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Landlord's standard: innocent until accused

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 5, 2002


A number of readers expressed outrage after a recent column about Elease Hall, a 68-year-old grandmother living in public housing in St. Petersburg who received a one-sentence letter telling her that her lease would not be renewed and she would have to move by Dec. 31.

Her offense? Apparently, a police officer's suspicion that some sort of drug activity was going on at her residence. He reported finding baggies with marijuana and marijuana residue in her yard and near her porch.

Mrs. Hall and her granddaughter denied any knowledge of drug dealing around her residence. She was at a loss for what she would do if she had to leave Jordan Park, the place she has called home for 30 years.

"They're throwing me out like I'm a little cat or dog, with nowhere to go," Mrs. Hall said. "If somebody's selling drugs around here, they should find the people doing it and leave me alone."

The they she refers to is Landex, the Baltimore-based company that the St. Petersburg Housing Authority selected in 1999 to renovate and manage the complex. They apparently have no intention of leaving her alone. They wrote her another letter dated Oct. 30.

This one differs substantially from the first.

This one has more sentences.

It also says she has to "turn over keys and possession" on or before Nov. 30. The first letter stated that she had to vacate by Dec. 31.

The first one gave no clue why she was being booted out of public housing. This one does. It says that St. Petersburg police officers discovered drug paraphernalia containing "residue of an illegal substance" at or near her residence on three occasions. It also says that management representatives had discussed with her complaints lodged by several residents. "These complaints center on criminal activity that takes place at your residence," the letter states.

Mrs. Hall said she recalled only a complaint that the radio was too loud.

The second letter also addresses appeals, one subject among the many not broached by the first. It affirms that she has no avenue of appeal through a grievance hearing because the reason for her nonrenewal includes "drug-related criminal activity."

In the most convoluted perversion of the American doctrine of innocent until proven guilty, Landex seems to be operating on a principle that tyrants have always found convenient: innocent until you are accused. No opportunity, not even a sham one, is afforded to assert innocence.

The letter was signed by Ken Hart, identified as the portfolio manager for Jordan Park. Attempts to reach him at the company's Baltimore headquarters were not successful. A woman there said that Friday was his last day with the company and his replacement had not been hired.

"If I were a Jordan Park resident, I wouldn't know where to begin to try and stand up for my legal rights as a tenant."

Those are Mark Kamleiter's words. His listener fell silent after they were spoken.

Kamleiter is a lawyer. He represented about 40 Jordan Park residents a few months ago when Landex announced it was suddenly increasing rent for many of them, some rents more than 100 percent. Landex claimed that the increases were necessary because it had made errors in computing the rates.

With Kamleiter prepared to file suit on behalf of the residents, Landex said it would relent on the increases during the current leases, a concession that at best is like handing out Band-Aids when a root canal is what's really needed.

Kamleiter is also representing Mrs. Hall in her efforts to keep a roof over her head. The St. Petersburg lawyer is charging her no fee and has opened a trust account to help defray the cost of her relocating if he is unsuccessful in blocking her eviction.

Kamleiter's admission that he would be at a loss to find rights if he were a Jordan Park resident is chilling. By comparison, what chance does Mrs. Hall or her neighbors, most of whom have not passed the bar, have?

As Kamleiter has immersed himself deeper in working for the tenants, he has become increasingly frustrated with their predicament and disgusted with the mechanism of government that put them there.

With promises of jobs, improved homes and neighborhood, and even some hints of self-determination, Jordan Park residents -- amid much protest -- were courted and coddled but given no voice in the decision to turn their community over to Landex.

Now, they have little local recourse to complain about policies and their treatment at the hands of the private company. Landex doesn't have to take direction from the housing authority, the mayor or the city council. None of those entities holds any more sway over Landex than any resident of the city. None can do more than beg or sweet talk the Baltimore company into treating its clients fairly.

"As a citizen of St. Petersburg, I have a responsibility to see that the poor and disadvantaged are taken care of, and I expect my city government to take care of that," Kamleiter said. "If we had left management in the hands of the housing authority, then we could go to city government" and exert some influence over how residents are treated.

Instead, residents have to reach all the way up to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to find a government agency Landex has a reason to listen to.

Kamleiter and residents say Landex's bulletproof status shows itself in daily occurrences in the community. Residents complain frequently that Landex does not treat them with respect and dignity.

"I have literally been on the phone with a client while the management was banging on the door, and I had to fax their office for them to have their man to leave the porch," Kamleiter said of Landex's methods. "I could hear him banging as I was on the phone."

Kamleiter said that during negotiations with Landex over the threatened rent increases, one of the company's lawyers told Kamleiter: "Frankly, your clients are beginning to annoy my client."

Kamleiter's response: "If it annoys Landex Corporation that economically disadvantaged St. Petersburg residents have learned to act in solidarity to defend their rights, then Landex may be very annoyed for a very long time."

But Mrs. Hall and most of the other residents would rather just be happy in their homes.

* * *

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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