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On the verge of eviction, Lincoln residents hope apartment complex gets new owners

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On a recent chilly Thursday evening, about 15 residents of Lincoln Apartments sat in folding chairs and met in a parking lot outside their housing complex. Rap music thumped from a nearby apartment; kids rode their bicycles down the street. People in upstairs apartments were cooking dinner.

With less than a week left before they were to leave their homes, only one of the residents at the tenants' meeting said she had found a new place to live—a tiny one-bedroom for $400 a month. Some lamented the rents at prospective apartments are too high, as much as $600. Other residents feared they couldn't pass a credit check. Another said that when other property managers learned prospective tenants were from Lincoln Apartments, they didn't want to rent to them.

Today, Oct. 31, all Lincoln residents—families, children, the elderly and the disabled—are supposed to leave their homes. Yet more than 250 people by the tenants' count are still without a place to live and will likely remain in Lincoln Apartments past the deadline.

Southern Real Estate Management, which oversees the complex for the owners, the Lincoln Hospital Foundation, notified residents by letter on Sept. 29 that they must leave the premises. The Foundation says it can no longer afford to keep the complex open because the monthly rents, which range from $350–$500, aren't covering maintenance and utilities expenses.

The water and sewer bill alone totals more than $21,000. The city has agreed to temporarily maintain those services and to pick up the trash, said Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell.

Howard Williams, president of Southern Real Estate Management & Consultants, told Indy Week on Tuesday that the residents are still expected to leave today. Attorneys will begin the legal process to evict any remaining tenants, although the appeals process could take a month or six weeks.

Lincoln residents are among the poorest of the poor—many earn less than $15,000 a year—and would typically qualify for public housing. However, there is no room in public housing; nor are there any Section 8 vouchers available.

So residents are trying to use what power they have to stay in the only homes they can afford.

They started by asking for copies of inspection reports of Lincoln from Neighborhood Improvement Services (NIS), which conducted random inspections of some of the apartments in August and September. These reports are important to the residents because they reveal the extent of the buildings' problems.

It could cost an estimated $2 million to completely renovate the complex, but residents themselves want to try to fix up as many apartments as possible, while enlisting churches and volunteer groups to help. By taking the initiative, they hope someone will buy the property and allow them to live there.

"Management says there are so many problems, they can't fix them," resident Bernadette Currie told NIS Assistant Director and Housing Code Administrator Rick Hester at a meeting earlier this week. "The tenants need to know what's going on."

"This is serious," said Kaye Schelle Lee, who pays $360 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. "We don't have anywhere to go. We want to know what's really going on. If the apartments are so bad, tell us what's wrong. Be honest with us. What did they find?"

Residents say they had previously requested the inspection reports from NIS Director Constance Stancil but say they did not receive a response or the files. So Monday morning, six residents, three community organizers and the Indy Week, which had been invited to the meeting by residents, arrived at NIS. Residents asked to meet with Hester, who brought them into a conference room, where a heated, albeit nonviolent, discussion occurred.

"We're entitled to the reports," Currie told Hester. "This is public information."

"We're not giving out the information," Hester replied, adding he was unsure it was public. "You need to call the city attorney."

After about 20 minutes, an NIS employee asked the residents, organizers and the media to leave the room to accommodate an upcoming meeting. When they did so, seven policemen were waiting for them in the lobby and a hallway.

Officers told the group they were responding to a "dispute." A person in the NIS office, having overheard the conversation, had called police. Hester later told the Indy, the employee "panicked." No one was arrested and the group left NIS offices peacefully.

The Indy had requested the reports in mid-October. After consultation with a city attorney, NIS made them available on Tuesday.

According to the reports, conditions in about 40 randomly selected apartments and common areas merited code violations: Portions of ceilings are missing, floorboards are rotting, toilets continuously run, sewage has "dirty and possibly sewer water" coming up from the drain. Roaches are rampant. Other apartments are boarded up and condemned and missing electric meters and locks.

But other apartments are in better, even good, condition because the tenants took the initiative to fix them up.

If more units are brought up to code, residents hope a new owner will take over. City officials have said that prospective owners have visited the complex. However, without subsidies, housing advocates say it would be difficult for property owners to charge rents as low as $350 and still cover expenses such as taxes, maintenance and insurance. The rents would likely increase, pricing out the tenants.

As for public housing, the Foundation offered to sell the property to the Durham Housing Authority for $10, but DHA turned it down, citing the expense of the renovations, which would include removing potential hazardous materials such as lead-based paint. (There are federal grants to help pay for cleaning up lead paint contamination.) If DHA did buy Lincoln, some tenants could be required to leave if they could not meet eligibility requirements for public housing, such as passing a criminal background check.

"We're trying to be as helpful as we can," said DHA Chief Executive Officer Dallas Parks. "But we're not funded for an emergency situation."

If the buildings don't sell quickly and all the tenants are evicted, Neighborhood Improvement Services would board up all the apartments, regularly cut the grass and check on the property to ensure no one was living there illegally. The cost of that upkeep could be at least $13,000 Hester said. The city would place a lien on the property, which would require a new owner to pay the debt before buying it.

One evening shortly before the eviction, Ta'Shawn Henderson was fixing a chicken dinner for herself and her 2-year-old son. Henderson, who has lived at Lincoln almost three years, works full-time at Panera Bread, where she earns $8 an hour. She doesn't own a car, and she takes two buses to the other side of town for work.

She consulted the list of apartments provided by Durham County Social Services but all the units were out of her price range. She found a two-bedroom for $570, "but after I paid the rent and the light bill, I'd have about two dollars left," she says. "I need somewhere to go. If we could be out, we wouldn't be here in the first place."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Time's up."

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