‘We just want what we’re owed:’ Boise tenants forced to move out over heating problem
Many tenants in the Cambridge Dorchester Apartments in Boise’s East End were enjoying their Friday evening and perhaps sitting down for dinner when they received an alarming email from their property management company.
The tenants had three days to move out of their apartments.
According to a letter attached to the email, Commercial Northwest Property Management, the company that runs the apartment complex, learned from a contractor working on problems with the complex’s heating system that the apartments would not have reliable heat “for the foreseeable future,” making the apartments “not habitable.”
The letter told tenants to “vacate your unit immediately and turn in your keys on Monday the 13th.”
“We will be giving all residents their full deposits back along with $300 as well as rent for the month of March to vacate as soon as possible,” the letter said.
With few affordable options for apartments in the Treasure Valley and a short time to move out, tenants began scrambling to find somewhere to go. A week after the March 10 email, tenants were still not sure of the status of their building or what the property management company was willing to provide them.
Later that Friday night, the tenants received a second email that walked back the Monday deadline and urged them to leave “as soon as possible.”
The apartment complex at 300 S. Straughan Ave., just south of Warm Springs Avenue, is made up of 52 units. About 13 were still occupied Thursday afternoon.
‘We don’t have that kind of money...’
When tenants got the email, “chaos ensued,” said Margarita Gomez, a Cambridge apartment tenant for a little over a year.
Gomez, who lives with her brother and dog in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, said she felt “powerless.”
The problem that many tenants face is that they can’t get their security deposits or the rest of their March rent refunded from Commercial Northwest “until we turn in our keys,” Gomez said.
“We don’t have that kind of money for security deposits and first month’s rent for a new place or anything like that,” she told the Statesman from her second-floor apartment, filled with boxes and bins ready to be moved.
Natalie Hernandez, CEO of Commercial Northwest, did not respond to a phone call and email from the Statesman for comment on Thursday and Friday.
In a video posted on YouTube , Hernandez said, “No one is being forced to leave without suitable accommodations. No one is being evicted.”
But tenants are still worried about finding a new place to live.
“What are we supposed to do without the money for the new place?” Gomez said.
The Gomez siblings pay $1,400 a month for their apartment. Margarita Gomez works full time at the Enterprise Rent-A-Car at the Boise Airport and studies geoscience at Boise State University. Michael Gomez is a disabled veteran.
Margarita Gomez has missed three days of work and school as she prepares to move out.
“That’s three days of pay loss,” she said.
The Gomez siblings rented a storage unit and began moving their belongings Thursday morning. They found a new apartment and plan to stay with friends before moving into it on April 12.
Miscommunication from Commercial Northwest
“On Friday night ... we heard from the contractor that due to the condition of the underground pipes, the age of the boiler system and corrosion, it would be months before the heat would be restored,” Hernandez said in the video. “It was only after a complete failure of the pipes and boiler system that I made the difficult decision to vacate the property.”
Hernandez said each tenant was given a point of contact to work out individual situations with the company. But communication has still been difficult.
Casey Parsons, a lawyer with Wrest Collective, a Boise nonprofit that provides legal aid on a sliding scale, is representing about 30 of the tenants against the property management company.
“There has been a lot of inconsistent communication in terms of when the tenants need to move out, how unsafe the situation is and what aid that Commercial Northwest property management is willing to provide,” Parsons said.
Hernandez said tenants could leave their belongings in their apartments, but Gomez had already rented a storage unit as of Thursday.
Tenants left with few options
Commercial Northwest told some tenants that it would provide temporary lodging at Extended Stay America until people were able to find apartments, but Parsons said it was unclear if that was being offered to all tenants.
Gomez said she was told they would have to put down their credit card information to get a room, and she didn’t want to risk getting charged for the room at all.
Another tenant, Nate Barnes, said he didn’t think the hotel was a safe, secure place to put his wife and daughter into.
Barnes is also a disabled veteran with a spine injury, and he relies on his monthly disability check to pay his family’s rent. The family lives in a two-bedroom, 1½-bathroom apartment for which they pay about $1,650 a month.
When Barnes first got the email asking tenants to leave, he tried to relocate to a different Commercial Northwest property, but the company couldn’t move the family in right away.
Moving into another Northwest-managed apartment building is the only option for Barnes’ family, because they do not have money for a new security deposit, he said. Commercial Northwest told tenants it would transfer their current deposits to new apartments in their properties if available.
“We were looking at moving into a Commercial Northwest property at Ustick and Lake Hazel,” Barnes told the Statesman from his narrow apartment patio. “That’s pretty much the only thing we have as an option right now, which is worse, because we have to stay with this company.”
Barnes said his injury prevents him from helping help his wife move their furniture from their second-story apartment. So the family has to pay for movers to eventually help them.
“We just want what we’re owed,” Barnes said. “We want the company to pay to move us, especially the disabled who can’t move themselves, and we want the housing that we are owed.”
The legal battle
Barnes and other neighbors eventually sought help from Parsons, who teamed up with Idaho Legal Aid and the Intermountain Fair Housing Council.
“I’m an old soldier, and soldiers fight,” Barnes said. “I don’t back down easy.”
Parsons sent a demand letter to Commercial Northwest on behalf of the tenants, outlining the problem and asking that the company provide “a clearer picture of the aid they are willing to provide” and “what steps they are going to take to remedy this situation” and ensure the tenants “are made whole.”
Commercial Northwest had no legal grounds to move people out in three days, Parsons said.
Idaho law says a tenant can take a landlord to court for “failure to maintain in good working order electrical, plumbing, heating, ventilating, cooling, or sanitary facilities supplied by the landlord.” But Parsons doesn’t believe an eviction court filing would be successful given the situation.
The Cambridge Apartment tenants are collecting donations on GoFundMe for relocation costs on a page titled “Cambridge Apartments Forced Out.” The campaign had raised $900 toward its $10,000 goal as of midday Friday.
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