Eviction case highlights accessibility, repair issues at Nevin Plaza
on December 9, 2019
On March 10, 2019, Michael Lewis came home to a notice on his apartment door telling him to vacate the unit where he’d lived for three years at Richmond’s Nevin Plaza housing project.
The notice followed 12 months during which Lewis hadn’t paid his rent due to what he and his lawyer charge were uninhabitable living conditions in an inaccessible upper floor unit, added to the expense of getting a new $2,400 wheelchair that he needs to get around.
Lewis, who is paraplegic, in April requested that the Superior Court in Richmond set aside, or reverse, the default judgment to evict him. He was granted a stay of execution – a pause on executing the judgment to evict him – until May 4th, according to court documents filed by Lewis’s attorney from Bay Area Legal Aid. Lewis said in a statement in the court documents that, before the notice appeared on his door, he hadn’t received a summons or complaint from the Richmond Housing Authority (RHA) regarding an eviction case filed against him, which would have been standard practice.
He then asked for a two-week extension of his stay, which was denied.
The facts of Michael Lewis’s case are complex and difficult to unravel after multiple interviews with the tenant, his counsel and authorities. But what has emerged so far is a picture of how difficult it is to be poor, disabled, and dependent on a public housing system beset by nonstop maintenance, tenancy and habitability issues. Lewis and his attorney acknowledge that he didn’t pay rent from April 2018 to March 2019 – when he had only spotty access to his upper floor unit. He stated that he attempted to pay rent in August 2018 but was denied that chance by a property manager who told Lewis that they would get in touch to get him back in compliance. In one of a series of missed communications, Lewis said he never received the expected contact.
Richmond Confidential was unable to obtain comment from the property manager in charge after RHA declined to provide the manager’s name or details of the incident, citing privacy laws.
“The RHA cannot comment on a specific case due to the Federal Privacy Act which protects applicants and participants of affordable housing programs,” said Nannette Beacham, the housing authority’s executive director in an email, when asked for comment on Lewis’s predicament. Beacham also cited some improvements in the Nevin Plaza building, including a new security company and a new CCTV system installed to increase building security.
In March 2019, Henrissa Bassey, the attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid representing Lewis, had contacted the RHA’s attorney on Lewis’s behalf to tell them he had saved over $3,500 to pay all the back rent and late fees. According to Bassey, the RHA decided to proceed with the eviction anyway.
Lewis’s life once seemed headed in a different direction. He had attended Laney College, studying to be an Emergency Medical Technician (or EMT), according to a statement his lawyer Bassey filed with the Superior Court in Richmond in his case battling eviction. But in 2007, an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. He requires a customized wheelchair, a catheter and a special toilet. In the aftermath of the injury, Lewis told the court in the same document, he has required lengthy hospital treatment and repeated visits. He has since suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, according to the same court documents.
At the age of 19, Lewis was removed from his family’s health insurance and changed to Medicare coverage which didn’t pay for his replacement wheelchair, according to the court documents. Lewis said it is his understanding that the federal insurance program only pays for a replacement wheelchair when the original wheelchair was first covered by the same insurance. But the out-of-pocket expense added to pressures on his budget.
For most of this period Lewis’s income was very limited. He has recently worked for a rideshare company, using a specially-equipped vehicle, his lawyer said. But his main source of support currently consists of his supplemental security income, or SSI, of $1,117 a month, according to the court documents. The majority of that income went to rent, medical expenses, and utilities. His rent at Nevin Plaza was $290 a month.
A major point of contention between the now wheelchair-bound Lewis and the housing authority has been his repeatedly expressed desire to live in an accessible, ground floor apartment. The RHA, according to Lewis and his attorney, at first said a first floor unit was unavailable, and his later requests to move to the first floor were in vain.
If elevators had been consistently working, such an arrangement — while not ideal — might have been feasible. But Lewis told a reporter for Richmond Confidential that one elevator at Nevin Plaza was always broken and, often, both elevators were out of service for up to a week at a time. This made going up to and down from his apartment difficult, according to the same court documents.
As a tenant with a disability housed on the second floor of the 142-unit building with broken elevators, Lewis at times has had to ask strangers to carry him up to his apartment unit, according to the same court documents. At other times, he has stayed with family or friends while elevators were out of order. Currently, he said he is living with his mother in Vallejo.
Attorney Bassey contended that the RHA’s failure to fix the broken elevators is illegal and is a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination that makes housing unavailable to people with disabilities.
Richmond Confidential’s repeated requests for specific comment from RHA on Lewis’s case elicited mostly general statements about the challenges faced by a city housing authority grappling with tenancy and maintenance issues, and doing its best to improve safety and security at the building.
“RHA staff strives to work with residents to proactively address tenancy and habitability issues,” Executive Director Beacham said in an email. “RHA staff often give multiple opportunities for residents to address tenancy related issues. However, if the tenancy issues are not addressed for an extended period of time, it is a disservice to the many qualified applicants who are waiting for an opportunity to live in affordable housing.”
Legal counsel for Lewis sees it differently.
“The Fair Housing Act outlaws any discrimination against protected classes, and that’s race, gender, religion, and in Michael’s case, people with disabilities,” Bassey said. “Acts of refusing to fix an elevator, refusing to accommodate someone, denying their reasonable accommodation requests without engaging in what is called the interactive process…[are] violations of the [Federal] Fair Housing Act.”
Four months after receiving his eviction notice, Lewis filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against the RHA for four violations of his fair housing rights against disability discrimination.
Lewis’s complaints are neither new nor unique. Nevin Plaza has had a history of issues with broken elevators and pest control, according to media reports.
“It was constant turnover and constant fixing but nothing just stayed fixed,” Lewis said. “They tried to put Band-Aids on it, but that doesn’t work out so well. They tried to do what they could do…but it’s just not enough.”
Prior to the 60-day notice to vacate in March 2019, Lewis had been unable to live in his unit due to broken elevators and was staying with family or friends. So even when elevators were repaired, Lewis said, he didn’t receive notification so that he could return to his unit, according to the same court documents.
Meanwhile, the RHA was building a case to evict Lewis from the building for nonpayment of his rent. According to Bassey, the RHA had filed the paperwork to begin the eviction process in November 2018 and the default judgement was granted in February 2019 because Lewis didn’t appear in court. But according to Lewis, he received no notice to appear in court, nor any warning concerning the eviction case that the RHA was preparing, prior to the order to vacate that appeared on his door in March.
Attorney Bassey said it is standard procedure to issue a notice to pay or quit within a certain amount of time outlined by the notice. The tenant must pay within that period of time to keep the case from going to court. After this, the property manager must serve a summons to court, a complaint against the tenant and a notice of trial.
The Housing Authority’s denial of Lewis’s requests to move, coupled with the habitability issues at Nevin Plaza, gave Lewis the right to sign his checks with “rent in protest,” said Bassey. She added that he would have had the right to withhold a significant portion or all of his rent because of these factors. However, Lewis did not communicate that his rent was withheld as a protest to the RHA. Both Lewis and his attorney tried to give the public housing agency its due.
“The Housing Authority is offering what could be a really great and wonderful service but sometimes there’s an unwillingness to improve services for the tenants,” Bassey said. “I think it speaks to the larger issue of how we view people with lower incomes… and who we think is worthy of living in safe conditions.”
Since Lewis has filed the complaint, HUD has opened a case for investigation, according to Bassey and the HUD investigator on the case. Lewis and his lawyer are currently awaiting further word on his case. The HUD investigator on Lewis’s case, Laura Uribe, said she couldn’t comment on the open case, which a public affairs officer added is standard agency policy.
“While HUD does not comment on fair housing complaints currently being investigated, we do take this and all other allegations of unlawful discrimination seriously,” Eduardo Cabrera, the regional public affairs officer, said.
Lewis, for his part, said in an interview that it is difficult to “bash” an agency whose mission is to supply low-income housing. Still, he said, “they did have me living in this jungle of a little building.”
Update: this article has been updated to clarify a word in a quote. Henrissa Bassey referred to tenant landlord relations as being an “interactive process.”
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