Mother and 7 children face eviction over smoke alarm battery
*Editor’s note: The primary source for this article, Zalonda Woods, mistakenly wrote in an email that the Homeless Union of Greensboro offered Watlington a voucher, but it was actually the Greensboro Housing Authority that offered her the voucher. This article has been updated with the accurate information. There was a typo, “piece of people” was supposed to be “piece of paper.” The article has been updated.
An Alamance County woman and her seven children are facing eviction over allegations that the battery of the smoke detector in her home was either missing or disconnected.
On July 16, 2019, the Graham Housing Authority filed a complaint in the District Court Division of the North Carolina General Court of Justice requesting the eviction of Tasha Watlington from her residence at 402 E. Gilbreath St. in Graham. The complaint stated that Watlington “breached the condition of her lease” because her “smoke detector battery was found unplugged” during an inspection.
On Aug. 7, an Alamance county magistrate upheld the eviction, ordering Watlington and her children out of the house by Aug. 17. An eviction on Watling’s record can potentially make it much harder for her to find replacement housing, as well as jeopardize her eligibility for future rental assistance.
Documents from the case give contradictory descriptions of the alleged violation. The July 16 “Complaint in Summary Ejectment” (the document that initiates an eviction process) described the battery as “unplugged,” but the earlier “Notification of an Informal Hearing Decision” sent to Watlington by the Graham Housing Authority on June 13 stated that the organization “intends to terminate your assistance on June 22, 2019 for: VIOLATION OF PROGRAM REQUIREMENTS: Smoke detector battery removed.”
“On one piece of paper I received with them, it said it didn’t have a battery, and then on the paper going to court with them, it said the smoke detector was unplugged,” said Watlington when this writer phoned her on Sunday.
When asked if she had ever removed or disconnected the battery, Watlington said, “No sir, I’ve lived here since 2015, and I’ve never touched that smoke detector. I did notice its low battery light blinking at the time of the inspection, but not before that.”
Watlington said that she had never met her property manager Lisa Murray before the inspection at which Watlington was cited for violating her lease’s smoke detector clause and that Murray has been unresponsive to subsequent phone calls during the appeals process.
“I never had any trouble with my first property manager, Jessica Biaz, who I signed the lease within 2015, and who always returned my calls right away. She was very nice, but Lisa Murray is not. I don’t know when she took over as my property manager, but I do know she’s almost impossible to get in touch with.”
In the course of appealing the termination of her lease, Watlington reached out to Zalonda Woods of the Homeless Union of Greensboro, who has been trying to get housing assistance for Watlington and her children in Guilford County. Woods, who has also represented Watlington in the appeals process with the Graham Housing Authority, told YES! Weekly that Murray has been extremely difficult to get in touch with. “When I finally did, she hung up on me.”
On Friday, the Homeless Union of Greensboro issued a press release titled “Mother and 7 Children Unjustly Evicted by Graham Housing Authority for Disputed Arbitrary Rule Infractions.” It included the following statement from Woods:
“It is appalling, to say the least, to put babies out in the street over a smoke detector battery.”
The press release also alleged that “Watlington asked to review the evidence used against her in court,” but “was denied access” to those documents.
“Irrespective of whether there was a battery missing from a smoke detector, evicting a family over such a mundane and arbitrary rule infraction – and then denying her the right to see whatever evidence they had against her – goes against all standards of reasonableness and due process,” stated Woods in the press release.
In an email on Saturday, Woods wrote that the Homeless Union initially offered aid to the Watlington family in the form of a rental voucher for housing in Greensboro, but that “the Graham Housing Authority has frustrated and stalled these efforts.” (The Homeless Union of Greensboro didn’t offer the voucher, the Greensboro Housing Authority did.)
Watlington also described the Graham Housing Authority as being uncooperative in her attempts to find housing in Guilford County.
“On July 22, I had an interview to go up to Greensboro because I got selected for a project-based voucher there, and I gave them all my information, and they told me they had to send a piece of paper off to Graham Housing to let them know I don’t owe any money or anything like that.”
She described Murray’s alleged unresponsiveness as a significant obstacle in the process. “I don’t owe them anything, but can’t nobody get in touch with the property manager. She just won’t answer or cooperate with anybody.”
Woods also alleged that the Graham Housing Authority is preventing Watlington from finding a new home in Greensboro by not sending any documentation stating that Watlington has no unpaid rent or other charges.
“Ms. Watlington definitely does not owe them any money. The process has been held up since July 22, 2019. If not for their stalling, Ms. Watlington could have been housed in Greensboro by the Aug. 7, 2019, eviction hearing.”
Woods also stated: “It is important to mention that this property manager is new and has a reputation that is not favorable with tenants in Burlington as well as Graham.”
Requests for a response to these allegations from YES! Weekly have so far received no answer from Murray or anyone else at Graham Housing Authority. Repeated calls on Monday morning to the GHA office were transferred to Murray’s voicemail and to that of her direct supervisor, programs director Ann Austin, but were not returned as of Wednesday morning. An email to executive director Thomas Lloyd also received no response.
Woods said that in late July she contacted the regional office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Greensboro to protest the lack of response from the Graham Housing Authority. “Angela Strong in the Greensboro HUD office told me that a verbal decision had been made to uphold the eviction.”
“I asked Ms. Strong why she did not agree that Ms. Watlington’s fair housing rights were violated when she was never able to view or see the evidence against her at any stage in the process. Ms. Strong stated that she was working with Lisa Murray’s supervisor in the Graham Housing Authority to find a solution that was not so harsh. She seemed very sympathetic, but since that call, I’ve been told she’s on vacation.”
When YES! Weekly contacted the Greensboro HUD office on Monday morning, Letitia Wilson, who identified herself as Angela Strong’s supervisor, said that nobody in her office was allowed to talk to the media and that all such inquiries should be directed to Joseph Phillips in the HUD office of public affairs in Atlanta.
On Tuesday afternoon, Phillips wrote in an email that, “HUD was in contact with the Graham Housing Authority and were informed that you may contact the below individual for an update.” The “individual below” was Geoff Oertel at the law offices of Oertel, Koontz & Oertel in Burlington.
On the phone this morning, Oertel identified himself as the attorney for Graham Housing and said that the Tasha Watlington case was appealed on Monday. “I usually just handle the appeals, so I got notice of it yesterday.”
“She appealed on Monday, so that matter goes up to district court. It’s de novo in district court, meaning it starts all over. She appealed on Aug. 12, and it takes a little while to get a new court date. Usually, it’s the end of the month, when you go into a brand-new hearing over the same issue.”
Watlington confirmed that she filed an appeal on Monday and no longer has to vacate her residence by Aug. 17.
“It just holds me over till the court date.”