Residents of the Lexington Heights, Highland Park, Hidden Pines and Rosemary Place neighborhoods issued a list of six demands to their landlord and property management company at a press conference in Lexington Heights on Wednesday. These demands included new leases for all tenants at reduced rent.
Dozens of Athens residents in these neighborhoods are facing displacement after Prosperity Capital Partners bought their homes in June and greatly increased their rent, in some cases by 40% or more. The new management company, Strategic Management Partners (SMP), additionally does not accept the Section 8 vouchers which many residents had relied on for housing.
Tenants unable to pay the rent increases were given 60 days to vacate their homes, which is the minimum amount of notice required by Georgia law before a month-to-month lease can be terminated.
Tenants scheduled the press conference on the day many of them were told to vacate their homes. The conference resembled a protest with tenants and supportive community members holding signs saying “housing is a human right” and “slumlords out of our city.” At the same time in a nearby home across the street, the management company was negotiating with some Lexington Heights tenants, but they refused to do so with the group as a whole. About twenty residents and community members attended the press conference.
The tenants’ demands
Juana Hulin, who has lived in Highland Park with her three daughters for the past five years, read the tenants’ six demands aloud to the assembly. These tenants want Prosperity Capital and Strategic Management Partners to:
- Provide new leases to all tenants with reduced rent and to accept Section 8 and other subsidized housing vouchers.
- Delay rent increases until all renovations and maintenance necessary for the tenants’ health and safety have been addressed.
- Cap the amount of future rent increases to a maximum of 10% per year.
- Remove the surcharge for online payments and allow other payment options including cash and check.
- Provide necessary maintenance and access to all services and amenities including trash pickup.
- Provide relocation assistance, such as money for security deposits and the time to find desired housing, to anyone who wants to move.
At the time of publication, Strategic Management Partners had not responded to these demands.
Hulin also explained her situation, saying that the monthly rent for her three-bedroom home in Highland Park is increasing from $825 to $1,700 starting this month. Unfortunately, the stress of dealing with this situation has affected her and her daughters’ mental health.
“I have children that are going through a mental health crisis right now,” Hulin said. “This has been an undue burden on me and my family. If me and my three girls don’t come up with the $1,700, we will be homeless. I haven’t been able to sleep. This has been a burden on my heart to carry every single day.”
Management negotiates with some tenants but not others
As stated above, Strategic Management Partners was negotiating with some Section 8 tenants in a nearby home as the press conference was held.
Andrew Saunders, the interim director of ACC Housing and Community Development, was present for these negotiations. He told APN that, as a result of the meeting, two Section 8 tenants have secured a 30-day eviction grace period. Furthermore, a landlord who owns another neighborhood in Athens was also present at the meeting and has volunteered to accept the two tenants into available vacant units, according to Saunders.
Before they could move in, federal law specifies that the units must be inspected if their rent is to be paid using Section 8 vouchers. Saunders says he will contact the Georgia Department of Community Affairs in order to hopefully speed up the inspection process so that the tenants can move in before their grace period expires.
This means that at least two tenants in the affected neighborhoods should be able to avoid the specter of homelessness for the time being. But Saunders stresses that this doesn’t mean that Athens’ problem of outside investors buying up low-income properties has been solved. In fact, it’s been an ongoing issue for some time and will continue without further government action.
“This situation has occurred for a long time in our community,” Saunders told APN. “If there is any benefit for what is happening right now, it is that it has cast a spotlight on this practice.”
Saunders says that the ACC Department of Housing and Community Development is “actively investigating and implementing programs and policies to help address the immediate and long term needs of our community,” but he adds that they can’t solve the problem alone.
Regardless of what the local government ends up doing, no potential policy could be implemented quickly enough to help some tenants, including Barbara Daniel. On Wednesday, Daniel moved out of her home in Lexington Heights, where she has lived for over 20 years. She also attended that day’s press conference to tell her story.
She told APN that when Strategic Management Partners negotiates with some tenants and gives them extra time but not everyone, that she feels discriminated against.
“They gave my neighbor another 30 days,” Daniel said. But [the negotiations] should have been a week or two before we had to move. Why did they have the meeting the day we were supposed to be out?”
Daniel tried to attend the negotiations with management herself, but she says she was booted from the meeting because she brought along her lawyer, Sarah Gehring.
“This was nasty and embarrassing. I have a right to have a lawyer,” Daniel said. “If you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have been able to say it in front of her. To me, you have something to hide. I’m going to keep on fighting.”
APN will continue covering this ongoing story as more information becomes available.
Diana Lopez Garcia contributed to this report.
Former maintenance worker accuses SMP management of exploitation
It’s not just tenants who are unhappy with the Strategic Management Partners, the new management company for several neighborhoods in Athens, including Lexington Heights and Hidden Pines. One maintenance professional, who worked for the company up until recently, spoke to APN on the condition of anonymity.
When SMP took over, this maintenance worker told APN “the working conditions went from tolerable to intolerable. They thought because they paid a paycheck, that any demand they made was reasonable. I disagreed, so I put in my notice and quit.”
After SMP took over from Fillmore Management, this worker says that he was required to lift extremely heavy loads all day in the summer heat, and that overtime was frequently required but was not scheduled in advance. “When you go to work and overtime is not scheduled, I don’t think it’s right that at the end of the day they ask you to work five hours overtime. They didn’t even ask us. They told us we had to.”
He says that demands for overtime increased as more workers quit, but that it began on the very first day.
“The first day SMP took over, one of the bosses told us we had to put a letter in every tenant’s door,” which required overtime. He said that SMP was not honest about how long this request would take. “They walked in the door lying to us! Why tell someone they will get off at five when there’s no possible way. Why would you do that?”
At the time of publication, Strategic Management Partners had not responded to APN’s request for a comment on this situation or on the tenants’ demands described above.