Local and federal officials met before Wilmington evictions, but say they couldn’t warn tenants

Federal and local officials first learned about the impending evictions at Wilmington's Jervay housing project on Nov. 2. That was ten days before residents would learn they were losing their homes, but officials say they couldn't warn tenants. And when it comes to the for-profit company that made the call to evict residents, things get even more confusing.

FEMA officials have set up shop at the main office of Jervay Communities in Wilmington. The agency knew for over a week about the impending evictions, as did local officials, but apparently could not warn tenants. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
FEMA officials have set up shop at the main office of Jervay Communities in Wilmington. The agency knew for over a week about the impending evictions, as did local officials, but apparently could not warn tenants. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — On Monday, over 200 residents at the Jervay Communities apartments learned they would be evicted while storm damage was repaired. Ten days earlier, federal, county, and city officials were contacted about the situation, but all said they couldn’t warn tenants that they were about to lose their homes.

Officials first learned about the impending evictions on Friday, Nov. 2, when the management company for Jervay contacted New Hanover County; the country referred the company to FEMA, according to Kate Murphy, who handles communication for the county’s emergency management and recovery services.

At a follow-up meeting on Thursday, Nov. 8, representatives from the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, and FEMA gathered to discuss the issue: as many as 250 residents of the apartment complex would have as little as seven days to find a new place to live. The complex had suffered water damage from Hurricane Florence that was now apparently in critical need of repair.


It would be a daunting task: Jervay is home to low-income residents who would be looking for new housing in a tight market that had already absorbed residents from several other mass-evictions in the Wilmington area.

FEMA Division Supervisor Robert Spence wrote officials in an email, “as discussed yesterday, there’s not a single or simple solution for this. The individual needs of the residents are going to test not just FEMA, but the County and State programs and resources.”

FEMA developed a plan – a “concept of operations” – divvying up responsibilities and duties.

FEMA's game plan for dealing with the evictions at the Jervay apartments. FEMA had nearly 10 days to plan, but couldn't warn residents during that time. (Port CIty Daily photo / Courtesy City of Wilmington)
FEMA’s game plan for dealing with the evictions at the Jervay apartments. FEMA had nearly 10 days to plan, but couldn’t warn residents during that time. (Port CIty Daily photo / Courtesy City of Wilmington)

There was only one problem for the assembled agencies and organizations: they couldn’t tell the tenants yet.

Jurisdiction

On Monday, residents were notified that they had 10 days to voluntarily evacuate; that’s the same amount of time officials had already known about the impending evictions.

Spence acknowledged that FEMA had foreknowledge of the evictions, but said he didn’t learn the details until after the residents did.

Not knowing the timeframe of the eviction nearly forced FEMA to stand down their assistance efforts. According to Spence’s email to stakeholders, on Nov. 9 FEMA was still “waiting on property owner/managers to provide a copy of the notice to vacate to us for review. This is paramount for us to help the residents if the letter is not received today, then we may have to stand down all support.”

On Friday night, Spence was notified by an insurance adjustment firm working with Jervay that “the ownership group [is] instructing us to wait until Monday for further review of the vacate notice.”

Spence said without these details, FEMA couldn’t respond.

“We knew it was going to happen, but we didn’t have a timeframe, and we didn’t know the extent,” Spence said.

Dylan Lee, a Wilmington spokesperson answering on behalf of City Manager Sterling Cheatham, also pointed to uncertainty.

“At the Thursday meeting, the city and other external stakeholders were notified that extensive remediation would be necessary. The timing and details of the entire operation were still being worked out by the management company. As such, this information should and did come directly from the management company to the residents,” Lee wrote.

Asked if the city considered or discussed “notifying residents of their impending eviction” Lee wrote, “No, this is the jurisdiction of the property management company.”

When New Hanover County was asked the same question, Murphy replied, “the county strongly encouraged the property management company to give as much notice and support as possible to its residents. The decision on the timeline to notify residents was made solely by the management company, as was the case with other apartment communities that faced similar circumstances since Hurricane Florence.”

Timing

Many have asked why the need for repairs surfaced so long after the storm, and whether 10 days was enough time for residents to find new homes, given limited financial means and a crowded and often expensive housing market.

According to Brendella Blanks, the onsite representative for Jervay Communities, residents were notified as soon as possible.

“We got it down once we got the people to come out and check the damage done to the units,” adding that environmentalists and construction crews also inspected units.

The two-month delay between Hurricane Florence and the evictions was because management was not immediately aware of the extent of the damage, compounded by time spent planning for repairs.

“We had a lot of planning, and – for some of it – we weren’t aware of the damage until [we] got in there to check the units,” Blanks said.

The Wilmington area has seen several large-scale evictions, though the amount of time given to residents to leave their homes has varied: The Glen Apartments reportedly gave residents one week, Still Meadow notified residents on a Friday afternoon that they had until the following Tuesday to leave, New Providence Park evicted tenants immediately, shutting off power and citing the natural disaster clause in leases.

Asked if how the company decided on the 10-day timeline for evictions, Blanks had no answers.

“That I couldn’t answer. I’m sorry,” she said.

Who could answer that question?

“The owners are in Maryland,” Blanks said.

(Editor’s note: They’re actually in Washington D.C., but the company does have a Baltimore office.)

Who’s in charge?

The Jervay Communities apartments are the result of a complicated history, which makes for a complicated chain of command; the complex is technically a public-private housing project, a partnership between the Wilmington Housing Authority (WHA) and private owners.

Despite the name, WHA is not affiliated with the city of Wilmington; it is the local conduit for low-income housing subsidies received from the Department of Housing and Urban (HUD). In the early 2000s, WHA oversaw the privatization of the Jervay property under HUD’s Hope VI program.

According to WHA CEO Katrina Redmon, WHA does technically own a share of Jervay Communities but it is small – just .0045 percent, less than half of one-thousandth of a percent.

“It’s minuscule, we don’t really own much of a share and we have no say over the management,” Redmon said.

When asked if WHA had contact information for the owners, Redmon suggested asking Blanks (who had already offered the owners’ approximate geographic location, but nothing more).

So, who is the owner? Emails between officials referred only to “ownership group” and “management,” and Blanks referenced only “the owner” and “the management.”

According to county property records, the developer is registered in North Carolina as New Dawson Limited Partnership, a company with no registered officers and a dummy mailing address – the North Carolina office for the Netherlands-based registry company CT Corporation, which serves over 46,000 companies in North Carolina alone.

But Jervay, Inc. – a.k.a. New Dawson, Inc. – does have a real office, and a president: Marilyn Melkonian.

Melkonian, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of HUD under President Carter (and general counsel for Lucasfilm, Ltd.) is currently the chair of the National Housing Trust, which she founded.

Melkonian did not respond to email and phone calls requesting comment through Telesis Corporation, where Melkonian is president. Telesis is a D.C.-based for-profit company “which plans, finances and creates urban communities,” according to its website, which lists Jervay as one of its projects.

What’s next

The management company in charge of Jervay Communities provided shipping containers to store the personal belongings of displaced residents. But for how long? That remains unclear. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
The management company in charge of Jervay Communities provided shipping containers to store the personal belongings of displaced residents. But for how long? That remains unclear. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Shipping containers now sit in parking spaces around Jervay, provided to residents by the management company for storing personal items. Residents walk across the circular inner road carrying packing boxes.

A FEMA RV is parked in front of the main office. Representatives from federal, state, and local agencies are on hand to assist.

It’s a patchwork of organizations, but hopes are high with local officials that all the residents can be helped. Still, as FEMA spokesperson Pam Saulsby said, “not everyone will qualify for assistance.”

Management has not issued a timeline on how long repairs will last – or when residents can return.

According to Blanks, it’s not yet clear what will happen to those who don’t voluntarily leave, either. She said management is still drafting that letter.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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