Tenant Emily Ward faces an uncertain future since her Portland apartment complex, The Woodwinds, was purchased last month by an out-of-state company. Her cost of living is likely to go up with her new lease, so, like many of her neighbors, she's started looking for another inexpensive place to live with her two children. Credit: Callie Ferguson

Annie Brown has not stopped looking for a new place to live since she found what was apparently a mistakenly sent eviction notice on her front door at the apartment complex where she lives in Portland. That’s because the single mother believes the new owner’s improvements to the property and changes to tenants’ leases will ultimately result in her having to leave.

In mid-October, at least 18 eviction notices appeared at apartments where tenants use public assistance to pay their rent, informing them to leave within about two months. It wasn’t until a reporter asked about the mass eviction earlier this week that the real estate investment company hired by the new owner, a corporation formed by members of a philanthropic Massachusetts family, said the letters had been sent in error.

The company issued a new round of letters Wednesday apologizing for the mistake and telling tenants that they did not actually need to depart by Dec. 31.

But the newest letters leave open the possibility that tenants using a Housing Choice Voucher, often referred to as Section 8, could still have to move if the terms of the new owner’s lease doesn’t fit the requirements of their public assistance program. Rent at the complex, known as the Woodwinds, is also likely to increase after the new owner addresses a series of code violations.

Credit: Callie Ferguson

The new leases could vary for “those with a Section 8 voucher, but if that Section 8 voucher can be used with the Owner’s standard form of lease, we are glad to work with tenants to put these new leases in place with this structure,” the Wednesday letter states.

The new property management team will reach out to tenants over the next few weeks, according to the letter signed by Bill Steinberg, director of acquisitions and asset management for Chestnut Realty Management LLC. The company manages the investment properties for members of the Davis family, who oversee the Irene E.&George A. Davis Foundation, a private charity in Springfield, Massachusetts.

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Landlords that accept Section 8 vouchers must attach an addendum to their leases requiring them to comply with rules of the program, such as property inspections. It is illegal to discriminate against a tenant because of their source of income, but Maine’s highest court has said that landlords can opt out of voucher programs if they decide the rules are an undue burden.

Because Brown, a waitress at DiMillo’s restaurant, does not know if her new lease will accommodate her voucher, she does not feel any more secure in her housing, and neither do many of her neighbors, she said.

Credit: Callie Ferguson

The new owner may have good intentions to improve the condition of the property, three single mothers who spoke to the Bangor Daily News said, but its bungled and ambiguous communication with residents has been unsettling for those who live on slender means. The mothers have been stewing over the future of the property for weeks now, and this new letter has only seemed to replace a hard deadline to leave with an ambiguous one, they said.

“If they are unwilling to agree to the tenancy addendum, they absolutely know it will be impossible for tenants to rent there using vouchers,” said Pine Tree Legal Assistance Attorney Katie McGovern. Brown and six other tenants contacted her after the original eviction letters were sent out Oct. 18.

It is difficult for tenants with low incomes to simply wait and see what comes next because it can take months to find a new apartment in Portland’s tight rental market. That’s why some tenants have continued to look for new places to live as if nothing has changed.

“I’m always having to juggle my situation to stay stable,” said tenant Serena McIntyre, a single mother of three who uses a voucher to help pay her rent. Looking for new housing is yet another thing to do, she said Thursday from the aisle of a food pantry, where she was picking up groceries because she lost all of the food in her refrigerator after her power was cut off. She had not paid her bill on time, she said.

The sense of insecurity is also affecting tenants such as Emily Ward, who does not use a voucher to pay her rent but fears that the planned renovations to the property will increase the cost of living at her three-bedroom apartment beyond what she can afford.

Ward makes $50,000 a year working for a health insurance company, and half of her monthly paycheck goes to rent since her boyfriend moved out over the summer. That leaves $1,550 for the rest of the month, which is not much to support herself and two kids, she said.

Last week, the local property management company, CRM Apartments, showed her a new lease. It will no longer cover her heat and hot water, she said, which could put her over the edge financially.

Steinberg, with Chestnut Realty Management, did not provide a copy of the owner’s standard lease at the BDN’s request. He was not able to make general statements about how rent could change at the property because it will be influenced by the cost of the renovations and tenants’ individual leases. Worried tenants should talk to the local property management company about their specific situations, he said.

For tenants like Ward and Brown, those face-to-face conversations have not always clarified their concerns, they said. Last week, Brown said she broke down in tears in front of one of the leasing managers, who did not have answers for her about whether the new owner would accept her voucher.

And after what the last few weeks have put them through, “I just don’t trust them,” she said. “If [the eviction notice] was an error, I’m not sure how it wasn’t caught after 2½ weeks.”

Credit: Callie Ferguson

McGovern, with Pine Tree Legal, noted that local property management company CRM Apartments is owned by the same company, Corridor Property Management, that has declined to accept vouchers in the past. Coach Lantern Apartments in Scarborough, which is owned by Corridor, was at the center of the lawsuit that prompted Maine’s highest court to establish the rule allowing landlords to decline participation in the voucher program.

Ward is devastated to say goodbye to her neighbors, particularly the other single mothers.

She has lived at the eight-building complex for seven years, and her 10-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son are friends with her neighbors’ children. Meanwhile, the moms lean on one another for support raising kids by themselves. Ward’s and Brown’s daughters attend the same dance lessons. On Thursday, Brown offered to pick the girls up from their class because Ward was still at work. Ward’s daughter has been crying over the planned move.

Now, the neighbors feel pitted against one another as they search for a new place to live. They are all looking for apartments large enough for their families and close to their kids’ schools.

But even though they awkwardly joke about competing for homes, they are still helping one another. On Brown and Ward’s group text thread, the moms send each other advertisements for the few available, and affordable, apartments around town.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.