is not in a position, or shouldn’t be in a position, to just grant people time for free.”

    Right to counsel

    Nearby, another tenant, Ramon Colon, sits on a bench in the hallway awaiting a mediation with Gregory, who represents his landlord in another eviction case.

    Colon, 46, a host at the Olive Garden restaurant in Waterford, says that he and his girlfriend had rented a room for the last three years in a three-bedroom apartment at 28 Warren St. in New London. He paid $800 a month to his roommate, Daniel Lopez, the tenant on the lease.

    But in July, Lopez moved out suddenly, with no explanation. He promised to put Colon in touch with the landlord, but never did. Then one day, Colon came home to find an eviction notice tucked in his door.

    Many tenants, overwhelmed or unaware of how the system works, fail to respond or show up, and lose their case by default. But Colon came down to the courthouse and spoke with a clerk, who put him in touch with Connecticut Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to the poor.

    Connecticut Legal Services lawyers represent tenants under the state’s new Right to Counsel program. By law, every eviction filing contains a notification of the program and an 800 number to call for help. Even when lawyers don’t formally represent someone, the office can provide advice and information.

    That’s what they did for Colon. He tells Judge Foley that he spoke to Natalia Planell, one of two CLS lawyers in New London, and that he thought she would be here. Colon seems stunned to be standing before the judge.

    “I thought I would mediate,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going on. I was left holding the bag. I’m in limbo. I’m willing to pay the money ... I’m willing to try and work it out.”

    Foley tells him that it would be good to reach an agreement, so the landlord can withdraw the case.

    “Then you won’t have it on your record,” says Foley. “It’s such a penalty to have on your record.”

    The lawyers at CLS say they try to work with their client and their landlord to reach an arrangement that will keep an eviction case off their record ― such cases can make it harder for renters to find an apartment, especially in a competitive market.

    Gregory promises to reach out to CLS. While it turns out that Planell is not formally Colon’s lawyer, the advice he receives helps. He waits nervously in the hallway to mediate with Gregory and court mediator Diane Day. His shift at the Olive Garden is starting; someone is covering for him.

    Since the Right to Counsel program started, Day says, more tenants are showing up better informed. Day’s job as a mediator is to meet one-on-one, then together, with tenant and landlord, in an effort to facilitate an agreement. If the landlord is unwilling to let the tenant stay, Day discusses move-out dates, trying to broker a mutually beneficial agreement. But it’s not easy.

    “I try to defuse tense situations,” says Day. “I let people say what they need to say.”

    That morning, Day’s approach had meant letting a woman facing eviction vent to her loudly in the hallway about how she’d been living in her car.

    “There are a lot of hard situations,” says Day. “I hate mediating when there are kids involved. Christmas Eve. When landlords don’t want to make an arrangement on moving out, I appeal to their sympathies, try to push it to Jan. 1.”

    Colon’s case winds up with a rare happy ending. After sitting down with Gregory and Day, he agrees to pay $1,000 a month rent. He’s been texting updates to his girlfriend, a nurse. But not the final outcome.

    “I want to call and hear her voice when I give her the news,” he says, smiling. “It’s a win-win. I’m glad it’s out of the way. It was stressful – I couldn’t sleep.”

    Landlord-tenant tension

    During the height of COVID-19, mediator Mark Vanaman saw tensions between tenants and landlords escalate with the financial hardships caused by the pandemic.

    Government moratoriums designed to protect tenants slowed the process dramatically. Cases that could take six to eight weeks to resolve now stretched on for six to eight months.

    As the New London area emerged from the pandemic, rising rents and the growing affordable-housing crunch have generated new pressures.

    Vanaman’s job is like a marriage counselor’s. He talks to both sides, separately and together, to see if he can repair the relationship. If not, his job is to try to get the two sides to reach an amicable separation. The difficult negotiations often revolve around two points – how much missed rent can the tenant repay, and how long can they stay while searching for a new place. If Vanaman can’t broker an agreement, the case goes to the judge.

    “It’s tense because people don’t really know what the next step is,” says Vanaman. “The relationship has already broken down when they get here.”

    That’s the case when Vanaman greets landlord Elizabeth Sunshine and Samantha Mercado, the tenant she has been locked in a struggle with for more than a year.

    Mercado, a single mother, shows up with her 10-year-old daughter Solana. Early in 2020, Mercado moved into an apartment in a house Sunshine owns at 15 Rosemary St. in New London.

    They moved from New York to Connecticut after Solana’s father died. Mercado said that she was happy to have a place where her daughter could have her own bedroom and a yard to play in, and be close to her school. And because Mercado doesn’t drive, she needed a place in New London so she could easily get to her job at a local Volvo dealership.

    The month after Mercado moved in, the pandemic began. Along the way, Mercado says she lost her job and went several months without working. She stopped paying her $750-a-month rent.

    So Mercado and Sunshine turned to UniteCT, a pandemic program that provided rental assistance for the poor through direct payments to the landlord. The state paid Sunshine $7,500, covering the first 10 months of 2021. But then Mercado stopped paying again. After her third missed month, Sunshine began eviction proceedings in January 2022.

    Like many tenants, Mercado failed to appear, and the judge ruled against her. When she finally got wind of the judgment, Mercado went to court and pleaded for more time, saying she had applied for additional assistance from UniteCT.

    Sunshine’s lawyer, Yona Gregory, objected. She argued in April that UniteCT had already paid out the full benefit of $10,000; Mercado would only be eligible for two months of rental assistance, and now owed for six months. Mercado had not personally paid any rent for 16 months and had made no effort to do so, Gregory wrote.

    Judge Foley gave Mercado more time, the additional UniteCT payments were approved and, in July, Sunshine withdrew her complaint. But it wasn’t over. When the state funds ran out, Mercado again missed a rental payment, on Sept. 1, and Sunshine filed for eviction again.

    By the time Mercado and Sunshine arrive in court this November morning, things have grown acrimonious. Mercado complained that Sunshine tried to raise the rent, to $925 a month, and complained about problems with the apartment ― roaches, no heat, a leaking refrigerator. Sunshine countered that she fixed problems as they arose, but Mercado grew angry whenever she would try to come to the house for repairs, at one point calling the police.

    Sunshine said that she did raise the rent, which is still reasonable, because she was preparing to sell the house and the sale value is based on the amount of rental income. Dealing with non-paying tenants during the pandemic had exhausted her.

    Sunshine, 54, of Lyme, has been a landlord for 24 years, since her father helped her buy and fix up her first house. Before the pandemic, she owned 13 houses in and around New London, with a total of 47 apartments. She says she charged reasonable rents and had good relationships with most of her tenants.

    But after the pandemic hit, things changed. Half her tenants struggled to pay their full rent. About one-third stopped paying completely. She says she worked with UniteCT and other government programs, filing 34 applications for tenants. But she also found herself bringing more and more evictions cases; at one point, she had 13 cases pending.

    Meanwhile, without rental income, Sunshine was putting more and more of her own savings into keeping up with mortgage payments and other expenses - $100,000 in all. While tenants could get relief, landlords couldn’t; she recalls a lawyer who handled collections for the water department laughing in her face when she suggested he cut her a deal on his legal fees.

    Sitting on the steps inside the courthouse, waiting for a mediation with Mercado, Sunshine says that landlords can be unfairly cast as the villains.

    “Even if you need something, you can’t take it ― like a coat if you’re cold,” she says. “Yet if you take my product ― time, space ― and don’t pay, it’s not illegal. There are two sides to every story. If someone steals from you, you can be made whole. But my product is gone, used, consumed.

    “I’m sitting here wondering how much time the judge will give her ― two, three, four weeks? How would you like it if I told you that you could take my groceries for the next two, three, four weeks? I’m so done. This is not OK.”

    Recently, Sunshine sold 11 of her 13 houses. She says she heard from one longtime tenant who said the new landlord had doubled the rent ― she asked Sunshine for a reference as she searched for a cheaper apartment.

    The courthouse is nearly empty as mediator Mark Vanaman ushers the last two parties of the day, Sunshine and Mercado, into the tiny mediation room. Gregory, Sunshine’s lawyer, and Mercado’s daughter Solana join them.

    They hammer out an agreement ― Mercado can stay until the end of January, but must pay $750 a month for November, December and January.

    “I’m shaking ― I don’t like confrontation,” says Sunshine, leaving the courthouse. “I will get my property back in January.”

    A few minutes later, Mercado emerges. The mediation was tense, she says; Sunshine wouldn’t look at her, and at one point was so upset she walked out. Mercado praises the mediator.

    “Mark has been amazing. If it wasn’t for him, I would have had a panic attack,” she says. “I have anxiety and this hasn’t been helpful. It’s scary looking for a new place. We want to stay in New London because of Solana’s school and because I work and don’t drive or have a car.”

    Address unknown

    Three days after the hearing in Brown v. Acevedo, Judge Foley issues his decision. He denies Acevedo’s petition. The landlord could seek an execution for her removal on or after Dec. 2.

    A state marshal had already been notified to start the eviction process when Foley revised his ruling and granted Acevedo until after Christmas, to Dec. 31, to leave. But the judge rejected her request for another hearing and more time.

    “While this may seem harsh, Ms. Acevedo has had months to seek alternate quarters,” wrote Foley.

    Acevedo wound up staying past the New Year. But on Jan. 27, after some back and forth between Acevedo and state marshal Nicholas Poppiti, eviction day finally arrived. The marshal says that he showed up at 17 Grand St. that day with a moving company and helped move her possessions into a Waterford storage facility she had rented.

    Acevedo, he said, was on the phone with the court, in another apparent attempt to gain more time.

    The marshal said he doesn’t know where Acevedo has gone. She had spoken last November of possibly moving in with a relative. But she stopped returning calls to The Day.

    She left no forwarding address.

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