A national civil rights organization filed a lawsuit Tuesday against a Greenville apartment complex alleging the owner tried to evict tenants based on illegal criminal background checks.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Washington, D.C., was joined by South Carolina Appleseed, South Carolina Legal Services and Nelson Mullins law firm in suing Belle Meade Apartments and its owner, Steele Belle Meade Inc.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges “unreasonably restrictive” policies were put in place after Steele Belle Meade bought the low-income housing complex in June 2019. Then called Fleetwood Manor, the sales price was $5.12 million, according to property records.
Also named in the suit was Monroe Group, a property management company based in Denver that manages more than 70 complexes in 22 states, including the Colony Apartments in Columbia.
The lawsuit claims the policies violate the federal Fair Housing Act.
A representative for the company declined to comment.
Five people are named as plaintiffs. Some are former residents, and some live there still.
The plaintiffs allege they were told they would need to leave the complex because they had a criminal record. If they didn’t, they would be evicted, the lawsuit says. Also, the lawsuit says apartment employees would not give the residents information on what was found in their records until a lawyer interceded.
“The criminal background screening set forth by Belle Meade Apartments reinforces structural racism and discriminates against Black residents, many of whom have lived in the complex for years,” Thomas Silverstein, counsel with the Fair Housing and Community Development Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a news release.
All the plaintiffs are Black women between the ages of 29 and 42 and have children living with them. They received notices tacked to their front doors in September 2019, saying they would have to leave or be evicted.
The lawsuit says Tashia Kennedy, 40, moved into the apartments in December 2018 with her mother, 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter. Three months later, she took in three children who the Department of Social Services had removed from their home.
In July 2019 she asked for a larger apartment, both because of overcrowding and because her mother needed a hospital bed that would not fit.
Then came the notice taped to her door. It said she did not pass a background check and would have to leave, according to the lawsuit.
Office personnel declined to give her any information on the report, which they obtained from a private company. Later, another office worker said the background check was for Kennedy’ son, the lawsuit says.
Kennedy told them her sonhad moved out the month before. The office responded that they would need to see a lease in his name before they could remove him from her lease. Also, at some point an office worker suggested she give the foster children back to DSS, the lawsuit says.
Kennedy turned to South Carolina Legal Services, which found out her son had weapons charges from before they moved to Belle Meade. On the record obtained by the apartment company, the line defining the charges’ outcome was blank.
Upset with unannounced inspections and items being removed from her porch, Kennedy moved out in December 2019.
Tawanda Woody, Tyneshia Dodd, Cierria Jenkins and Cassondra Grayson experienced similar treatment from the company, the lawsuit says. Eviction notices were filed against all the plaintiffs, but they have not been forced out of their homes since they hired lawyers.
Woody, 42, moved to Belle Meade in September 2018. The company alleged she failed a background check and then issued three lease violations, enough to have her evicted. The company said she did not sign the house rules agreement, failed an inspection and her son and niece were fighting.
Once South Carolina Legal Services became involved, the management turned over the records that showed Woody’s adult son had been arrested for having a small amount of methamphetamine but had not been convicted.
All of this unfolded while she had a knee replacement and while she was recovering, the lawsuit says. Woody remains a resident and alleges her recovery was compromised by the stress of her living arrangement.
Tyneshia Dodd, 29, has lived with her two elementary-school-age children at Belle Meade since May 2016. She also received the move-out notice. She learned management asserted she had been charged with assault and battery by a mob with serious bodily injury. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that did not involve serious injury.
Cierria Jenkin, 29, lives with her elementary-school-age daughter in Belle Meade. The management cited a criminal record that turned out to be hindering an office in 2015, three years before she moved in.
Cassondra Grayson, 31, is another resident with two children. She had pleaded guilty to filing a false insurance claim after a car accident before she moved into Belle Meade. After legal services became involved, the company said it would allow her to stay if she could show proof she had completed probation and paid fines. The lawsuit says she completed probation and made restitution but has not been able to pay off all the court costs.
The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs have suffered emotional damage, which will continue unless the court issues an injunction for the company to stop its eviction policies. It seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and lawyers’ fees.
In 2019, residents sought help from the news media and from elected officials, who had a closed door meeting with them.
In August 2019, a Monroe Group company official told Fox Carolina, “We have rules and regulations that follow those guidelines that those residents have to sign in order to live at the property.”
The property management official said at the time that a few people did not sign the house rules, while others did not pass background checks.
“We want to make sure that everybody has a good experience and we’re building a good community for everybody.” she told the TV station.