City wins reprieve for tenant facing eviction in unprecedented legal move

by Jordan Green

Hairston apartments resident LaTonya Stimpson waited for her case to be heard outside the courtroom of Judge Polly Sizemore on Feb 11. (photo by Jordan Green)

JT Hairston Memorial Apartments resident LaTonya Stimpson won a reprieve from a looming eviction in the Guilford County courtroom of District Court Judge Polly Sizemore last week.

The city of Greensboro had sought a temporary restraining order against Hairston apartments to delay Stimpson’s eviction long enough to allow the fair housing specialist to complete an investigation into allegations of discrimination at the public housing project. Assistant City Attorney Jamiah Waterman said it was the first time the city had ever intervened in an eviction since its fair housing ordinance was adopted in 1991.

Sizemore told the opposing lawyers she was inclined to grant a temporary restraining order against property manager Westminster Co., but instead she would first review North Carolina civil procedure and federal housing law before issuing an order. Because of her heavy caseload, the soonest she would be likely to do so would be by Friday, Feb. 19, the judge said. In the meantime, she ordered that the property management company refrain from putting Stimpson out on the street.

“This is not a case of someone who has been evicted and is attempting to get a second bite at the apple,” Waterman told Sizemore. “In this case, we do believe discrimination has taken place. I will grant you that this is an atypical situation that you have a motion for a temporary restraining order with no pending complaint, but the specific authority exists.”

In his motion, Waterman states that the city “has been certified as a substantially equivalent agency” by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in that the ordinance provides “rights, procedures, remedies and judicial review provisions that are substantially equivalent to the federal Fair Housing Act.”

Stimpson sat at a table with the city’s lawyer, but represented herself on an appeal to Magistrate HE Mebane’s summary ejectment order of Nov. 25. (Judge Sizemore ruled against Stimpson in that matter.)

All four of Stimpson’s children and her mother and father were in court to support her. The hearing also drew the city’s fair housing investigator, a member of the city’s human relation commission, a tenant advocate and two undercover police officers, who left hastily during a recess following the judge’s order to a bailiff to seize one of the officers’ beepers after it went off in the middle of arguments.

Waterman said the city’s fair housing investigator reviewed Stimpson’s case and those of a couple other tenants and determined that they have been discriminated against, although the investigator has not had the opportunity to take down a formal statement from Stimpson.

Additionally, he said, the city has obtained documents from the landlord indicating that discrimination is at play.

City staff and counsel declined to comment on the case beyond Waterman’s arguments in open court.

Ron Cagno, the regional site manager for the property management company denied the allegation.

“Westminster Company has not discriminated against any of our residents,” he told YES! Weekly in a prepared statement. “We have responded to all the allegations which are part of the court record. We are fully cooperating with the investigation being conducted by the Greensboro Human Relations Commission, and are awaiting their decision.”

JT Hairston Memorial Apartments was founded in 1967 by the Rev. Otis Hairston Sr.’

and Ezell Blair Sr. for the purpose of providing “housing for low- and moderate-income families displaced by urban renewal areas or as a result of governmental action where no adequate housing exists for such groups.” Blair is the father of one of the four NC A&T students who initiated the Woolworth’s sit-ins in 1960.

The apartments are owned by a nonprofit set up by Shiloh Baptist Church. Mary Mims, the chairwoman of the nonprofit’s board of directors, declined to comment for this story.

(Disclosure: The nephew of the cousin of this writer’s fianc’e is a resident of the apartments. The relationship is close: The writer and his fianc’e have taken the boy on outings.)

Residents, including three interviewed by YES! Weekly, have made a wide range of complaints about living conditions at the apartments and disrespectful treatment by staff, including deteriorating walls and ceilings; bathroom sinks that are too small for adults’ use; health and safety concerns from mold, bedbugs, roaches and raw sewage; lack of play areas for children; exorbitant fees for repairs and threatened violations in response to tenants’ expressed interest in contracting their own maintenance services.

Another resident, 29-year-old Laindia Murphy, said she has been cited with two violations related to her efforts to organize a coed dance troupe, including one incident in which two boys in the troupe were allegedly detained by off-duty Greensboro police officers and lectured about gang activity. Murphy has effectively suspended the troupe, which marched in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, because a third violation would result in her eviction.

The tenants, most of whom are unmarried women with children, also complain about what they view as draconian rules such cut-off times for visitors, residents not being allowed to sit on their front porches and visitors’ cars being towed.

Stimpson alleges apartment management has discriminated against her based on familial status and that staff “enforce the rules more harshly against tenants with children.”

One staff member “made discriminating remarks about I shouldn’t be going to school, I should be going to work because I have all these children,” Stimpson said.

Stephanie Ridge, the site property manager, denied making any “such statement or implication” in an affidavit submitted to the court on Feb. 11.

Stimpson told YES! Weekly before her court hearing that staff denied her access to a computer room set up for common use by tenants when she was attempting to apply to attend GTCC and blocked the Guilford County Schools website to prevent her from communicating with her children’s teachers.

Ridge states in her affidavit that the computer room has prescribed hours for adults and for children from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the apartment office closes, and that she only prevented Stimpson from using the computers on one occasion, when an advertised parenting class was in session.

The affidavit does not respond to Stimpson’s allegation that the school system’s website is blocked.

Stimpson notes in her affidavit that she has attempted to organize other residents in opposition to Westminster’s discriminatory practices, and that the property management company is seeking to evict her from her home in retaliation.

T. Keith Black, a lawyer representing Westminster in the matter, pointed out that Stimpson filed her discrimination complaint with the city in mid-December. The magistrate ordered Stimpson out of her home on Nov. 25, and the tenant filed for a stay on Dec. 9, after a 10-day window for such appeals had elapsed.

“If she had alleged discrimination and then the summary ejectment had been filed, her argument might have some merit,” Black said. “But only after she realized that she didn’t get things done in 10 days did she come up with the claim of discrimination.”

Waterman argued that the temporary restraining order requested by the city was not just for Stimpson, but in the interest of all residents at Hairston apartments and all tenants across the city.

“There can be no doubt that if Ms. Stimpson’s appeal is dismissed that she and her four children will suffer irreparable harm,” a city memorandum of law argues. “Ms. Stimpson is currently unemployed. She does not have the financial means to secure other housing. Moreover, her eviction will likely serve as an impediment to securing other subsidized housing. It is also appropriate for the court to consider the effect on the public interest. The city’s goal of ending housing discrimination will be harmed. The eviction will have a chilling effect on other tenants. They will be reluctant to seek vindication of their rights for fear of eviction.”

The public housing tenant and the judge found themselves in a series of rocky exchanges during the sometimes chaotic hearing. At one point, when Black raised an objection to Waterman referencing Greensboro Human Relations Director Anthony Wade’s “expert” opinion that discrimination had occured, Judge Sizemore asked Stimpson and members of the audience to control their facial expressions.

“I have no right to self expression?” Stimpson asked. “The attorney here is doing a great job on your behalf,” Sizemore replied.

Later, when Black asserted that Stimpson knew she had only 10 days to file an appeal to the summary ejectment order, Stimpson audibly objected. The judge lectured her that any further interruption would be considered an “outburst.”