Mercedes Jones was playing outside with her kids at their North Tampa apartment complex on July 6 when an employee came over and handed her a letter.
“YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED THAT YOU ARE INDEBTED TO US IN THE SUM OF: ($)596,” it read in bold typeface. “YOUR FAILURE TO COMPLY WITH THIS NOTICE MAY RESULT IN EVICTION PROCEEDINGS BEING INSTITUTED AGAINST YOU PURSUANT TO SECTION 83 FLORIDA STATUTES.”
Jones did a double take. Ever since she moved to the Timber Falls apartments in October, her rent had been paid in full through a program run by Catholic Charities.
“This must be a mistake,” she thought.
Jones is one of dozens of residents in the complex who received a notice, which varied in the amount owed. Though she and several others say they’ve paid their rent and don’t owe a penny, they may still face eviction.
News of the incident sparked outrage among Tampa City Council members. They unanimously passed a motion Thursday aimed at supporting the residents by sending a letter to the property manager, among other things.
Despite this, Jones said her landlord hasn’t said anything or retracted the notices. Both she and her caseworker at Catholic Charities have provided proof of payment and received no answer in return.
“We’re still in a situation of war with the property manager,” she said. “They’ve got us in fear of where we’re going to live.”
The Timber Falls apartments first came under scrutiny in August 2020, when the Tampa Bay Times reported on deplorable living conditions at the mold-covered, rat-infested complex. Then Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera got involved. He said he had worked with the previous owner to make improvements.
In May, the 184-unit complex was sold to a new owner for more than $20.7 million according to Hillsborough County records. A company called Residential Management Incorporated took over as property manager.
In an email to a Times reporter, the company said: “The new ownership and management team is committed to improving and enhancing the Timber Falls Apartments so that its residents can enjoy an improved daily quality of life. Matters that residents bring to the attention of management are being dealt with as quickly and as expeditiously as possible.”
The company statement said management is “happy to correct any errors” that residents bring to their attention regarding open balances, which the company received from prior ownership.
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The statement said “supporting documentation showing the error” is necessary.
At first, tenants hoped the new owner may change the place for the better. Then came the notices.
When 52-year-old Charlene Love found a letter taped to her door stating she owed $997 “it felt like a slap in the face,” she said.
In the four years she had lived at Timber Falls, Love said she had dealt with broken refrigerators, roaches and even had part of her ceiling collapse on her.
Despite it all, “I never missed a beat when it came to rent.”
Love anxiously waited for more than a week to meet with the property manager. When it came time for her appointment, she showed up with receipts that backed up each payment she made.
The employee she spoke with confirmed that she was up to date and told her to disregard the notice. Love said the employee told her “the ledgers in their system are a total mess from the previous manager,” and that’s why she had mistakenly received a notice.
The Tampa Bay Times has not been able to confirm this with Residential Management Incorporated. But Councilman Viera, who has visited the property several times in the past two weeks, said employees told him a similar story.
Robin Stover, deputy director of housing for Gulf Coast Legal Services, said unless the tenants who received notices move out or pay there is nothing stopping the landlord from moving forward with an eviction.
Once an eviction is filed, tenants have the opportunity to file a motion disputing the amount the landlord claims is owed, but: “They have to come prepared with evidence to show the judge, and 8 times out of 10 people don’t have receipts,” she said.
Even for tenants who do have evidence, Stover said it is difficult for most tenants to navigate the complicated legal system on their own and file a motion within five business days, as is required by the court.
Valencia Simpson Holmes, 60, is one of several Timber Falls residents whose rent is subsidized through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program. Last week, she received a notice claiming she owed $3,594.
“I was told that they didn’t get their money from Section 8 which I know is a lie,” she said.
On July 12, the property manager sent out a letter asking Section 8 recipients to send in documents verifying their participation in the program.
Though Simpson Holmes said she has done her due diligence in sending over all documents and receipts, she still fears she may be hit with an eviction notice.
“I can’t get comfortable,” she said. “As quickly as you put a three-day notice on my door you could just as easily turn around and tell me to get out.”
To help restore residents’ peace of mind, Viera said he is calling on Residential Management Incorporated to rescind all notices until they can verify the ledgers they have on file.
“The decent thing to do is to have a proper accounting of these debts so that residents, who are often disabled, seniors or the working poor, can have peace of mind without eviction hanging over their head,” he said.
As part of the motion passed Thursday, local officials asked city attorneys to look into whether Residential Management Incorporation’s actions were legal and to research if an ordinance can be passed to prevent similar incidences in the future.
Viera said he plans to host a community meeting at the property with other local officials this week.
For Jones, “Moving here was supposed to be a fresh start.”
After being evicted in 2020, the 39-year-old mother of five lost custody of her children and lived in her car. With help from Catholic Charities, Jones found a spot at Timber Falls and was reunited with her kids in April.
If she is evicted again, she fears her children may end up in the foster system.
“I try to keep a good attitude about it and pray and hope for the best because I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “But this is stressful. This is scary.”