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‘I felt defeated’: South Jersey residents receive persistent eviction threats despite paying their rent

At the beginning of each month, residents of the Cherry Hill apartment complex may find upward of 10 court eviction court filings taped to the building's lobby doors.

Michelle Le, poses for a portrait at the Blossom Towers Apartments while holding the eviction court filing her family received. Le's family of four has lived at these apartments since 2003 and in October, received an eviction court filing in the mail, in which her landlord alleged her family failed to pay rent. “I found out that a lot of people are having this problem,” Le said. “I want them to leave us alone. All we are doing is trying to live. This is our home.”
Michelle Le, poses for a portrait at the Blossom Towers Apartments while holding the eviction court filing her family received. Le's family of four has lived at these apartments since 2003 and in October, received an eviction court filing in the mail, in which her landlord alleged her family failed to pay rent. “I found out that a lot of people are having this problem,” Le said. “I want them to leave us alone. All we are doing is trying to live. This is our home.”Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

While many apartment buildings post reminders about trash pickup and coronavirus safety precautions on the front lobby doors, the residents of Blossom Towers in Cherry Hill are often met with something much more consequential: eviction court filings.

At the beginning of each month, residents of the two-tower complex with about 180 one- and two-bedroom apartments may find upward of 10 eviction court lawsuit filings taped to the building’s double doors, the names of neighbors struggling to pay rent clearly visible.

Representatives from the Camden County Courts are legally obligated to leave the complaints on a complex door if they cannot enter the premises, but typically landlords remove them and disperse them to residents. At Blossom Towers, where monthly rent ranges from about $1,000 to $1,650, the notifications may remain for days at a time, an act some residents and township officials called “eviction shaming.” During the first week of October, residents reported seeing about five notices per day near the entrance.

The complaint postings paused earlier this year after Gov. Phil Murphy closed courts because of the coronavirus pandemic and instituted a statewide eviction moratorium. But now that courts have reopened and eviction complaints can be filed and processed — just not physically enforced — the notices have started reappearing, a stark reality for millions of people across the country as the pandemic upends the economy.

Residents say their problems go way beyond shame. Two residents, including a 91-year-old terminally ill woman, said an eviction complaint was filed against them when they owed no money. They feared the erroneous filing would permanently stain their background checks and credit reports and are frustrated by the vigilance it requires to live in the building.

“They’re just constantly making us jump through hoops to get basic necessities,” said Michelle Le, whose family of four has lived at Blossom Towers for nearly 15 years.

The buildings’ air-conditioning, water heater, and elevators periodically break, residents said. Over the summer, broken trash chutes were screwed shut for weeks, and the AC wasn’t turned on until mid-June. Elderly residents were nearly overheating in their apartments, they told The Inquirer at the time, and bags of trash were filling up the hallways, leaving a wretched smell. This fall, half of the buildings’ washers and dryers were broken.

Residents say that when they try to contact Rushmore Management — a North Jersey-based property manager that oversees 15 apartment complexes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including three in Philadelphia — about anything from rent to maintenance, their emails, calls, and even registered priority letters often go unanswered.

“All lines of communication are closed, making it impossible to resolve any conflict,” said Alex Venetsky, whose 91-year-old mother, Fay, was sued for unpaid rent despite owing no money.

“And every letter comes with a threat of eviction,” he said.

Moe Cooper, Rushmore’s property manager for Blossom Towers, blamed the courts for posting the notices on the door. He said that going forward, employees would work to remove them quickly and get them to residents.

Joe West, a supervisor for Rushmore, said it is extremely rare for an eviction to be filed against a resident who doesn’t owe money. “If it happens, it’s a huge mistake and we try to correct it with people and help people,” he said.

“We have no intention to evict someone,” he said. “We don’t file on anyone if they don’t owe us money.”

West said the buildings are old and Rushmore has invested in improving them over time. The pandemic has made it more difficult for maintenance workers to go into individual units, he said.

Erin Gill, Cherry Hill Township business administrator, said the township would investigate the current actions taken against residents.

“It would be one thing if this was a one-off, but we have received consistent complaints about the conditions of the property, and residents wrongly receiving rent increases,” Gill said. “To give them the benefit of the doubt, that’s really difficult to do here.”

‘I felt defeated’

Le, 22, and four family members have lived in their two-bed, two-bath apartment for nearly 15 years. Their unit is on rent control, a rare, decades-old protection in Cherry Hill that prevents landlords from raising rent on certain buildings. Over the last two years, Le said, relations with their landlord have grown increasingly worse, but this year, the treatment rose to a level she called harassment.

From March through July, as the coronavirus gripped the country, the Les would return home to bright yellow notices taped to or slipped under their door saying their rent was overdue and their account was “in eviction status.”

But they had paid their rent, Le said, confirmed by bank statements reviewed by The Inquirer. They typically mailed their checks directly to Rushmore’s Lakewood, N.J., headquarters. Although sometimes they were a few days late, Le said, they always paid.

Still, month after month, Rushmore sent threatening letters claiming rent wasn’t received.

West, of Rushmore, said the company has had issues with its automated notification system, which is run by Yardi Systems, sending late-payment notices erroneously. He said that the building had alerted residents to this issue through multiple emails and fliers around the building and that it has been resolved.

“As landlords, we have to try to communicate that better,” he said. “It’s a challenge.”

Le, whose parents are Vietnamese and speak limited English, would email and call the Rushmore offices, largely to no avail. The voicemail box was full, and emails were rarely returned. On the rare occasion the office manager was on site, Le was told that her account was in good standing and that she could ignore the notices.

Then, in October, a formal eviction notice from the Camden County Courts arrived in the mail. It showed that in June, Rushmore filed to evict the family, alleging that they never paid March rent and owed $1,371.51. If the case was taken to court, the company said, they would owe $2,638.06, for the added legal fees.

Again, the front-desk employee assured her that their account was “at zero” and to “disregard” the filing. Le said the woman told her other residents also had complained about erroneous court complaints.

“How am I supposed to ignore this?” Le said. “I keep getting these notices. I keep getting these circular answers.

“I felt defeated, like this is something that’s going to keep recurring.”

The eviction filing could affect the Le family’s credit and make it more difficult to rent a future apartment, said Kenneth Goldman, director of litigation and advocacy for South Jersey Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides free legal representation for low-income people in civil matters.

West confirmed the Les owe no money. He said their lawyer would contact the courts to ensure the case is dismissed and removed from their rental record, and showed they emailed their lawyer in mid-October to rescind the filing.

Le and another resident, John Smarkola, are so worried about their rent being received that they take pictures of each other dropping their checks in the front-office drop box and ask for receipts if an office manager accepts it in person.

New Jersey instituted an eviction moratorium in March, and it will expire 60 days after the state’s public health emergency ends.

Since courts reopened in June, landlords can file complaints, and eviction notices can be served but not enforced, Goldman said. There are emergency situations in which a tenant can be removed, he said, but judges rarely allow it.

From March through October, 2,973 eviction lawsuits were filed in Camden County, said court spokesperson Peter McAleer. He could not specify the number of lawsuits filed against Blossom Towers residents.

Because of an enormous backlog from before courts closed in March, Goldman said he “couldn’t even guesstimate” when a case filed now would be heard.

‘They owed us money’

Two massive brick buildings make up Blossom Towers, their lobbies sleek and modern with white marble walls and floors. For the last two decades, Fay Venetsky, 91, has lived on the fourth floor of building B, said her son Alex. She has stage four lymphoma and is nearly immobile, he said, and is cared for by her sons and health aides.

She also lives in a rent-controlled unit, and 80% of her rent is paid directly to her landlord by New Jersey’s Housing Assistance Program. Venetsky said he pays the remaining $200 through automated direct deposit on the first of every month.

“Her rent is always paid on time,” he said.

Venetsky, an engineer for the Navy, said that at the end of last year, Rushmore started sending his mother letters alleging her rent was unpaid and threatening to evict her. He called and emailed the company, mailed registered priority letters, and even took a day off work to try to meet an employee to sort out the confusion. But all correspondence went unreturned, he said, and the office was always closed.

In February, his mother received a court summons, in which Rushmore alleged she didn’t pay rent in January and February, and owed $1,318.84. If the case was taken to court, they said, she would owe $2,337.68 because of lawyer fees. After pandemic-related delays, their court appearance was in September.

“It turned out that it wasn’t us who owed the money,” he said. “They owed us.”

Rushmore had been overcharging rent by about $50 for three months, he said. “They actually tried to defraud an old, terminally ill woman in making her pay a higher monthly rent than she officially and legally had to pay.”

West was unsure why it was so difficult for Venetsky to reach a Rushmore employee.

Sarah Goldblatt, a Rushmore employee, said the filing against Venetsky was also an error. In an email, she said she believes the government assistance payment was “not listing the correct unit number on their vouchers,” which made it appear their account was in arrears.

After The Inquirer asked whether the filing would remain on the tenants’ record, Goldblatt said Rushmore had instructed its attorney “to do whatever he can to make sure that it doesn’t affect their record.”