A group of disabled seniors who may be forced out of a Newport apartment building say their landlord has refused to meet with them or grant more time to find another place to live.
The seniors, who live with a variety of mental and physical disabilities in the Wings of Newport housing complex, say the threat to their housing came with the end of the pandemic-related eviction moratorium. Some worry they could now become homeless.
"It's not like we didn't pay rent. It's not like we did anything wrong. He just decided to end everybody's lease," said resident Lucretia Brewer.
The standoff has pitted a few dozen residents against Chris Onken, the CEO of Zumbro House, a Woodbury-based corporation that bills itself as a leader in the development of community-based supported residential services.
Onken said Friday that he wants to make about $100,000 in renovations to the Wings complex and needs the residents out of the building to do so. The four-story, 200-unit building opened just last year, but residents have dinged up the walls and damaged the property in three floods caused by things like sinks being left on too long.
"Our goal is to take care of our asset," he said, adding that the 30-day window he gave residents for moving out is standard for a rental.
This was not the future expected for the building when city leaders attended a ribbon cutting in August of last year. Back then, the building was touted as a top-notch assisted living facility, with one- and two-bedroom units, a community room, exercise room, cafeteria and a community bus that would help people run their errands.
But soon it will contain fewer assisted living spaces and more market-rate apartments.
Onken said the plan for the building changed this year when the state adopted new requirements for assisted living providers, saying such facilities would need to have commercial kitchens, among other changes. Rather than build a new kitchen, Onken was able to switch the type of license he held for the building, but that also meant the building's occupants would have to change. The new license from the Department of Human Services caps at 25% the number of building residents who can be receiving services, or about 49 people. The rest of the apartments will become market-rate units. Onken said he's just the landlord at Wings of Newport now, and any services the residents receive are provided by others.
"We don't want anyone on the street," he said. "We're not trying to be the bad guys here."
The explanations haven't helped people like Chicagie Eastwood, who said she lived in a storage unit for six months before landing at Wings of Newport. She said she's watched new residents move into the building in the days since she got notice that her month-to-month lease would not be renewed. Adding to her stress was the death of her mother, Marie Doyle of Hudson, earlier this month.
"I won't end up on the street again," she said.
Jen Castillo, the director of community services for Washington County, said it's uncommon to see this many people forced out of a building at once.
"We have no authority to stop what is going on," she said. Castillo has scrambled to find housing for about 17 to 20 tenants. The lack of affordable housing, not to mention the need for social services for some tenants, has made it difficult, she said. "We are really concerned about the wellbeing of these individuals," she said.
The seniors' plight has drawn the attention of several organizations, including Legal Aid and the state's Office of Ombudsman for Long-Term Care, said Castillo.
The tenant's rights organization Home Line, based in Bloomington, has also taken up the residents' fight, and on Thursday organized a trip to the Newport City Council meeting to urge the council to act. Some 15 Wings residents rode to the meeting in their community bus along with Erin West, a tenant organizer for Home Line. But they struggled to be heard after council member Kevin Chapdelaine moved to cut off public comments after three members of their group spoke.
"We've had three speakers now and we've been hearing the same story," he told the Wings residents, urging them to stop coming forward. "I wish we were in a position to help but we're not. When it comes to these kinds of issues we don't have any jurisdiction at all."
West pushed back, stepping to the podium to tell Chapdelaine and the other council members that she thought they had authority to regulate rental properties, or could at least call Onken personally and ask him to give the residents more time.
"You can step in," she told them. "Please consider the stories of these people tonight."
Onken said in an interview Friday that he would be willing to negotiate with the residents one-on-one if they needed more time. That was news to West, who said the residents haven't been told they could negotiate individually, and that the building's property manager doesn't seem to have authority to extend leases.
"He has held his line up until now and given no indication that he's willing to extend the time," said West. "He needs to offer a blanket offer to all residents of extended time."
After Thursday night's city council meeting, the residents headed back to Wings of Newport to figure out what comes next. Standing in the lobby with the others, resident Crystal Rex said she was still hopeful.
"It didn't go how we expected it to go," she said of the meeting. "Overall, I believe that we have been heard."