Carbondale senior is fighting eviction from low-income housing
CARBONDALE, Colo. A 79-year-old resident of a low-income apartment in Carbondale is facing a potential eviction that could leave her homeless and hopeless in her golden years.Lea Cano received a notice last month from the management of Crystal Meadows Apartments saying she must move out for reasons such as “chewing out” other residents and speaking poorly of the management.”I have no place to go or any money,” Cano said.Crystal Meadows Apartments, on the south side of Carbondale, is a godsend for scores of elderly and disabled people on fixed budgets. The nonprofit Carbondale Housing Authority has built the complex in phases, and the subsidized units are affiliated with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.Cano said she scrapes by on $656 per month in Social Security payments. Rent at Crystal Meadows is based on income, so she pays only $124 monthly.”I’ve never been late one month,” she said. “I’m just doing the best I can on what I have.”
Cano has enjoyed living there, for the most part. She said she also got along well with manager Jerilyn Nieslanik for five years before the relationship somehow soured about six months ago. Cano claimed Nieslanik became “hard-nosed about everything.”Nieslanik declined to comment on Cano’s case.Cano acknowledged she is the type of person who will speak up if she disagrees with something. And she describes her own voice as loud.She said she started complaining to Nieslanik about a variety of issues some time ago. Many of the complaints involved apartment maintenance man Kerry McQuay.Cano said McQuay pressured her to pay a gratuity, or service fee, for work, which isn’t allowed and which she refused to do. She claimed she was billed for work on screen windows that was free for other tenants, billing that was falsely justified in some cases by blaming her cat for ruining the screens, she said.Cano also objected to the requirement that McQuay had to perform all maintenance, except in emergencies. She claimed McQuay’s work in some cases has been substandard, a claim that friend and fellow resident Greg Chandler backed.
Her biggest complaint – as well as her biggest fear – is the threat that a neighbor allegedly posed and the management’s unwillingness to help her.Cano got crosswise with a younger, male tenant over a variety of issues, including music blaring from a radio on his porch. She claimed she tried to urge him peacefully to turn the music down, but that only made him mad. After that and other spats, he allegedly tried to intimidate her by hovering outside their units and yelling at her during encounters outside.Chandler said he caught the same man’s ire when he tried to aid Cano. He said management didn’t do anything to stop the harassment, so he stepped in.A Garfield County judge issued a restraining order preventing the man from coming too close to either Cano or Chandler. Even after receiving that order, Cano said, the man approached her and made a threatening gesture to her at Carbondale’s supermarket. Carbondale police have supplied both Cano and Chandler with cell phones so they can call if the man confronts them away from their homes.Crystal Meadows eventually took steps to evict the man. He is supposed to move out by today for undisclosed reasons.
While the issues with the maintenance man and neighbor evolved, Chandler was instrumental in forming a tenants council to discuss issues and air complaints. Cano participated enthusiastically in that effort.She believes her willingness to speak out angered management. She said she never received a written complaint against her until she found a notice taped to her door Jan. 22 demanding she vacate the apartment by March 1.”I was hysterical, and most people were outraged,” Cano said.Chandler, who is involved in social justice causes, said he tried every avenue to find help for Cano. Eventually, attorney Carol Viner of the Colorado Legal Services office in Grand Junction took her case.Viner had Cano trigger Crystal Meadows’ grievance procedure, which allows disputes between the manager and a resident to go to the housing authority board.Viner said she has requested documentation of Cano’s alleged violations but hasn’t heard from Nieslanik. Viner said she needs to see the files on Cano so she can prepare a case for her client.
The notice to vacate the apartment said, “Carbondale Housing Authority has received numerous complaints from other residents about your harassment and anger issues and has had to address your behavioral noncompliance with project rule.” It cites 14 dates when violations allegedly occurred.The notice also cites 12 alleged times when Cano “harassed” or interfered with management.The dates on the charges go back as far as February 2000. The most recent is Jan. 11.When Cano asked Nieslanik to provide more details on the alleged incidents, she received a sheet that had items such as: “chewing out resident about dog,” and “Negative comments towards management and CHA with people in the community.”Nieslanik referred questions about the eviction effort to Jerome “Sarge” Whalen, a member of the Carbondale Housing Authority’s governing board. He didn’t answer repeated messages requesting comment.If Cano doesn’t move out voluntarily by March 1 or negotiate a settlement, the housing authority could seek an unlawful detainer claim in court. Viner said the stakes are high for Cano. If she is evicted from a HUD-affiliated project, she would never be eligible to move into another.”I don’t think they have grounds to evict her,” Viner said.Cano said she wouldn’t go without a fight: “If it goes to court and the police come, they’ll have to take me kicking and screaming,” Cano said.”They picked the wrong woman,” Chandler said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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