(Sept. 6, 2019) Tenants of Pleasant Manor in Snow Hill have written a letter to the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and to the Community Development Administration (CDA), alleging that the new owners and property manager have been mistreating them and failing to communicate properly with them for the past three months.
“In submitting this letter to you, the tenant council is requesting that your agency take action to stop illegal rent increases, to compel the owner to comply with existing leases … and to require the owner to develop and implement a plan to address the unsafe conditions that threaten the tenants’ health, life, and safety,” the letter to state Housing Secretary Kenneth Holt said.
Three months ago, the Severn Companies, a parent company of Pleasant Manor Acquisition LLC, bought the property from its former owner, Snow Hill School Limited Partnership.
On July 7, residents found memorandums posted on their doors stating their rent would increase from $338 to $450 effective Aug. 1. In addition, the new owners implemented an all-encompassing pet ban.
Several of the residents make roughly $750 a month, relying on Social Security and disability checks. Furthermore, many of the residents own pets, some of which are said to be service animals.
Following protests from the tenants, the pet ban was removed although the alternative was not well received.
The new policy required tenants to pay a pet deposit of $650 of which $200 was non-refundable.
On Aug. 23, several residents met with attorneys of Maryland Legal Aid — a private, non-profit law firm — to discuss their grievances and figure out a way to combat the policies.
Gregory Countess, director of advocacy for Housing and Community Economic Development, told the group that one option they could pursue was to write a letter to the DHCD and CDA, which the group ultimately chose to do.
The letter addresses three issues: The pet policy, the conditions of the property and the nature of the rent increase.
The letter contends that a blanket restriction on pets, without reasonable accommodations for emotional support and service animals, is a violation of federal law.
Under the Fair Housing Act, legitimate service animals are legally considered tools, not pets, and are not subject to pet deposits, pet rents or pet bans, and owners do not have to provide documentation or proof that an animal is certified, according to the American Disability Association.
Another area of complaint was the living conditions at Pleasant Manor, which the letter described as hazardous.
“The roof is in need of repair or replacement. There are leaks in numerous apartments, causing holes in ceilings, moisture and mold,” the letter says.
The letter goes on, detailing pipe leaks, rodent issues and holes in the floor.
“There are holes in the floor in common areas of the building that management simply covered using pieces of plyboard screwed on to the floor,” the letter says. “The plyboard makes the floor uneven and dangerous to the elderly and disabled residents.”
According to the letter, one resident claimed that her air conditioning broke during days where the temperature was above 90 degrees. The resident had to use a donated window unit while waiting for management to fix the issue.
“Management prioritized the construction of a new office equipped with air condition for the property manager without addressing the elderly tenants’ living conditions,” the letter says.
Perhaps the most important issue addressed in the letter was the rent increase.
“The apartments were subsidized with state funds and favorable lease terms by the town,” the letter says.
The subsidies were for the purpose of providing 31 housing units to elderly tenants whose gross annual incomes did not exceed either 30 percent or 60 percent of the area median income.
In 2009, the state apparently approved a refinance of the debt and additional subsidy, as well as modifications to the income restrictions.
The modifications allowed the owner to charge rent affordable to those at 50 percent of the area median income for all units in the property.
However, the owner was to preserve the rent of those living at the 30 percent median income margin.
Under the Assignment Assumption Agreement and the Modification to Maryland Affordable Housing Trust Grant Agreement for Capital Project and Deed of Trust:
“…this Amendment shall have prospective effect only, and that no current tenant at the property shall be removed or displaced from a unit … have their lease … terminated or not be renewed, or have their rent increased, on the basis of any revision of income restrictions of this agreement,
“To the extent that a unit … is occupied by a household whose income is 30 percent or less of area median income, such unit shall be restricted by the income level of the tenant until the tenant voluntarily terminates the tenancy, or the tenancy is terminated in accordance with the terms of the tenant’s lease.”
In addition, because Pleasant Manor is subsidized, the new owners were required to request permission from the state to raise the rent.
“Neither the owner nor management has indicated that these rent increases have been approved by the state,” the letter says. “If these increases have not been requested or approved, then the owner is in violation of the 5th Amendment of the Regulatory Agreement … and the 3rd Amendment to the Agreement and Declaration of Covenants.”
If the request had been made or approved, the letter says it was a step back from the state’s plan to address the lack of affordable housing.
The Severn Companies’ President Arthur “Jib” W. Edwards, Jr., said that he had no comment as of Sept. 4, but would address the issues presented in the letter soon.